Tomorrowland is one of the only major live-action blockbusters this summer that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake or a movie based on a pre-existing hot property. Yes, it takes its name from the popular futuristic section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park, but save for the name, nothing else here is based on existing material. While its originality alone doesn’t make it a better film, it’s enough to set it apart from the rest of this summer’s slate, especially in a time when original big budget movies are becoming a rapidly endangered species.
Directed by Brad Bird, whose previous films include two Oscar-winning Pixar masterpieces (Ratatouille and The Incredibles), the underrated The Iron Giant, as well the franchise-rejuvenating Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Tomorrowland is simultaneously idiosyncratic and familiar. It centers on a young woman named Casey Newton (a wide-eyed, perky Britt Robertson) who is thrown head-first into an inter-dimensional road trip after she finds a magical pin that can transport people to the utopian kingdom of the title. When her life is threatened by an army of androids working for a mysterious entity that’s dead-set on eradicating her, she joins forces with a disgruntled hermit/inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney, taking a break from adult-fare) and a strange little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) whose ulterior motives may hold the key to the story. Together, the trio finds a way to get to the eponymous Tomorrowland and try to unearth its secret and nefarious connection to the real world.
From its very first scenes, you can tell that Tomorrowland is a work of a filmmaker in complete control of his vision. Bird, whose energetic, moving camera served him well on every one of his previous films, brings those same stylistic impulses to this film too. It’s an imaginative science fiction-fantasy adventure story that has the buoyant energy of an animated film, the child-like wonder of Spielberg’s earlier movies, and some of the best acting you’ll see in a blockbuster this summer. A virtuoso sequence in which Casey runs around Tomorrowland for the very first time, taking in all its technological marvels and futuristic architecture is the embodiment of how to seamlessly blend practical sets and CGI. It allows Casey (and the audience) to gawk at the fantastical sights of this world while also instilling tactility to it. He accomplishes this by shooting the entire six-minute sequence in a single, fluid and uninterrupted take. It’s bravura filmmaking.
For the majority of its running time, Tomorrowland zips by on this manic, childlike energy, moving its characters from one location to the next, occasionally throwing them into an imaginative massive set-piece or two. A chase inside a booby-trapped house had me beaming at the immense creativity of it all. Similarly, a laser gun shootout at an antique shop filled with science fiction memorabilia got me jumping in my seat. This is the kind of joyous movie in which the Eiffel Tower is revealed to be a rocket capable of flying into space!
But as enjoyable as these set-pieces are, it’s merely window-dressing for a plot that unfortunately, never quite attains liftoff. By spending the majority of its running time building up the titular Tomorrowland, the audience comes to expect a finale in which the “mystery box” will be revealed. Alas, the payoff that Bird and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen have concocted is a massive letdown. Instead of a climax in which all the stakes are heightened, we’re served with a stern (and expository) lecture that left me scratching my head going, “That’s it?” It’s one thing to sell a message to an audience; it’s another to shove it down their throats until they’re ready to puke.
I have a soft spot for filmmakers who use big budgets to explore ambitious themes and ideas. It’s one of the reasons why Christopher Nolan’s wildly ambitious but flawed Interstellar cracked my top 10 last year. What I have a shorter tolerance for is preachy and clunky filmmaking. Although the message that Bird and Lindelof are peddling is sweet and well-intentioned, the execution left me feeling cheated.
Considering his clout and the creative control he exercises over his projects, there’s no doubt that Bird had a hand in the film’s resolution. Still, this last act meltdown is the underlying characteristic of every screenplay and teleplay Lindelof has worked on. The writer is so inept at wrapping up his screenplays that it’s become a running joke now. This is the fourth straight film he’s botched the last acts of after Prometheus, Cowboys & Aliens and Star Trek: Into Darkness, not to mention Lost. Like those movies, Tomorrowland is the epitome of a great idea squandered by a botched execution. It really is too bad because Bird’s direction and the performances of Robertson, Cassidy and Clooney are so good that they almost make the trip to Tomorrowland worth taking.
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriter: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen
Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw
Producer: Brad Bird, Jeffrey Chernov, Damon Lindelof
Running time: 130 minutes
Companies: Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language