Review: Brad Bird's Sci-Fi 'Tomorrowland' is Full of Yesterday's Ideas
by Jeremy Kirk
May 22, 2015
For a film about avenues to a better future, Tomorrowland is sure working off a lot of yesterday's ideas. These are big ideas, to be sure, and they're ideas the film's director, Brad Bird, can easily back up with some incredibly big effects. None of that, however, makes up for the banal slate of messages and themes, a hokey sense of humor, and a convoluted narrative that seems to hang its hat on the word "mystery." Bird's co-writer on the screenplay may have had a little something to do with that last bit. Tomorrowland, is a classic case of a project looking really good on paper that fumbles its way to messy execution.
That isn't to say that Tomorrowland's ideas are unworthy of exploration. The jetpack that young scientist-in-training Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson in the film's opening moments but who will eventually grow up to be George Clooney) invents in the 1960s doesn't exactly work, but it's the inspiration of it that a more optimistic creator might appreciate. That optimism is what lands him inadvertently in the fantastical Tomorrowland, a city outside of our time and place where the ideas of the future can come to magnificent life. You know the Law of Cinematic Conflict states this utopian city's happy days are numbered.
Thus propels the film's setting to our current time where Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a former NASA engineer, is sabotaging work to decommission a shuttle launch pad. This lands Casey in hot water with the law, but it puts her on the radar of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a recruiter for the scientists and innovators who might potentially help in Tomorrowland's flourishing technologies. Nothing has gone right in that alternate world in the past 50 years, and it becomes Casey, Athena, and an older, grumpier, Frank's collective responsibility to save Tomorrowland and, in turn, save the world. How, you might ask, and you may be disappointed in the answers you get.
Actually, you may be disappointed in the lack of answers you get from Tomorrowland. With a screenplay co-written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, it should surprise no one to learn that Tomorrowland is heavy on mystery and short on straightforward answers. Lindelof has developed a reputation for carrying on JJ Abrams' good work when it comes to utilizing the "Mystery Box" ever since he became co-lead writer on "Lost." Unfortunately, building a mystery into the narrative isn't always the most interesting route to take, and keeping the answers at an arm's length from your audience is a technique that should rarely be used.
Tomorrowland's screenplay skirts around any answers to its questions like an accomplished skier, sliding away from explanation time and time again in favor of more gigantic effects work. To the credit of the film, and Bird, those effects are handily crafted. The world of Tomorrowland is certainly one of science fiction beauty, immaculate skyscrapers standing against a pristine sky while brainiacs dart around on jetpacks. Who wouldn't want to live there?
The answer to that question may be rhetorical, but it's made moot by the film's unexplored theme of elitism. There's some Ayn Rand-"Atlas Shrugged" stuff going on in here, but the battle between optimism and pessimism is what takes center stage. It's a rather upbeat conflict, one perfect for the family-friendly movie named after a Disney theme park. We know the good guys, because it's a couple of kids led by George Clooney. We know the bad guys, because they wear black leather. A decade ago, they'd be the ones smoking cigarettes in dimly-lit rooms.
Brad Bird is a director we know who has an abundance of skill from his previous works with Pixar - The Incredibles and Ratatouilles - and his Mission: Impossible offering, Ghost Protocol. It's amazing, then, to see him deliver something as graceless and bland as Tomorrowland. The action is suitably big and the adventure constantly moves. The tone shifts quite a bit, though, with hammy comic beats accompanying moments that are drastically violent despite their lack of actual blood. Disintegration is the violence tool favored by all PG-rated actioners.
The actors aren't really sure what attitude to take, either. George Clooney plays all of his parts - cranky, charming, and wounded - with equal parts spirit, but they never amount to a full character. Britt Robinson's performance as the young Frank adds a fourth side to the mix. None of the flaws here can be laid at the feet of the actors. Unfortunately Frank just doesn't add up to much of an interesting character.
Cassidy and Robertson definitely have more to add, or subtract, to their characters. As Athena, an artificially intelligent being, Cassidy is forced to subdue her performance. The actor ends up shining the most from how restrained she keeps it. Robertson isn't quite as impressive, her over-the-top freak-outs becoming the things of nightmares. Okay, maybe it never gets that bad, but her performance is really annoying, and you could probably blame her director on a large portion of that.
With its old ideas and scattered focus, the movie never breaks free from being just another run-of-the-mill, summer adventure, a stand-in for this particular weekend of this busy part of our year. It's a shame, then, to see so many talented names accompany a work that is so unimpressive. It isn't as if the film industry delivers masterpieces by the week, but, even by today's standards, Tomorrowland doesn't make the cut.