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.
Reader Feedback - 14 Comments
Thanks for the review Jeremy. // Anything less than stellar would have been considered a "failure" by many fanboys.
DAVIDPD on May 22, 2015
ShadowStorm on May 23, 2015
Google is your friend.....
TheOct8pus on May 26, 2015
I thought Ghost Protocol wasn't all it was hyped up to be either and again relied on heavy effect scenes so with that and now this, perhaps Bird should stick to what he knows best. Animation.
Mr Chatterbox on May 22, 2015
Go a fuck a chicken. GP was awesome and well done. 🙂
Sascha Dikiciyan on May 23, 2015
Yet it was totally forgettable in every way. It was just OK. Very overrated.
ShadowStorm on May 23, 2015
I agree. I didn't really have much against Ghost Protocol, but Bird is such a master of animation (even his Simpsons episodes are superior) that he should stick to that. He could potentially be the American Miyasaki.
TheOct8pus on May 26, 2015
Why are you such a nit-picky, pessimistic asshole?
davidshaw on May 23, 2015
George Clooney is like Tom Cruise. Their public image remains to strong for us to forget about their BS lecturing of us, in their interviews, public stands, etc.
Mr. Guymon on May 23, 2015
It had a retro feeling adventurous film with an overbearing push of current political correctness pessimism mixed in. The message to overcome such was overtly strong, forced in when it could have been a bit more subtle. The visuals were incredible, the storyline itself very good. The ending needed more time dedicated the outcome. As such, the inspiration was a bit lacking due to the weight given through most of the film. It left you yearning a bit too much for more of an uplifting ending. Considering the preachy mindset of the film with a short resolution, it weakened the final theme. A very good overall action adventurer film with a good message, forced and clobbered at times with pc pessimism and optimism. A non stop action piece with a salute to Disney and history, an enjoyable film you should see on the big screen.
JB1794 on May 23, 2015
I blame Damon Lindelof. Every movie he's involved with is garbage.
Winter Is Coming on May 25, 2015
I liked Prometheus.
ragethorn on May 25, 2015
If I met him I'd punch him just for Lost....
TheOct8pus on May 26, 2015
I believe this article lacks of innovative ideas. It judges and typecast a new different way of showing realities. It has not constructive critic or idea. A technical analysis that doesn't lead or help for a real advance or evolution.
diana paez on Jun 9, 2015
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