If the cinematic landscape in recent years has revealed a zeitgeist forming around the cultural anxieties of artificial intelligence, then perhaps not far behind as a rapidly crystallizing notion in the collective consciousness is an ad-astra-esque optimism in the face of dystopian ruin. Christopher Nolan looked to the stars in his sci-fi drama “Interstellar,” and while Disney’s “Tomorrowland” does not explore our solar system per se, the sci-fi mystery adventure does employ inter-dimensional travel and similar themes of imagination, wonder, the power of dreams and other abandoned qualities of human idealism to shine a beacon of hope and guide humanity through its darkest passages.
But if Nolan’s ambitious “Interstellar” was undone by its sentimentality and quantifying-the-power-of-love miscalculations, then “Tomorrowland” buckles under the weight of another kind of romanticism: its own futurist themes, the need to incessantly repeat them and a drinking-the-kool-aid intoxication with the creative thinkers and philosophies of promise it’s indebted to. Steeped in a nostalgia that often feels borrowed and canned—the space-age era impulses of progress and possibility from the 1950s and ‘60s—“Tomorrowland” asks that you never give up or lose hope, literally and figuratively, over and over again, to the point that the movie has little else to say.
Directed by Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,”) and co-written by “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof (also a key screenwriter of “Prometheus”), “Tomorrowland” is unashamedly built upon the foundations of the sanguine beliefs displayed at New York World’s Fair in 1964, the modernist “build a better tomorrow” values of Mr. Walt Disney and the aspirational dreams of the Edison, Tesla and Einstein-style inventors of the world. But constructing an original edifice that will stand on its own proves to be challenging architecture for the filmmakers. If these collective bright future stimuli sound fundamentally all the same, it only demonstrates how Disney’s film—a kind of love-letter to its own guiding founder and likeminded figures—lays it all on a little too thick.
“Tomorrowland” definitely feels like a co-authored effort between Bird and Lindelof, and it cannot move beyond its core fundamental script problems. The Disney picture centers on three characters: Frank Walker, a former boy genius turned jaded crank (George Clooney), the relentless teenage optimist Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and the mysterious young girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Through a series of mysterybox-like events that appear to be driven by chance and fate, Frank, Casey and Athena are united and embark on a mission to return to “Tomorrowland”—a sort of other parallel dimensional world that hosts the best and brightest of Earth —in hopes of saving mankind from an imminent doom of its own creation. Therein lies problem number one, the black and white political message of Earth as a festering petri dish for indifference and complaints and Tomorrowland as a bright white shining sanctuary of solutions and answers to “fix” everything.
Unevenly engineered, one of the movie’s many problems is its point of view issues and its overly-burdened obligations to chronicling backstory. The movie has at least two false start openings told in flashback—with the two protagonists of the film literally fighting for narrative superiority over each other— recounting the story of a young, idealistic Frank Walker (played by Thomas Robinson) and then Casey’s tale of a young teenager and NASA scientist’s daughter who possesses a curiosity and positivity about the world. But the first plot point in Lindelof’s script—the moment when all narrative parties are true believers and are ready to embark on an adventure that will ideally transform them and the world—is extremely delayed. The main “Tomorrowland” story doesn’t really begin until the moment when Frank and Casey are finally ready to follow Athena into the movie’s mysterious future dimension. But that doesn’t occur until a laborious hour into the movie (if you’re looking for classic storytelling comparison, Luke leaves Tatooine with Obi Wan around the 25-minute mark).
Visually, “Tomorrowland” can be both superficial and dazzling. Its world design is impressive but it also feels like the work of anonymous animation teams and pre-vis units. Action-adventure enthusiasts will likely enjoy the “Tomorrowland” pulse, but its default setting— borrowing from the tone and spirit of “Indiana Jones,” Amblin-era Steven Spielberg, and similar propulsive movies—is a kind of run on uninspired autopilot. Similarly, Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino is extremely gifted technically, and he’s an incredible mimic. But his insistence on channeling the enthusiastic spirit of John Williams at all times is at the expense of any real musical identity.
Occasionally, the picture does hit on all jetpack cylinders and beautifully communicates childlike awe, wonder, inspiration and more—like a symphony of music, visuals, tone and feelings. But more often than not, it misses those marks and only exacerbates the movie’s desperate bid to conduct childlike amazement at all times.
Oftentimes, “Tomorrowland” is so enamored with homage it loses focus on the bigger picture and its narrative drive. One scene in a memorabilia emporium with shop owners Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key is supposed to move the mystery of the plot forward, but the sequence mostly just serves as an excuse for winky nods towards “Flash Gordon,” “Star Wars,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and other spot-em-while-you-can gestures to sci-fi fantasy adventure touchstones. Meanwhile, an earlier sequence with elaborate gadgets and gee-whiz appeal appears like an ad for Disneyland theme park rides.
The movie’s counterbalance is inelegantly handled, too. The flipside to “the possibilities are endless” vibe is a finger-wagging lecture touching upon our collective social apathy towards global warming, climate control, melting polar ice caps and other doomsday scenarios. While well intentioned, “Tomorrowland” bashes the viewer over the head with these anti-utopian designs. Thus the movie’s only two notes are really disillusionment (Clooney’s character) and hope (Robertson) and a facile back and forth ping pong between the two.
Ultimately too dark for children and too naïve for adults, “Tomorrowland” finds itself in a no man’s land of neither here nor there (there’s probably a specific type of 8-10 year-old boy who will probably love this movie though). The cast never really gels either, and the performances are often overwrought with bickering. Perhaps it’s because Bird is focused elsewhere: Robertson is annoyingly shrieky for at least half of the film and an exasperated Clooney nearly goes hoarse with frustration in his early scenes. Mismatched pairs that learn to work together are the hallmark of adventure movies, but aside from Clooney and Cassidy (the film’s only performing highlight), it doesn’t really appear if anyone’s actually enjoying their sojourn together.
If “Tomorrowland” sputters along unevenly throughout, the third act salve—a hokey and profoundly half-baked notion that takes the ideas of positive and negative electrons faaaaaar too literally—is akin to a hard spill down the stairs, and it’s where the movie falls apart. Worse, this narrative band-aid is all delivered in an expository mumbo jumbo of what’s really causing problems on Earth—with show-don’t-tell tenets thrown out the window— that’s just banal and tepidly written.
Outwardly inventive, but ultimately thin, high on wide-eyed enthusiasm, but low on inspiration and insight, “Tomorrowland” likes to posit the ideas that nothing’s impossible if you imagineer it. And while this affectionate paean to dreamers and inventors might make a nice Epcot poster to hang on your wall, it doesn’t make for much of a full-formed movie. “Tomorrowland” is so enchanted with what’s on the horizon, it often forgets to keeps it eyes on the here and now. [C]