Brad Bird is one of the few household name directors who started with animation, and I think he has earned it. Not only have all his animated features been outstanding, but his transition to live-action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol showed incredible promise. This is why I have been so fascinated with his mystery project, 1952, which has been in development since 2011. And as someone who is kind of obsessed with Walt Disney, I was curious to see how far it might go into some of Disney’s philosophies or his original concepts with EPCOT. It’s an interesting idea for a film, and I was excited to see how the filmmakers handled it.
Tomorrowland follows Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) a smart teenager who finds a strange pin that takes her to a whole new world. She investigates and gets in touch with Frank Walker (George Clooney) who turns out to be an exiled inventor from Tomorrowland. Casey, with Frank’s help, as well as the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy), must work together to find out the truth of Tomorrowland and save Earth in the process.
We’re almost halfway through the year now, and I think Tomorrowland has basically taken the top spot for most disappointing film of the year. But before I get to what I don’t like about the film, let’s first get to the positives and, to be fair, there are a lot of positives. One is its technical prowess. Brad Bird, along with his effects and design team create a genuinely beautiful production. The retrofuture style is something I really enjoy (it’s partly why I adore films like The Rocketeer and Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow), and the design and effects teams do an outstanding job bringing Tomorrowland to life, or at least those few bits when we actually do see it (this might be disappointing for some who wanted to see more Tomorrowland in it’s prime, but I wasn’t surprised considering some of the comparisons to BioShock in its early production buzz). There’s a sense of awe and wonder presented when we first see Casey explore Tomorrowland, and it made my jaw drop at how spectacular everything looked. Even when Brad Bird doesn’t take us through Tomorrowland, his energy and showmanship still resonates through character interactions and his excellently crafted action scenes. Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score is also worth mentioning for capturing a lot of the emotion and atmosphere that Brad Bird is attempting to get across. It’s a great film to look at, and seeing it on the big screen even as a spectacle alone is worth the price of admission.
The actors were also very good. George Clooney is…well, George Clooney. He admirably does not phone in a performance when he easily could have and he handles a somewhat out-of-character role very well. Britt Robertson, while I do think she is five years too old for the role, does a great job and serves as a good lead. She has this Marty McFly-esque enthusiasm and wit to her performance that is infectious and it sweeps you into the journey about to be taken. The revelation of the film is Raffey Cassidy as Athena, an android meant to recruit people who are worthy of crossing over to Tomorrowland. Despite being so young, she can pull off a very commanding presence while also integrating subtle humor. She steals the show, easily, and it won’t surprise me if we see more of her in the coming years. Supporting characters are played by a great people like Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw, Keegan-Michael Key, Kathryn Hahn, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon and Matthew MacCaull. It’s a good cast and they all do a fine job.
Now…about the script. The internet has already pointed their collective finger at co-writer Damon Lindelof, but I think everyone should remember that Brad Bird is the other writer on the film and it’s his job as a director to make sure that everything comes together in a coherent way, so he does deserve criticism for that. But yes, this film is full of every bad habit that is found in Lindelof’s shaky track record, and given his repetitive mistakes I find it much harder to forgive the film despite of its earnestness and good intentions. You should also keep in mind that Lindelof was the first person Disney brought onto the project back in mid-2011 as a writer and producer, almost a year before Brad Bird was officially on the project. I think Damon Lindelof has a lot of talent and ambition in his writing, but there are several big problems that keep popping up in his writing. In an effort to avoid any comparison to his other work, I’ll keep my criticism strictly to Tomorrowland.
Like most of Lindelof’s work, Tomorrowland is film about big ideas. Tomorrowland is a place where all the best and brightest are free to achieve whatever pops into their imagination without distractions, politics or censorship. A theme that even popped in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles involves the thought that everyone should basically get out of special peoples’ way so they can do their thing, and that idea is practically the thematic backbone of Tomorrowland. The film’s thesis is also that a population’s obsession with destructive, pessimistic, apocalyptic entertainment forms a self-fulfilling prophecy that results in people eventually embracing that pessimism while throwing away innovation and optimism. Sounds great, right? At least, I have no problem with this message at all. In fact, I find the unabashed optimism, even at its most hokey, to be very refreshing. The problem is that Lindelof and Bird never quite find a way to fully integrate them with the storytelling. There are scenes where characters will practically stop what they’re doing and explain their rhetoric to each other and the audience. If these moments did provoke thought, that would be one thing, but as Lindelof typically does, the delivery of the themes is nothing but lip service. The ideas are only brought up when there’s free time, and then never explored while the story moves onto the next exposition dump or action beat. This feels obvious even in the last act (part of which I’ll explain in my spoiler-y Side Note below), which feels like a product of studio mandated re-shoots because what should be a battle between conflicting ideals just becomes a generic brawl. Also, for a film that worships the creative and intelligent, it doesn’t really showcase that creativity or intelligence that often.
The narrative also suffers from a horrible structure. Using the now tired, and often misused, “mystery box” storytelling method Lindelof picked up from J.J. Abrams, the film keeps you in the dark as to exactly what’s really going on. For a good two-thirds of the film, it’s basically a road-trip/chase movie where Casey is constantly asking questions that Athena and Frank never answer, their only interaction being comedic shtick or exposition, and then going to action scenes that don’t have much weight because there’s never a sense of stakes. We don’t have a real antagonist until the final act, and even that reveal is underwhelming. For a film with such a simple message, it drowns it in a plot that is too cluttered and stuffed for its own good. Plot points and information will be dropped, but without any knowledge of the Hows and Whys. Never did it cross my mind that I would ever find myself kind of bored in a Brad Bird film, and while individual sequences are great on their own, they don’t mesh well when they are strung together.
When I finished watching Tomorrowland, I was not sure what to think, after a while I was angry, and now I’m just really saddened. I appreciate what the film is going for, I love the message and the effort put into the film’s design and aesthetics is very admirable, but it ultimately boils down to the execution of the film. Tomorrowland is thoughtful, optimistic, ambitious, but it’s also bad. Brad Bird’s effort as a director and his work with the actors make the film watchable enough to not be a disaster, but it’s undeniable that the film is a complete mess. It’s unfortunate given the talented people involved and the near infinite amount of ideas and opportunities they could have explored. There’s an amazing work of art in here somewhere, and the fact that we likely won’t ever see it, is a huge bummer.
Side Note: So, regarding the ending (again: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!). I found the events in the final act to be somewhat hypocritical considering the message that the film was trying to get across. The villain is revealed to be Hugh Laurie’s character David Nix, the leader of Tomorrowland. He’s not the typical Hollywood villain, he’s more of an idealist who simply lost his way, and he comes across as understandable in that regard. However, he gets treated the same way you would find in a typical Hollywood film. He dies, quite brutally, and right after he makes a jokey comment before meeting his demise. It comes off as incredibly cold for a film that is trying to promote positive thinking and optimism. It really should’ve went the route that The LEGO Movie did, which humanized and used communication and empathy to help the villain see the error of his ways. It just felt so odd to see this happen in a movie like this. Another thing that bugged me was the creepy and uncomfortable implications between the connection between Frank and Athena. There’s a scene at the end when Athena is about to “die” and she talks about her feelings with Frank. In any other film, this kind of scene would end with the couple kissing, obviously it doesn’t happen here, but the buildup is still there and it really got under my skin. And my last comment and probably biggest issue with the end is the very last scene. We see Tomorrowland and its recruiting program back in operation. More kid-like androids like Athena are sent out with the pins to find people who are worthy to come to Tomorrowland. Um, what? I get the idea of allowing the smart and creative to do what they need to do, but the ending comes off as incredibly elitist. It goes completely against Walt Disney’s philosophy. He is a futurist who saw the advances in science as a way to advance and better the world for everyone, not just a select few.