“Tomorrow Land”- not the savior it wants to be
By Thomas Kika
“Tomorrowland” is the sort of well-intentioned misfire that one feels bad for not liking. Director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) brings his favored retro-futuristic aesthetic and mines it for all the thematic heft that it is worth, resulting in a sci-fi adventure story that wants to champion the return of Space-Age optimism and celebrate the power of science to save the world. Sadly, this story has the misfortune of being told in-part by co-scripter Damon Lindelof, the singularly bad writer guilty of “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Prometheus.” The filmbears more of his weaknesses than Bird’s strengths. Bizarrely structured, painfully dull, and thematically muddled, “Tomorrowland” takes a great idea with some rich mythology and squanders it.
The titular land (only ever referred to as Tomorrowland once) is an extradimensional city, founded in the early 20th century by a handful of visionaries as a place where the world’s greatest minds can pool their skills to create a utopia built on boundless scientific advancement. The story opens in the present day, decades after plans to make Tomorrowland public were mysteriously scrapped. It follows two unlikely partners: Casey (Britt Robertson), a young girl with a passion for space travel, and Frank (George Clooney), a former boy genius with a past connection to the secret city. Casey receives a mysterious pin that gives her an intoxicating vision of the city. A strange little girl named Athena eventually leads her to the reluctant Frank’s doorstep. It seems that all is not well in Tomorrowland, and it is up to Casey and Frank to find out what is going on and how they can fix it.
The downfall of the film lies in the first act because that description sums up about two-thirds of the film: a lot of teasing about what the city is and what is going on in it, while the characters amble through action scenes trying to make sense of things. After an overlong and entirely too revealing look at Frank’s childhood, the film jumps to Casey and her attempts to figure out the pin and its mysterious visions. The film stays there for a good while. From there the characters scramble around a bit more before making it to Tomorrowland, where the actual plot of the damn movie is revealed in the same way that an overturned bucket reveals water. The result is a slog, a dull chase movie with bits of a fun-looking sci-fi mythos sprinkled in every so often.
The filmmakers clearly had a much broader history and mythology for the city sketched out, as evidenced by the various pieces of supplemental material released to promote the film, but the actual film is seemingly disinterested in it. Tomorrowland is briefly glimpsed at the start, and the characters return to it in the third act, but by then the place is desolate and in a vague state of disrepair. How did it get to that point? Where are all the people? Were there ever any? The film never really answers those questions definitively. Casey’s early vision of the city is revealed to be a sort of commercial, a fake recreation of the real place in a vibrant and bustling state, so in fact we get almost no time in Tomorrowland at its peak. It seems the filmmakers were more interested in the idea of a far-off scientific utopia as a symbol for a brighter future we have to work to save, but without giving the audience more to latch onto, the intended metaphorical resonance falls completely flat.
Such structural deficiencies seem baffling from a seasoned storyteller like Bird. On the flipside, it makes all too much sense coming from screenwriter Damon Lindelof. Lidelof came to prominence as part of J.J. Abrams’ inner circle of creative partners, the same group that produced much worse writers like Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and consequently many of his scripts bare the marks of Abrams’ beloved “Mystery Box” approach to storytelling. Everything is built around a mystery, in this case so much so as to be detrimental to the film, and the attempts to use that mystery to create a sense of wonder land with a thud. Another classic Lindelof trope, the whiffed ending, is on full display. The resolution is boiled down to knocking over a few lazy plot devices with explosives, which feels antithetical to the film’s intended themes of invention and positivity.
It truly is a shame for all the strong performers involved that “Tomorrowland” falls apart around a shoddy script. While she may not get top-billing, rising-star Britt Robertson is the film’s true lead as Casey Newton and she leaves a strong impression. Robertson brings a fantastic energy and likability to a role that demands a lot of enthusiasm, and she even makes it work when Casey’s function in the story become face-palm inducing near the end. George Clooney is the big name on display, and his character is a lot of fun. Clooney has specialized in playing the opposite of Frank Walker, a bitter and jaded curmudgeon, so it is a delight to see him go so completely against type and commit to it fully. If only the film got to him sooner than the halfway point. Praise must also be given to Raffey Cassidy, the young actress who impresses as the mysterious Athena. This sort of seemingly wise-beyond-her-years character could have proven too much for the child actor, but Cassidy goes at it with a mature confidence that is on-par with her adult co-stars. It is also fun to see the magnificent Hugh Laurie in a big movie like this, even if his character, the villainous Governor Nix, is a complete waste of his talent, a vaguely evil cypher only around to be knocked over just in case the audience was not able to grasp when the heroes had won.
Also wasted are the exemplary talents on the technical side. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda is well-versed in photography and FX-heavy films, having worked on films like “Life of Pi” and “TRON: Legacy.” “Tomorrowland” is another visual stunner. This is also thanks in part to design input from the great Syd Mead (“Blade Runner,” “Aliens”). What little we see of the city is always stunning and unique. Composer Michael Giacchino continues to prove himself one of the film industry’s most indispensable musical talents with a high-energy score that does more to convey a sense of classic adventure than anything in the script.
Even the film’s themes end up cluttered. A big part of the film’s message of optimism ends up taking the form of a screed against the recent trend of dystopian science fiction stories in popular culture. The film has its characters monologue explicitly how these stories are fueling a collective cynicism that is making us give up on fixing the world, with the implicit message being that its own brand of positivity will save us. This is a massive misreading of what dystopia stories are actually doing and why people like them. Dystopian fiction is not about a cynical self-fulfilling prophecy, it is about fighting the issues of the present through the lens of the future.
“Tomorrowland” is a tragically great example of a film where everything works except for the one thing that is most important. The weakness of the script drags down the film’s earnest attempts at old-fashioned adventure, and the faulty thesis at its core muddles its otherwise righteous call for optimistic futurism. A sad waste all around.