Unlike its Disneyland namesake, Tomorrowland is not a film for children of all ages. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who the target audience is for this disjointed sci-fi adventure. Too solemn for Tweens, too violent for youngsters, and too goofy for adults, Brad Bird’s film about hope and change is betrayed by a subpar script and questionable casting choices. Tomorrowland has fleeting moments of imagination and fun, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being inspired by this disappointing clunker.
Tomorrowland is the kid who was promised a future of rocket cars and jetpacks and all he got was this lousy t-shirt. Things start promisingly enough, as a bright-eyed boy named Frank drags his makeshift jetpack to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Though his invention is ultimately rejected by a skeptical Mr. Nix (Hugh Laurie), Frank comes to the attention of a precocious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who gives him a magical pendant that whisks him away to the futuristic world of Tomorrowland. These scenes hint at the film Tomorrowland might have been, had it worked harder to maintain its sense of childlike wonder.
Sadly, the second storyline, set in 21st Century Florida, is little more than a lackluster adventure yarn about a brilliant teenager who is destined to save the world because she still has hope in her heart… or something. Casey (Britt Robertson) is a spitfire who routinely sabotages the demolition efforts on a local NASA launch platform just so her dad (Tim McGraw) won’t lose his engineering job, and because rockets are cool. Her ingenious vandalism is recognized by a mysterious stranger, who gives Casey a similar pendant to young Frank’s. Through a series of largely uninteresting events, Casey joins forces with a now-adult Frank (George Clooney) and a still-young Athena to re-enter Tomorrowland via science wankery and explosions.
There was great potential for Tomorrowland to be a poor man’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Frank is a Wonka-esque inventor whose creations keep him so far off the grid that even Harry Caul would be jealous. In fact, the movie’s standout action sequence involves a breakneck tour through Frank’s ingeniously booby-trapped house, featuring disruptor beams, trap doors, and futuristic escape pods. Athena is the type of creepy concoction that kids should love and dread in equal measure. While she certainly has her moments of perverse torture, she’s primarily a benevolent force, which makes for some awkward scenes with her childhood beau, Frank (who is now a middle-aged man). Casey, too, is the type of plucky conduit who might otherwise balance the larger-than-life surroundings were it not for her ‘chosen one’ mythology. These character missteps typify the frustrating nature of Tomorrowland; it’s one missed opportunity after another.
Bird, as you might expect, does a fine job with the visual side of things. Tomorrowland itself is a kitchen sink of futuristic wonders. Flying cars, airborne swimming pools, and sidewalks free of cigarette butts seduce you into believing that the impossible is actually possible (though there are an alarming number of hipsters in the future). Everything is crisp and colorful, with the seamless special effects we’ve come to expect from modern sci-fi epics. Unfortunately, none of it is particularly new or inspiring. The bells and whistles are more reminiscent of your father’s vision of the future than your daughter’s, which makes the entire movie feel almost anachronistic.
While the visuals may provide a few moments of amusement, the script by Bird and Damon Lindelof is never less than a distracting mess. Interesting ideas come to no purpose, while entire scenes play out with no consistent tone or logical objective. In fact, the entire script feels like a stream-of-consciousness exercise. We transition from whimsy, to drama, to sentimentality… sometimes within the same scene! It’s the type of script where characters are routinely forced to restate their shifting objectives. Whenever you hear someone say, “We have to get the thing to the place to do whatever,” it means the writers are just as confused as you are.
And then there is the violence. This isn’t cartoon violence with clunky robots and malfunctioning gizmos (though there is some of that); this is innocent people being vaporized into oblivion. Worse still, it’s a ‘sterilized violence,’ where people simply disappear rather than show any sign of suffering or anguish. Perhaps it’s old fashioned, but shouldn’t death in a kid’s movie be depicted with a bit more reverence? Here, death is merely a plot device to demonstrate the power of futuristic weaponry. Does this not undermine the central theme of the movie, which is that life on this planet is precious and worth saving? Apparently, some lives matter less when you need to keep the plot moving.
The casting in Tomorrowland is suspect from top to bottom, though the script and uneven tone does the actors no favors. Robertson tries her best to instill the proceedings with a sense of fun, but she struggles with the more dramatic elements. Cassidy, too, has her moments as Athena, but the lack of character arc makes her dull and flat; she feels like a third wheel designed to keep the ride from getting too bumpy. Fairing the worst is George Clooney. Never before has Clooney, one of the more reliable and likeable actors of the last 20 years, felt so uncomfortable and out of place. His straight-arrow sincerity doesn’t play well against this eccentric character. But how is a grown man supposed to behave when his love interest is a little girl? As written, it’s an impossible task that only a handful of actors could have pulled off.
The one saving grace of Tomorrowland is its openness about self-destruction. Though some viewers will find the environmental message naïve and heavy-handed, it’s refreshing to see it discussed so frankly. There aren’t any fuzzy polar bears or ‘shame on you’ moments; just an outright condemnation of humanity. In fact, the highlight of the entire film is a diatribe against human nature that rivals Mr. Smith’s thesis on ‘the human virus’ from The Matrix. Perhaps it wasn’t the filmmaker’s intent, but you feel like applauding the villain for having such a thorough understanding of the human condition. It’s also nice to get a few historical winks, like the feud between Tesla and Edison, or a toy shop filled with props from sci-fi classics (shout out to carbonite Han Solo!). Sadly, most of these finer details, along with a boatload of technical jargon, will be lost on bored Tweens, as they watch the plot grind and sputter toward another action set piece.
The idealism of Tomorrowland, with its call to unfettered imagination and responsible stewardship, is something worth applauding. Whether this message can honestly be explored within the confines of a capitalistic wet dream like Disneyland, however, is debatable. Regardless, shifting tones, distracting performances, and murky objectives make this particular journey into the future decidedly unsatisfying. Tomorrowland will inspire only confusion and disappointment.