Tomorrowland is a movie that should be celebrated. Apart from its Disney World connection, it is an original film released in the 21st century, it features several great female roles, and is directed by Brad Bird. Bird is pretty much batting a thousand (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol), the cast is phenomenal, Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, Star Trek) co-wrote the film. With all this going for it, why is Tomorrowland one of the biggest disappointments of the year?
To be clear, the film is not bad. It is perfectly serviceable. But for a film with this high-caliber of filmmaker and such high potential, serviceable is pretty bad. Yes, the film looks good, has good performances, and features some fun action, but it fails at telling a compelling story. The two attributes that come to mind when thinking of Tomorrowland are boring, and confused, those are not terms you want associated with a summer blockbuster based on a Disney concept (can we really say this is “based on a ride” like Pirates of the Caribbean was? I don’t think so, it is more “inspired” by the Tomorrowland of Disney World, not really an adaptation).
The story follows Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a young girl with her mind on the stars (literally, she loves space, her dad is in NASA). The NASA station near her house is in the midst of being torn down, and we pick up the story with Casey trying to stop the demolition. It is her spirit and optimistic worldview that gains the attention of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a mysterious young girl who gives Casey a magical pin that allows her to experience Tomorrowland. On their journey, they seek the help of Frank Walker (George Clooney), a bitter old man who experienced (and subsequently was exiled from) the Tomorrowland of the past.
That sounds like a great premise to an adventure film.What is Tomorrowland? Who is Frank? Who is Athena? How are they connected? What happens at Tomorrowland? Is Keegan Michael Key really in this movie**? All of this adventure and potential discovery, and I’m still trying to figure why Tomorrowland is so boring.
**yes…yes he is, and it is glorious
Maybe it is the pacing. The film spends its time introducing us to all the characters, and that is fine. What is not fine is that the film suffers from a slow start and really never recovers. By the time we meet Frank and have that cool house fight scene you’ve seen in the trailers, I was already tuning out. Yes, there is a lot of mystery and movement towards solving that mystery, but the film was not successful at making us care the answer to that mystery at all. Before the film came out, “What is Tomorrowland?” was a burning question and we were dying to find out. Inside the context of the film though, “What is Tomorrowland?” is met with a “meh” response. We simply don’t care what Tomorrowland is or what happens there, and that means we don’t care about our heroes’ journey.
Learning from his filmmaking partner JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof has become known for the mystery. Whether it is Lost or Cowboys and Aliens or Prometheus or Star Trek Into Darkness, the writer has specialized in writing sci-fi films with big mysteries as their set up. Like his projects in the past, Tomorrowland is pretty much all set up with very little pay off. The whole movie asks questions, looking to the end of the film for answers, and unfortunately that means the character and the story on the way takes second priority.
As I said, the film is not a total loss, it is serviceable. Brad Bird is such a masterful director that he is able to elevate his sub-par screenplay. The film is shot beautifully. He knows how to frame characters when shooting a dialogue scene to make it interesting. All of the action looks great, which is a bummer because we don’t really care about that action at all…but it looks amazing! The world inside the actual Tomorrowland is wildly creative, and Bird introduces us to that world with a great 5-6 minute long take. We experience the world as our main character experiences the world, with awe and full of wonder.
In addition to the directing, there is some great acting on display in Tomorrowland. Though Clooney’s character relegates him to being a crotchety old man, he serves his role fine and leaves room for our shining actresses. Robertson and Cassidy are great and they help alleviate the lackluster story. I hope Robertson makes it big after this film, and I would love to see her lead more films. Between Casey and Athena, it was great seeing some great young actresses given the opportunity to shine.
Alas, this is still a movie and movies have to have an ending. And Tomorrowland sure does have an ending! Whatever was going bad in the movie (the mystery-box setup) continues its descent (they answer the questions and you just don’t care). Worse, most of the movie’s positive elements (female lead, fun action) get warped into your standard blockbuster finale (Casey’s actions are pretty much non-consequential to the ending, the action gets big and emotionless).
Earlier I said the film was confused, without discussing the plot/spoiler material we can address that on a basic level. To be clear, the film is not confusing (it’s a pretty straightforward mystery adventure), but it is confused. The film has a message of hope. Tomorrowland represents a world where the brightest minds can create free from the pressures of this world. The world needs more bright minds, creative thinkers, artisans, those who love the sciences. So the movie teaches, not so much the movie exemplifies.
The third act of the movie includes (but is not limited to) a last-minute villain reveal, fighting robots, and long speeches of morality from both sides of the conflict. Again, this is all fine. You can have a big ending where the message of the movie is explained to the audience, but it has to fit in the context of the movie. Tomorrowland, a film that is mysterious for the sole purpose of being mysterious, really does not benefit from heavy exposition at the end. Bird did a great job showing the world to us throughout the film, maybe the better option would be to show (and not tell) us the answer to the mystery.
Personally, I love the message of the film. Its a bright example of positivity in media. But while everybody was arguing about the message of the movie while leaving the theater, I found myself struggling to figure out the mechanics of the film. I couldn’t even get to the message in my analysis, I was stuck on the filmmaking choices. Point being, messages in movies are great (see: Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out). BUT, you have to make a successful movie in order for your message to be validated (see: Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out).
So Tomorrowland isn’t a disappointment in that it insults the viewer or is poor filmmaking. It is more an example of wasted potential. Brad Bird is a great director, and his cast does wonders to make this movie fun. But it’s fun can only go so far, it is unable to overcome a screenplay that is both adventurous and boring at the same time. Bird, Lindelof, and Robertson are all to be watched moving forward. There is major talent there. They just couldn’t hit the mark this time.
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