Bird Bird can do wrong. The Iron Giant is a masterpiece, The Incredibles is perhaps the best comic book movie ever made, Ratatouille is endlessly charming, and his first live-action movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is the best of the series and the one that best captures the aesthetic of the original TV show. So when Bird shirked directorial responsibilities on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and dared to make something original, a giant mystery box called Tomorrowland, it was a bold choice, a daring choice. But a batting streak like Bird’s was bound to run dry sometime, and while Tomorrowland isn’t a mess on par with, say, Chappie, it does show tremendous strain in its execution.
There’s a version of Tomorrowland that is everything it promises, a narrative that lives up to the tremendous accomplishments of it’s art direction and visualization. An awful lot of care was put into this movie and designing its intricate retro-future and 50s nostalgia for a tomorrow that’s awesome! Tomorrowland also has a strong message at its heart, that we perhaps now dwell too much on the idea that the future is going to be worse than better, and on top of it all, we seem to be of the opinion that we’re absolutely powerless to do anything about it. That sounds like a premise that great science fiction can be built on.
There’s a but coming, and the but is that Tomorrowland is so in love with the idea of Tomorrowland that it doesn’t tell a complete story. Easily two-thirds of this movie consists of what should have been the first act, with everything that should have been in the final two acts crammed into the last 20 minutes or so. It takes us so long to get to Tomorrowland, the locale almost feels like an afterthought in its own movie, a MacGuffin meant more to drive the story than be the subject of the story. The movie’s supposed to be about saving Tomorrowland, but it seems to be more about taking the longest way possible to get to Tomorrowland.
The hero of the story is Cassie Newton (Britt Robertson), an intelligent and technologically intuitive young woman who’s doing her damnedest to stop the the teardown of the launch platform at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. After sabotaging the construction equipment one too many times, Cassie’s arrested, and in her returned effects she finds a metal pin. When she touches the pin, Cassie gets a glimpse of a futuristic world, one that she becomes obsessed with getting to for real. That path leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former boy genius and resident of Tomorrowland who was kicked out for pushing the bounds of science a little too far.
Cassie, of course, is a chosen one. Only she can save the future we’re repeatedly told. Frank is a reluctant mentor too. He’s embittered by being turfed out of Tomorrowland, and he’s embittered by the results of his last invention. Not to go into too many spoilers, but the effects of Frank’s work are so dire, and their resolution too simple, it makes you wonder how or why Cassie was ever needed in the first place. The effect doesn’t really follow the cause, and the reason is because Tomorrowland offers such a leisurely excursion through its world, the immediacy of the threat is an afterthought till the final movement.
The shame of it is that there is joy and fun in that leisurely trip. Such pains are taken to make realistically functional future tech, from jet packs to hover cars and everything in between. Such devices are so lovingly and painstakingly created, it’s almost as if you can live in the world that Tomorrowland‘s created. From slick trains that look like they came right off the over of some pre-space age comic book cover, to a steampunk rocket ship housed under the Eiffel Tower, this film has moments built to dazzle and amaze. And then we return back to the story, which is a long hard slog as Casey, Frank, and the robot girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) try to make their way to Tomorrowland and save the day.
The cast is good. Clooney rarely gets to play curmudgeon, Cassidy is just inhuman enough to believably be a robot, and Hugh Laurie perfectly severe as Tomorrowland’s leader Governor Nix. The weak link is Robertson, who’s let down mostly by the script since it makes Casey’s exact skill as a savior a bit undefined. Is she the supposed to be the chosen one because of her optimism, or is she a genuine scientific genius? The movie itself seems unsure, choosing one or the other depending on the circumstances. On top of that, as the film reaches its climax, the drive for action is taken out of Casey’s hands and given to Frank, which suits his arc well, I guess, but ultimately, doesn’t do much for Casey’s.
Tomorrowland also suffers from a viral outbreak of Disney product placement, any little bit of Disney iconography that can be squeezed into the film, is squeezed into the film, and that includes all things Star Wars. There’s a scene set in a store that sells movie collectibles, and nearly every Wars knickknack and tchotchke ever made seems to fill its shelves. We got it! This is a Disney production that takes its name from a Disney theme park ride, but to rub our faces in it at every opportunity is a little much. Was this the price for Bird to get to play in a project labelled neither Marvel nor Lucasfilm? The cost in terms of annoyance seems a little steep.
The cynical fan will look no deeper than the co-screenplay credit by Damon Lindelof and go, “Aha!” but he was one of three people that worked on the script. Indeed, the script is that part of this movie that lets it down, spending way too much time building up to a story it never really seems to tell, or perhaps even want to tell. There’s been a sad trend this year of these huge movies featuring original stories that disappoint to some degree. Tomorrowland now joins those ranks, which is a shame because there was clearly a passion and a vision behind Bird’s film, but like one of the main characters and his invention, the implications were never fully thought through.