Nobody saw this flop coming.
With mega star George Clooney teaming with master director Brad Bird – whose prior works include The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and personal favorite The Iron Giant – Tomorrowland seemed destined to be a hit, especially considering the movie is an adaptation of a Disneyland attraction, which proved to be a winning formula for Pirates of the Caribbean. Unfortunately for Clooney and Bird, the less-than-stellar story of Tomorrowland, which hastily lumps two half-baked character arcs together, leaves little room for great acting and imaginative directing to succeed.
The film intersects the story of Frank Walker (Clooney), a former boy genius inventor, with the story of Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), an imaginative and curious daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw). In their respective youths, both receive special lapel pins marked with the letter T, given to them by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a sweet young girl who, as we discover later on, is actually a highly advanced android from the future.
These T-Pins prove to be Tomorrowland’s most ubiquitous symbol, and the source of what little magic the movie has: whenever touched, it instantaneously conjures visions of the futuristic Tomorrowland, making for great cinematography and match cut trickery. Visit Disneyland anytime soon, and you will see these pins everywhere. Merchandising and tie-in opportunities abound.
Speaking of tie-ins, young Frank’s first journey into Tomorrowland (where he is played by twelve year-old Thomas Robinson) has him sneak onto an empty boat at Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World,” where the T-Pin opens a secret capsule that transports him to the mysterious city. As if weren’t enough to adapt the Disney attraction to film, the movie further dabbles in painfully overt marketing by actually involving the theme park itself. Twenty minutes in, and Tomorrowland becomes a two-hour Disneyland commercial.
Bird's greatest asset here is the city of Tomorrowland itself, a strikingly gorgeous techno utopia. In one sequence, Casey rides a hover train that weaves around needle-like skyscrapers, and multi-tiered levitating swimming pools. We share Casey’s speechless reaction at witnessing the utopic grandeur; one that would even make Dubai jealous.
Yet for a movie named Tomorrowland, the movie hardly spends any time there; instead, the story remains firmly grounded in the present, using suspense-less chase sequences and ray gun battles with creepy androids in lieu of actual plot advancement. One wonders if Tomorrowland is an actual location in the future, or simply an ideal to strive for; the convoluted screenplay gives no clear answer.
The movie features a great deal of action and combat sequences as well, where robot-on-robot and human-on-robot violence frequently appear. Fighting robots should be no big deal, but when Athena clutches a severed android head – with cables and wires taking the place of a spinal cord and neck veins – Tomorrowland crosses the lines of its family-friendly boundaries. An android vaporizing three police officers in cold blood doesn’t help either.
These shortcomings and disappointments do no favors for the already weak and confusing story, which tries to tell too much with backgrounds on both Frank and Casey, the weaving-in of Tomorrowland, and the strange villain Nix (Hugh Laurie), who truly believes in the eventual collapse of the modern world – about sixty days from now, to be exact. And then one wonders: if Tomorrowland truly is the utopia free of evil, greed, and ulterior motives, then why is the pessimistic Nix, who sends killer androids after our heroes, one of its leaders?
Tomorrowland’s story is so shaky that it cannot bear to support the weight of two leading characters and a villain that technically doesn’t belong in the utopia the film endlessly praises. Although Clooney, Robertson, and Laurie actually turn in laudable performances, their efforts ring hollow in an empty story. Even the sharp and imaginative direction of Bird, which makes sure to glorify and mystify Tomorrowland, does little to alleviate the film's problems. Only when Frank, Casey, and Athena finally team up and journey together does Tomorrowland become remotely interesting, but that only comes after an hour of trudging through the film. Individual stories end up feeling hastily cobbled together.
At the film’s closing, we are finally presented an idea we can all agree with: our world needs thinkers, inventors, and innovators more than ever. They truly can make the world a better place. It’s just remorseful that the message only comes after Mickey Mouse’s blessing, and that we had to sit through a two-hour Disneyland commercial to get it.
Writted by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, and Jeff Jensen. Directed by Brad Bird.
Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, and Britt Robertson.