Tomorrowland’s marketing didn’t exactly make it look like one giant leap for mankind, but it’s a new movie by the man who brought us The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. That gotta spark some interest, right? Yeah, it does. However, all of Bird’s previous works have been outstanding, and without taking away too much already, this one isn’t. And you might not be part of the actually very small target audience.
Here’s the plot: In 1964, ten year old Francis follows a cute girl named Athena to the realms of Tomorrowland, a technologically advanced future world set in another dimension. Fifty years later, modern day Francis (George Clooney) teams up with both Athena (Raffey Cassidy, mysteriously still a kid) and bright teenage girl Casey (Britt Robertson) to go on an incredible adventure together. On their travels they get to fight evil androids and mechs, they get to use sci-fi gadgets like portals and bath tub rockets, they get to visit Paris and outer space, and they meet both Gort and carbonite-frozen Han Solo.
What might sound like a great premise for a typical four-quadrant tentpole movie is actually a kids’ movie in disguise. That isn’t a bad thing to have, but anyone expecting seriously thrilling drama, exciting action scenes, big spectacle, or anything truly moving will feel let down. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Percy Jackson franchise, sans the really ridiculous stuff like breakdancing satyrs, the Medusa using an iPhone, or the underworld existing right beneath the Hollywood Hills. It has the same kind of lightweight, optimistic tone, the same kind of easy characters with simple goals, and it constantly goes for CGI-heavy action scenes.
The prologue, some kind of flash-forward, is a bit shitty as an opening, but after that Bird wonderfully manages to resurrect a long forgotten element of movie magic: the “sense of wonder”. Both young George Clooney’s and Britt Robertson’s characters happen to love science and technology. But instead of just using it to consume entertainment, they’re actually invested in how stuff works, how stuff could be improved, and how to create new stuff that could be useful or fun. Bird and Lindelof probably went through history books and took inspiration from great minds such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, or Nikola Tesla. I’m not saying that Casey is a brillant inventor, or that the act of inventing stuff ever plays a role, but she has that thirst for fascination and the willpower to put such things in motion. There’s even a fascinating mirror image to be found in Lindelof’s filmography. In Star Trek, young Kirk observes the building of the Enterprise and wonders about all the exciting adventures the crew of that ship will get to have. In Tomorrowland, Casey angrily watches (and sabotages) the deconstruction of Cape Canaveral, wondering why mankind is giving up on science. That is actually one of the biggest theme of the movie. It’s pioneer’s optimism versus grumpy cynics who have stopped believing. Casey’s father, a soon to be unemployed NASA engineer, is constantly telling her to stop believing in a better future, and modern day George Clooney is a total cynic as well.
Bird and Lindelof constantly come up with inventive action scenes, but they’re never self-serving. You never get any hard focus on fighting, Bird never goes for Bay-esque spectacle or massive destruction, and most of the time the heroes are rather fleeing instead of facing their enemies head on. What’s great is that you can never predict the wonderfully weird stuff Casey gets to see next. Anything involving Frank’s house, a certain sci-fi memorabilia store, or Tomorrowland itself is pretty entertaining to watch. Did I mention that this Disney movie primarily aimed at kids shows a vision of a nuclear explosion in a city?
Britt Robertson may be a 26-year-old playing a teenager, but she has a wonderful energy and witnesses all of the crazier elements with an awe rarely seen in movies these days. It often bugs me to no end when characters witness the otherworldliest stuff without ever reacting truly shocked, surprised, or believably awed. Robertson does, it and it helps making every gadget, enemy, or futuristic location seem more fascinating. It’s also nice to see an attractive young woman not ever getting sexualized in any way, not even when she’s walking into a lake wearing a t-shirt. Now some critics claimed that Clooney creepily flirts with both of the girls, but that’s nonsense. There is one intimate moment between two characters, but there’s never an implied lust or sexual attraction for a teenager, or worse, for a little girl. This may be the first time 54-year-old George Clooney plays a character older than him. Visiting the World Fair in 1964 as a ten year old, his character of the present has to be about sixty-one. And like I said, he’s not a hero. Most of the time he’s a grumpy, grizzled old meanie who is constantly annoyed by young Casey’s drive. He pretty much is cynism personified, only slowly thawing up. Both him and Casey get pretty much forced by outside forces to go on their trip together, and it’s really fun to see their banter and the way they slowly become friends.
I’m not going to reveal much about Hugh Laurie’s and Raffey Cassidy’s roles, but don’t expect to see much from House. His role is pretty small and rather forgettable, and it’s a role that could have been phoned in. Cassidy meanwhile gives a fun performance as the mysterious Athena who happens to still be a kid after all those years. Both her and Robertson dominate the plot, and it’s really refreshing to see such a story carried mostly by strong female characters. It takes about an hour until grumpy Clooney joins in, and old man Clooney actually stays being only the third most important of the characters. Michael Giacchino’s score does a good job underlining all of the technological wonders, and almost all of the designs are good. Bird’s directing is good, the actors are good, and nothing ever sticks out as anything but good.
That’s a lot of “good”, right? But it’s always only that. I think Tomorrowland’s biggest drawback is the fact that it doesn’t have any of the true peak strengths of Bird’s earlier movies. It doesn’t have the sharp comedy bits and spectacle of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it doesn’t have the breath-taking action and satirical tone of The Incredibles, it doesn’t ever move you like The Iron Giant manages to, and unlike Ratatouille, it’s not really a movie to make you think. As an adult you’ll see many of the elements of the movie and constantly think about how much better you would like everything if it only targeted your personal interests a little more. All of the characters are very charismatic, but Bird skips any real drama and only goes for simple, kid-friendly entertainment. Now don’t get me wrong. The tone of the movie is never as annoyingly childish as, say, the Spy Kids movies, but it’s pretty much ignoring some of the biggest blockbuster audiences. Families bringing their young ADD kids, manly men (and teenage boys) interested in cool confrontations, and anyone who just wants to laugh a lot. There could have been a lot more jokes in the movie, but Bird doesn’t care. Same for action bits. Leaving all of that out is rather brave, but it reduces the audience. I can’t see any fans of Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Mad Max: Fury Road easily enjoying this.
And it does come with several weaknesses. The framing opening / ending shots are clunky. Kathryn Hahn shows up in a role that is borderline ridiculous. In the third act, characters suddenly tend to bring up a lot of exposition, and the main antagonist is heavily underused. The final explanation of the villain’s motivation is kinda brave in a way, but it’s too bold, and presented in a way that it almost feels like a Powerpoint presentation. There’s a small scene recalling an earlier attraction between characters that is completely useless, and one dying character simply won’t stop talking. Remember when they dragged out dying Trinity’s last dialogue? This one goes on for even longer. In the end, you might even be surprised to see that Tomorrowland itself doesn’t really factor in much. The whole parallel dimension is more of a MacGuffin. And you’ll honestly be surprised to hear that the movie cost a tremendous $190 million dollars. It alooks good, but not that good. Compared to other recent stuff like the superbly detailed Jupiter Ascending that number seems all kinds of wrong.
TL;DR? Tomorrowland is well-made featherweight fare aimed at children 10-15. If you somehow lost your inner child and can’t enjoy stuff like Super 8 anymore, this probably ain’t for you. You’ll be utterly disappointed by the fact that it simply never services grown-up interests. In general, it’s a fairly watchable, but not exceptionally memorable movie. Looking at Bird’s filmography, I’d rate all of his other movies five or four-and-a-half stars. Tomorrowland is okay, and I happened to enjoy it a lot, but his future hopefully holds more than that.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars