These days, it’s hard not to be cynical of the world around us and certainly not when you look at the summer movies that come out these days. Already two of this season’s biggest hits (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road) center around mass destruction and a post apocalyptic wasteland, so it’s commendable of director/writer Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof try to give us a more hopeful and feel-good blockbuster. Unfortunately, good intentions alone are not enough and you need a compelling story to back up that ambition, and in that respect, Tomorrowland falls well short.
In 1964, an adolescent Frank Walker hitches a ride to the World’s Fair to try to get some support for his homemade jet pack. Once there, he meets a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffrey Cassidy), who takes him to a futuristic utopia called Tomorrowland where his innovative mind can flourish. Meanwhile, in present day, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), is an optimistic teenager that hopes to fix the world’s problems much to the annoyance of her teachers and the derision of her classmates. Seeing the potential in Casey, an un-aged Athena leaves a pin for Casey that allows her to catch a glimpse of Tomorrowland. Casey naturally wants to go back, prompting her and Athena to meet up with a now grown Frank (George Clooney) , who has become a bitter recluse after being unceremoniously exiled from Tomorrowland decades ago. Despite some initial resistance from Frank, the three work together to find a way back.
I’ll start with the positives here. The acting is solid throughout and even some unexpectedly strong performances from the last places I expected. Good acting from George Clooney and Hugh Laurie are par for the course at this point and Britt Robertson has already shown to be a good actress who could become a big star with the right material. The breakout performance though is actually from child actor Raffrey Cassidy as Athena. The kind of role she plays isn’t anything new (I don’t want to give too much away on that), but it typically takes a talented actor to do it properly and it’s especially difficult for a kid but Cassidy does a surprisingly good job. Even Tim McGraw is decent as Casey’s father though I did laugh a little at the thought of a country music star playing a NASA engineer.
I will also say one thing about Tomorrowland itself. The effects aren’t anything groundbreaking but it truly looks like an incredible place that I would visit in a heartbeat and it shows the flashes of brilliance that Bird is capable. It’s a shame then just how little we actually see of it. After Casey’s glimpse, it takes over an hour before we ever see this admittedly awesome looking place again, which gets aggravating since Tomorrowland was not only the film’s main selling point but it’s also in the film’s title.
The most frustrating element to Tomorrowland is that the script plays it’s cards extremely close to the chest and it gets old incredibly fast. At certain points, they even go out of their way to explain as little as possible. Whenever Casey rightfully starts asking Frank and Athena just what the heck is going on, they answer her questions in the vaguest way possible and that’s when they can even be bothered to answer her questions at all. Any explanations they start giving are usually interrupted by them getting attacked from a seemingly never ending army of killer robots (and no, they never explain where those come from either). There’s even one scene where Athena pretends to fall asleep just to get Casey to stop asking questions altogether. Instead, Bird and Lindelof decide to keep everything a secret until the climax and reveal everything all at once, possibly as a way to disguise just how weak the payoff is.
Admittedly, this isn’t the first time a film written by Lindelof has annoyed me to this magnitude. Ever since his days on Lost, he has a track record of being much more interested in the question than the answer and as a result the answer in usually unsatisfying at best. In those cases, I wrote it off as the directors either unable (Prometheus’ Ridley Scott) or unwilling (Star Trek Into Darkness’ J.J. Abrams) to fix the shortcomings in Lindelof’s writing. With Tomorrowland though I was more hopeful because I believed that if there was a director that could elevate a movie past it’s hacky screenwriter, it would be the guy that gave us the animated classics of Iron Giant and The Incredibles and revitalized Tom Cruise’s career with the last Mission: Impossible. Sadly, not even Bird’s talents were enough to fix the script and while I have no shortage of anger towards Lindelof, Bird has to take some of the blame for this too since frankly he should’ve known better.
It would be unfair to call Tomorrowland irredeemably bad because there are some truly enjoyable moments and some interesting ideas trying to make it’s way through. The problem is, all that potential is bogged down by a mediocre and heavy handed screenplay with the subtlety of a brick to the head. I don’t fault the idea of the film’s message but the execution leaves much to be desired. It’s unlikely that this film makes my “Worst of 2015” list but it’s already a strong contender for most disappointing.