Brad Bird is a rare filmmaker, one whose tendencies closely mirror those of a young Steven Spielberg. He makes films that resonate with everyone on one emotional level or another by applying fantastical situations with common everyday people whom we can all relate to. His filmography is filled with the type of movie magic that isn’t so much seen as it is experienced and comes from an honest place. He knows that without a story or characters, all the flashy effects in the world would amount to nothing. I say all this because it is somewhat shocking at just how emotionally distant and off the mark his new film Tomorrowland is in comparison to his previous sterling record of excellence.
Tomorrowland is a film that was clearly made with a lot of heart and passion, as everyone involved seems to be fully invested in what they were doing. From the acting to the often times dazzling effects and fantastical premise, there isn’t one hint that anyone was sleeping at the wheel during its production. The problems with film go much deeper than simply pointing out what one person did wrong here or there. No, Tomorrowland’s fundamental flaws reside at the script stage and a marketing campaign that is likely to do more damage than good, even if its intentions were pure.
The first sign that something is amiss lies in the film’s opening scene where it breaks the fourth wall by having our main characters speaking directly to the audience. While this is meant to establish their relationship and the stakes that are at hand, in actuality it undermines everything that comes after it. This problematic set up is further expanded upon as soon as we travel back to 1962 for a visit to the World’s Fair where we proceed to follow a key character who after a chance encounter finds themselves magically transported to Tomorrowland, a city of the future filled with all sorts of wonders. While audiences are certainly eager to get a good look at Tomorrowland as soon as possible, this early peak does more damage than good which is unfortunate since the sequence tells us little that we don’t learn later on.
At this point the film begins to show some of that potential we witnessed in the trailers as we are then whisked to present day where we meet Casey (Britt Robertson), a teenage girl whose father (Tim McGraw), a Nasa Engineer who is about to lose his job at Cape Canaveral due to the launch pad being deconstructed piece by piece. Casey is an optimist though and believes a bad thing can be overcome simply by someone doing something to prevent it which leads her to making nightly visits to the launch pad and sabotaging the machinery there in hopes that her father can keep his job just a little bit longer. Little does she realize however that special spark is about to take her modest life and turn it upside down. This of course only happens after she finds this mysterious pin that upon touching it transports her to the wonderous world of Tomorrowland.
After experiencing first hand the magic of Tomorrowland herself, Casey is eager to show her father but when the pin’s timer expires and when she can no longer visit the future city she sets out to locate someone who can tell her about the pin and its origin. That eventually leads her to the front door of Frank Miller (George Clooney), an inventor and tinkerer of sorts who knows more than he is willing to say but is also astonished at Casey’s ability to interact with his advanced machinery. Their meeting then leads Frank to believe Casey could be the answer he has been looking for. Together the two set out on a quest to unravel the mysteries surrounding the pin and Tomorrowland before they all run out of time.
In respect of anyone wanting to be left in the dark about the film’s many secrets and surprises I have purposefully left out key information from that synopsis. Disney clearly wanted to keep certain characters and revelations a secret in order to keep a couple of the film’s surprising twists under wraps, which sadly is also part of the problem with the film. Unfortunately it is near impossible to delve into the film’s more troublesome parts or even its more positive points without giving away certain secrets so I offer you the opportunity to skip the rest of this review and instead see the film and judge for yourself whether or not it fulfills its potential and makes good on the promises it sold itself on. From this point forward there will be minor spoilers as I hopefully bring to light some of the film’s more glaring issues along with its strengths.
It is difficult to tell you how much of a disappointment Tomorrowland is without coming off as a hypocrite in the process. I am a strong advocate of a film being released with as little known about it as possible. One of the best and most recent examples pulling the wool over someones eyes and have the surprise exceed all previous expectations was the relatively small and unknown film Predestination, a time travel film with a twist that is both imaginative and exciting, but always stays true to what it sold itself as. Tomorrowland is a bait and switch film where it lures us in with promises of futuristic cities full of anything you could ever imagine or want but quickly reveals itself as a peddler of cheap tricks and broken promises.
The problem isn’t what you might think though, it isn’t that those promises are nothing but lies and deceit (of which they are of the highest order), but what we get in place of them is a hollow shell of what could have been a fun and exciting adventure film. Instead we get a film that is heavily burdened with a message that is neither new nor insightful and much more interested in telling us about what we want to see than showing it to us. What starts out with a novel idea eventually reveals itself to be just another movie about a tyrannical leader who wants nothing more than to see the world burn, which could have been interesting if the actual structure of the film weren’t so haphazardly slapped together.
The best example of this is how we spend a good portion of the film following Casey after she first comes into contact with Tomorrowland, loses contact with it and then must discover how to get back to it. The problem with this is that we, the audience, know more than our main character and must sit and watch as she struggles to discover what we discovered in the film’s opening 5 minutes. Imagine, if you will, seeing Jurassic Park and in the opening scene all the dinosaurs are revealed to us, then spending the next hour with a character and watching them jump through all these hoops to reach the same point we were at from the very outset. By showing us the destination before the journey begins it takes the sense of discovery and mystery out of what should have been a fun adventure, but that is only part of the problem with Tomorrowland’s fractured narrative.
The other part is the reveal of the actual destination which proves to be the film’s ultimate undoing as what we get in place of the city of tomorrow is a place that couldn’t be any less magical if it tried. Once we learn what has become of Tomorrowland it is difficult to not feel exactly as Casey does when she is given the bad news herself. Upon hearing the truth about what she actually saw, Casey is upset and disappointed that everything that led her to that point was based on a lie and it’s hard to imagine audiences not taking the same stance, especially considering how lackluster and uninspired the reality actually is. What should have been a magical moment turns into one of extreme disappointment after another, something the film never really recovers from.
Not everything is a bust though, as there are still plenty that Tomorrowland gets right starting with probably the most important part, the human element. Brad Bird’s films have always dealt with characters that felt plucked right out of real life, with fears and ambitions that mirrored what many people face every day, much like how Steven Spielberg did during his early days. So it wasn’t too surprising that the one area Tomorrowland shines the most in is delivering characters who we actually care about and want to follow even if their ultimate destination proves to be less magical or special as we were initially led to believe.
Casey is a dreamer of the highest order, a strong willed teenage girl who looks to the stars believing one day she could eventually go to them. Her ingenuity and resilience towards impossible odds makes her a perfect candidate for the future city of Tomorrowland, a perfect counterpoint to Frank’s more stubborn personality and someone with whom the audience can easily identify with. While their companionship gets off to a bit of a rough start with the clunky opening scenes, their chemistry is readily apparent as soon as Casey shows up at Frank’s front door. But they aren’t the only piece of the puzzle as there is a third addition that easily makes up the best of what Tomorrowland has to offer.
Another pseudo secret Disney wanted to keep (she was almost completely absent from all the marketing) was what in my mind is the real success of Tomorrowland, and that is the character Athena (Raffey Cassidey) who represents the real human element of the film, which is ironic since she is actually a robot. While Athena is nothing more than a device to push the story forward, she is also instrumental in establishing what is one of the more unorthodox and borderline taboo on-screen relationships in recent memory. Casey and Frank’s rapport is clever and fun as they are both complete opposites in many ways, but it is Athena who truly rocks the boat and instills the only real magic in the film.
The idea of a romance between an older man and a younger girl (in this case a MUCH younger girl) is a delicate one and one that if not handled with the right maturity and respect could turn many people off. But the connection established early on between Athena and a much younger Frank serves as the jump off point for their ill-fated relationship and establishes a rather tragic ambience to their scenes together when older Frank crosses paths with her. Much of the praise needs to go to both Clooney and Cassidey as they play off each other in a way that suggests something more but tastefully never goes becomes as awkward as it could have been.
In truth though, the best parts of Tomorrowland are whenever all three characters are together as their verbal exchanges and chemistry with each other are undeniable. If the film had just left Tomorrowland a mystery for the audience until its reveal to our main character and perhaps put more thought into the eventual payoff at the end, this could have been a modern day classic. All the pieces were there, the effects, the actors, the director and a premise rife with potential, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Tomorrowland isn’t a bad film, it isn’t really a mediocre one either. Instead it is a film filled with many visual wonders and aspirations to create something timeless but will likely be referenced only to illustrate the one misfire in Brad Bird’s otherwise outstanding filmography.
A great cast, some real compelling characters, imaginative visuals pulled off with great skill and one of the most challenging relationships of the year could not save Tomorrowland from its poor plotting, a heavy handed message that has been told time and time again and what is easily one of the biggest bait and switch acts in recent years. There will be those who like Tomorrowland for what it is, as there are a number of things to appreciate in the film to be sure (especially a fine performance by the young talent Raffey Cassidey). But for anyone sold on the film by its initial trailers and ads, it is impossible to comprehend those audiences not walking away and feeling cheated out of seeing something truly special and unique. This is the first real disappointment of the summer season and a massive disappointment for all Brad Bird fans.