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If the question, “How do you make jetpacks boring?” has ever kept you up at night, I heartily recommend you check out Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Billed as a rollicking sci-fi adventure movie, Bird’s latest is high on sci-fi gadgets, gizmos, and ideas but short on story, fun, and even adventure. Perhaps he should have spent more time behind a typewriter (or Microsoft Word, whichever) and less in the toybox, since while the attention to detail found in the futurist city at the heart of Tomorrowland is fun to absorb, little else qualifies as exciting, the story least of all. After a few big screen duds some fans found insultingly bad—Prometheus, Star Trek: Into Darkness (both of which I really like)—LOST showrunner Damon Lindelof is back with a co-written screenplay by Bird along with screenwriter Jeff Jensen, and it’s the closest I’ve felt to watching a Star Wars prequel in ten years. Conceived as a vaccine for the movie virus of dour, depressed, and bleak apocalyptic movies we increasingly seem to get off on, “disaster porn,” Tomorrowland sought to rekindle some good old-fashioned awe and wonder reminiscent of early Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.
Brad Bird is an enormously talented filmmaker, one who has balanced a career of genre-mashing and massively creative films that made him a favorite of producer Kathleen Kennedy for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He turned it down. Bird elected to finish the deeply personal Tomorrowland, a 99% original work that adapts the 1960s retro-futurist exhibit (from which the film gets its name) from the 1964 World’s Fair that paints a bright vision of the future into wholesome big screen fun. Conceptually, it’s all here. Bird’s talent is etched in stone. From the animated classic The Iron Giant to The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he’s found a way to balance heady ideas in a sleek, often family-focused package.
Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a high school senior with a powerful mind destined for great things. We meet her breaking into a NASA launch site, and it’s soon after she receives a special blue-gold pin with a “T” on it. When she touches it, she’s mystically transported to a golden-hued meadow with a futurist city shimmering in the background. Eager to learn more, she eventually meets George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a burned out recluse inventor whose house is booby-trapped with cool sci-fi gizmos. Hit the right button, and intruders will be bounced back 20 feet from the front door. Walker is to take her to Tomorrowland and make her dreams come true. We’re told it was a city made by finest minds in the world, a true utopia. Beyond that, I won’t say what happens. I wish I could say a lot of the movie was kept out of trailers, but sadly there’s just so little movie—action or plot—that there’s little left to surprise.
Raffey Cassidy plays Athena, but I won’t talk about her. Hugh Laurie is in as David Nix, who, to your frustration, I also won’t talk about. Robertson’s immediate charm warms you into the mechanical proceedings of the plot, and she carries the film successfully until we meet Clooney. None of the performances are career highs or star-making turns but service the story better than the talent behind the camera.
The opening 15 minutes cast a dark prophetic shadow over the rest of the film, not just because they strongly hint at a doomsday plot, but because it’s immediately obvious something’s wrong. The mystery box, the theory that a moviemaker should keep his movie enshrouded in total secrecy until opening night, was opened early. The package was opened days before Christmas morning, and even if Tomorrowland was the best present in the world, it would be laced with disappointment. We can’t build up to the reveal, since the magician already pulled the rabbit out of the hat.
A lengthy and ultimately unnecessary prologue overloads us with the city of Tomorrowland’s visual joy and creativity, and for a movie that kept the city largely hidden from trailers, giving so much so soon is a crippling fault. So what’s left? That’s a question Tomorrowland struggles to answer, and it haphazardly jumps from plot point to plot point without ever forming a real narrative. Newton is rushed from location to location with little motive other than I have to get there, and by the time the credits roll she hasn’t changed at all. If in the past Lindelof has been accused of having too many endings, here the problem is reversed. Tomorrowland is beleaguered with a series of false starts, and after the third or fourth time I just started to ask, “Are we there yet?”
For being conceived from an amusement park ride, albeit one from decades past, Tomorrowland often feels a lot like one. Bird proved his chops on Ghost Protocol for directing kinetic, rousing set pieces easy to propel viewers to the edge of their seats, but here he’s playing with a box of wet matches. Action scenes feel too tight, too choreographed, and, ironically, like sitting through a ride at an amusement park. Characters coast from scene to scene in synthetic CGI environments as if they’re passengers instead of fighters, battling foes who never in a million years can do any harm to any of them. It’s the same plastic passivity that dominates the much-maligned Star Wars prequels, and along with the messy blur that’s the plot, I had flashbacks of Qui-Gon Jinn cutting through endless battledroids “like butter.” Shudders.
Newton’s the hero but it’s about the grizzled Frank Walker, who, just like you and me, has to learn to be just like her. He’s the conduit for the viewer when it should really be Newton. She’s a one-note beam of radiating light that never changes or falters, making the lead character boring. Tomorrowland’s sermonizing grows from tiresome to abrasive, every 10 minutes telling us that we’re obsessed with our own dooms to the point it’s entirely our fault the planet is dying. Only super ultra-positive people like Newton can fix it, so unless we turn our frowns upside down, we’re committing a planet-wide suicide. How this manifests itself in the plot I won’t say, but these aren’t spoilers. It’s there from the start. But with no inner conflict driving Newton in her story, she becomes a whitewashed joke for everything wrong with the movie itself.
She asks a lot of hard questions on climate change, disaster, and averting catastrophe, but her only answer is to hope for a better tomorrow. Tomorrowland’s real theme is slowly, ironically revealed as it chews through the driest and most misconceived third act in any tentpole in years. While Bird and Lindelof have every intention of making this a hopeful, life-affirming story, the real theme is that we’re all doomed. Tomorrowland isn’t a story of good will or perseverance or about overcoming adversity. It’s simply about how hoping for a better future leads to one. Feelings don’t save the world, action and creation do, so by lacking characters that actually learn to grow and evolve through inconceivable peril, and instead stay largely the same from start to finish, Tomorrowland’s Jenga tower of feel-good catchphrases collapses into a mess of wooden platitudes. With so much talent on both sides of the camera, this is a big blow to Bird’s resume, an unexpected disappointment from a guy who has only been known to please.
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