A film review by Craig J. Koban May 28, 2015


2015, PG, 130 mins.


Britt Robertson as Casey Newton  /  George Clooney as Frank Walker  /  Thomas Robinson as Franck Walker Jeune  /  Hugh Laurie as David Nix  /  Raffey Cassidy as Athena  /  Kathryn Hahn as Ursula  

Directed by Brad Bird  /  Written by Bird and Damon Lindelof

TOMORROWLAND is an absolute tour de force spectacle of bravura sights and sounds that’s in desperate search of a connective and meaningful narrative.  

The film is the long gestating dream pet project of Brad Bird, the former Disney animation director that produced some of the finest animated films of the last few decades in THE IRON GIANT, RATATOUILLE, and THE INCREDIBLES, not to mention being the chief architect of the best of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films in GHOST PROTOCOL (his live action debut).  There’s no doubt that TOMORROWLAND is visually ambitious, frequently stunning to look at, and has a sort of nostalgic level of optimism in its tone and spirit that seems all but lost on many nihilistic contemporary films.  This time and space traversing adventure fantasy is as gorgeously designed and engineered as any large-scale film I’ve seen lately, but its script, alas, is a disjointed and muddled mess at times. 

That’s ultimately too bad, because Bird is indeed a visionary craftsman that has taken great pains to make a film here with fantastic energy and unimpeachable inventiveness.  There’s no doubt that, during many key individual moments, TOMORROWLAND soars with an uncommon level of joyous exuberance and style, but at a regretful detriment to basic storytelling cohesion.  When taken completely as a whole, Bird’s film is a bit unwieldy and confusing in terms of its themes and – most specifically – in its handling of the final act, which brings the entire enterprise to what should have been a pressure cooker of a conclusion.  Instead of wowing us with startling plot revelations, TOMORROWLAND listlessly underwhelms as it draws to a close.  In short, Bird has made a bountiful feast for the eyes that doesn’t do as good of a job at engaging our minds. 

The film has a wonderful opening, featuring a flashback to the 1964 World’s Fair that introduces us to young bright-eyed inventor Frank Walker.  He thinks that he’s come up with a device that just might be a workable human jet pack…that is if it actually worked.  His invention does not impress fellow inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but a young girl in his party named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) sees great promise in Frank.  She secretly gives him a shiny pin with a “T” symbol on it and tells him to follow her aboard the fair’s “It’s a Small World” ride (a clever wink-wink/nod to Disney).  Frank, always the wide-eyed dreamer, willfully follows Athena’s company, but when his new pin is scanned while on the ride he’s immediately and magically whisked away to a futuristic utopian cityscape known as Tomorrowland...a place where the impossible seems possible.  He’s definitely not in Kansas anymore. 



Jumping forward to the future and present day, we are then introduced to a remarkably smart and assured young woman named Casey Newton (a spirited Britt Robinson), whose father (Tim McCraw) works for NASA.  Casey’s dad is a brilliant engineer, but he’s about to get the axe from his employers due to budget cuts.  This, of course, leaves Casey somewhat jaded, but she remains an unendingly enthusiastic and hopeful gal, but her sassy optimism seems ill placed in a world besieged by awful news on a daily basis.  She finds herself, much like young Frank decades earlier, being gifted the same “T” pin that, to her amazement, instantaneously transports her to Tomorrowland, but her trips are extremely short lived, leaving her desperately yearning to discover more about the mysterious city.  Her interests become peaked when Athena shows up – having oddly not aged a day since 1964 – who points her in the direction of the now middle-aged Frank (George Clooney), who’s now a disgruntled, introverted, and reclusive scientist that has almost no hope for a better tomorrow, seeing as he was exiled from Tomorrowland due to ideological differences with David Nix.  The remarkably cynical Frank, though, slowly begins to see Casey as a positive agent of change, and helps her return to Tomorrowland using a back door approach that he hopes will help stop an approaching apocalyptic event on Earth. 

As mentioned, TOMORROWLAND is a film that requires a viewing on the largest cinema screen available to fully appreciate its imaginative variety of visual delights.  Bird space no expense conceiving the whole alternate universe of his titular world with as astounding level of unbridled creativity.  People travel on jetpacks and commuter trains that levitate on air, giant robots lumber through the streets, improbably large skyscrapers permeate the skies, and – in one remarkable instance – people dive from one zero gravity swimming pool (all hanging in mid-air overtop of the other) to the next.  There’s rarely a moment in TOMORROWLAND when you can’t sense Bird’s unflappable passion for making his world a place that feels like the stuff of childhood dreams; it’s like the most exhilarating and fantastical amusement park ever created on screen.   

TOMORROWLAND is also a film that has a rather big heart that’s usually in the right the place when required.  Yet, there’s very little in the overall screenplay (written by Bird and Damien Lindelof) that boldly stirs the intellect…at least not as much as it thinks it does.  Pacing issues punctuate and hurt the film’s forward narrative momentum, and when that’s not an issue we are given far too many sequences of characters explaining the nature of overwhelmingly complicated conceits regarding time travel, alternate universes, the nature of tachyons, and so forth (great films show what they’re about and don’t slavishly tell you what they’re about).  Even when the film does a relatively good job on introducing the enigmatic world of Tomorrowland and leaves many questions about it unanswered, Bird and Lindelof build towards a conclusion where the maniacal villain spends a bit too much time pontificating on his master plan, which in turn reveals all of the secrets of Tomorrowland and how it relates to a doomed Earth.  It’s ultimately disappointing when a film like this uses vast technological filmmaking resources to conjure up its magical world…and then does very little on a pure story level to allow this world to pay off in a meaningful manner. 

It’s kind of amazing, in pure retrospect, how solid and grounded Clooney, Laurie and Robertson are in the film considering the ostensibly over-the-top vibe of the production.  Robertson (in her mid twenties in real life) does a thanklessly convincing job of capturing the boundless and buoyant spirit of her teenage character on a journey of discovery, while Clooney seems to be really enjoying himself playing an unmitigated grump that has a proverbial change of heart without it coming off as falsely sentimental (which is a hard performance feat to pull off).  Laurie is somewhat saddled with a fairly one-note protagonist role that benefits greatly from the subtle level of gravitas that he brings to it.  Young Raffey Cassidy is one of the sublime highlights TOMORROWLAND, having the tricky task of playing a character with a rather weird arc that could have easily been mishandled by a less capable young actress. 

TOMORROWLAND is an awfully hard film to hate.  Even when it stumbles and meanders around from one peculiar story beat to the next you can’t help but get sucked into the vortex of Bird’s overarching vision here.  Yet, for as enchanting as the film is to drink in and just look at, TOMORROWLAND lacks…well…enchantment on a basic plot level.  It’s as if Bird and company had a vast toy box of riches to explore and play around in, but had very little idea how to bring it all together and conclude things with a suitably rewarding payoff.  There’s a sly – almost bordering on self-referential – scene in the film during which Frank has grown tired of Casey’s incessant questions.  He grumpily declares to her “Must I explain everything to you? Can’t you just be impressed and move on?” 

That line is ultimately telling of TOMORROWLAND’s main scripting foibles. 

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