I was sold on Tomorrowland from the start. Something about the combination of “Brad Bird” and “big budget sci-fi project” sets me into a frothy, nerdy glee. Surely, this would be big, star-reaching sci-fi. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland felt less like that film and much more like an infomercial for it.
The plot: After being released from a prison cell on bail for sabotaging the demolition of a Nasa launch site, gifted teenage scientist Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) finds a curious pin amongst her belongings which transports her to the futuristic, utopian city of Tomorrowland. After being returned to modern, regular Earth, Casey searches for information about the pin, and ultimately, for a way back to Tomorrowland. After a run-in with murderous androids, Casey is saved by good-android-girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and brought to cynical loner Frank Walker (George Clooney), former boy genius and Tomorrowland resident. At first, Frank rejects Casey and Tomorrowland, feeling betrayed by both the city and Athena, but eventually, Frank sees in Casey the optimism and inventiveness he once possessed, one that might just save a doomed Earth. Reuniting with Athena, the three must evade the android troops of Governer Nix (Hugh Laurie), return to Tomorrowland, and change the grim fate of two worlds.
In its opening minutes, Tomorrowland presents its viewer with its central theme: a return to the bright, aspirational sci-fi of yesteryear. The sci-fi of jetpacks, and gleaming chrome towers, and a brighter tomorrow. In short, it yearns for a return to optimism. You can’t miss it, the characters in Tomorrowland will tell you this almost word for word numerous times throughout.
The problem that permeates Tomorrowland at every turn is that it is a movie that is much fonder of telling than it is of showing. The script is fond of pontificating about our cultural fixation on the apocalypse and our trend of viewing the future as desolate (occasionally super-car filled) wastelands: in the first act, various teachers at Casey’s high school warn about Mutually Assured Destruction, the depleting of the environment, and the prescient speculative fiction of Huxley and Bradbury with an intensity more befitting of the guy preaching on a street corner than of public high school teachers, only to react with concerning befuddlement when Casey asks what we’re doing to improve things. For all of this, Tomorrowland seldom leads to a brighter tomorrow through example. Some all too brief scenes in the eponymous city early on, we get very little of the bright and shiny sci-fi of the midcentury imagination. Instead, we get a number of scenes in which our heroes fending off evil robots with the help of a good, British robot, which, if you didn’t know, was already a big part of Disney’s other big summer release.
Don’t let the above paragraph lead you astray, I’m a big fan of aspirational genre fiction. Just last week, I wrote about how refreshing optimistic superhero stories are in a genre a little too of keen on
mature gritty heroics in my review of Justice League: The New Frontier, a movie I believe champions the promising future portrayed in early-60s fiction incredibly well.* Part of this lies in how richly defined the characters are in New Frontier. New Frontier explores who its cast members are, makes them face their fears and beliefs, and allows them to actively work towards a more promising future and put their ideals to the test without once making a speech about them. The same cannot be said for most of the cast of Tomorrowland. Clooney’s Frank Walker, a disgraced and brooding genius, is given the most depth and the fullest story arc, which strikes me as odd for a movie in which he is ostensibly a supporting character. Almost shockingly shallow is Britt Robertson’s Casey.
As the perspective from which almost the entire movie is viewed and as the character tasked with saving the world, Casey is drawn in broad strokes. The audience learns that she is gifted with machinery, has a desire to reach the stars, and is above all else an optimist, but we don’t learn much more beyond that. Part of the issue stems from the fact that she is acted upon by other characters more often than she acts herself. Frank and Athena handle most of the action during the scenes in which Casey might demonstrate her wit and problem-solving skills and demonstrate why those skills matter. Instead, the script settles for having those characters tell Casey she’s important. Robertson is incredibly likable in the film that helps provide an at-times savvy counterpoint to Clooney’s grump.
The best performances come from the film’s AI characters. In addition to delightful appearances as evil robots by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, Hugh Laurie’s a pretty good villain as Nix, playing lovably sour jerk he specializes in portraying. Raffey Cassidy’s Athena is Tomorrowland’s most layered performance. Brad Bird, who directed one of my all-time favorite movies in The Iron Giant, is wonderful at finding the humanity in AI and making robot characters feel real, and brings that skill to Tomorrowland. Her interactions with Frank are the most authentic moments in the film, and its in their arc together that I feel that the promise of optimistic sci-fi, the bottoming-out of its dream, and the journey towards reclaiming it is most truly felt.
I really wanted to like Tomorrowland. The Iron Giant and The Incredibles proved that Brad Bird has an incredible eye for vintage genre fiction; films where themes were explored through character and heart. In Tomorrowland, both of these take a back seat to theme, and suffers for it. I want optimistic sci-fi and I want it from Brad Bird, but ultimately Tomorrowland feels a little too much like the Disney theme park attraction its based on: a hollow representation of something greater.
*And, I might add, a story that I’d love to see Brad Bird take a a crack at. Call it my nerd dream film. That one’s free, DC.