Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland" is a big fun, hectic mess of a ride. What begins in an extremely promising manner suffers from a few key problems before almost redeeming itself with an almost too-overt call to action. In the hands of a less-accomplished director, "Tomorrowland" would qualify as a great summer blockbuster. But Bird has done better - the director behind "The Iron Giant", "The Incredibles" and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" should have been able to get around the few pesky problems and tell a completely flawless story. “Tomorrowland” should have been great.
It is difficult to discuss much of this sci-fi adventure in any detail without spoiling some things. I will do my best to keep the damage to a minimum.
Casey (Britt Robertson, "The Longest Ride" (playing younger here, I hope)), TV's "Under the Dome") is a smart, inquisitive teenager living in Florida with her dad (Tim McGraw), an aerospace engineer about to be unemployed as they are dismantling all of the NASA launch platforms, and her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon, TV's "Extant"). In an effort to prolong the inevitable, Casey visits the platform at night and conducts sabotage, trying to slow things down. One night, she is arrested. The next morning, when she is released, there is a strange pin among her belongings, a pin with a large T in the middle. When she touches it, she is transported to a field of wheat, Tomorrowland in the distance. She eventually learns Athena (Raffey Cassidy, Masterpiece's "Mr. Selfridge"), a recruiter for Tomorrowland, has given her the pin, a ticket, of sorts, to enter the new realm and to bring some outstanding ability - science, math, arts, philosophy - to the collective group trying to save the World. But they need Frank (George Clooney) to get back to the other side. Frank, once a promising new recruit himself, was banished from the land and now monitors the chaos engulfing the world - famine, extreme weather, violence, destruction. He is reluctant to help them until he sees a little spark of what Casey might be able to do. The trick will be to get Nix (Hugh Laurie), the man in charge of Tomorrowland, to see it as well.
There is a lot going on in "Tomorrowland", making it pretty complex and detailed for a summer blockbuster. This is a good thing, for most of the film, but it presents a problem late in the narrative.
It is interesting to watch Casey use her smarts to try to help her dad keep his job. This is a smart young girl, someone with vision and intelligence and a sense of adventure, all three of which will help her either change the world or get her into trouble. Initially, the combination seems to be destined to get her into trouble. She is caught, arrested and spends a few hours in jail until her dad arranges bail. But her dad is pissed off after she is released from jail, focusing on the negative aspects of that, not really listening to or interested in her discovery of Tomorrowland or about the pin.
Britt Robertson is an earnest young actress, pretty, but not remarkable. She is completely fine in this role, but she doesn't really make it more memorable with her presence. It is a shame, because in the television work she has done, she always stands out. Here, and based on the box office of "The Longest Ride", she doesn't seem to cut through, to make an impact. It seems like she is a high school star who fails to make an impression in the bigger college group.
Once she gets the pin, some quick internet searches lead her to go on a road trip. This gives Casey and Athena an opportunity to spend some quality time together. Athena is a recruiter for the group at Tomorrowland, searching for individuals with unique and exemplary skills. Athena sees something in Casey and gives her a pin. But sensing Casey is going to get into trouble, Athena takes a more hands-on approach in guiding Casey to the right spot.
Raffey Cassidy is an interesting young actress. Her performance comes off as just strange – I get that she is supposed to be slightly robotic and stiff, but she is also artificially cheery throughout, which doesn’t marry well with the robotic nature of her character.
Basically, this bit of the story gives the film it's most Disney-esque bits, providing modern updates on live action Disney films like "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" and "The Baker Street Irregulars". Disney films need to appeal to all segments of the audience, so they usually have bits aimed directly at the kids and parts of the story the adults will like. When the studio gets this mix right, it usually results in a classic. It isn't quite right here. In "Tomorrowland", a large part of the second act depicts Casey and Athena driving a long distance to get to Frank. During this period, the two interact and share an adventure, but it feels too much like an episode of a Disney Channel show. And the weakness of each performance combined simply can’t hold the attention of the adults.
Once they get to Frank, the story becomes more balanced, and special, and feels like a movie you should be paying $20 a ticket for. Yes, $20 if you go to a full price show at one of the new ‘extreme’ cinemas. But I won’t get started on how the cinemas are now charging more for what used to be pretty standard, before they started blanketing the world with small shoebox screens and multi-screen multiplexes. Now, in an effort to make more money, they are creating theaters with huge screens, comfortable seats and great sound. And charging more for it.
Clooney is good, playing the cantankerous Frank. With every word and gesture, you get a feeling for his disappointment. Once a member of the team in Tomorrowland, he was exiled and has spent the majority of his life monitoring everything that goes wrong around the globe, basically watching all of the things he might have been able to prevent happen.
When Casey and Athena show up, he is skeptical – he has had a bad experience trying to fix this problem, and takes some convincing. Some henchmen show up at his safe house and Frank enacts all of the failsafe measures he has in place, leading to a pretty fast-paced and spectacular battle and display of technical wizardry.
It is also at this point that the special effects begin to play an important aspect of the story, bombarding us with some great visual work. All of the special effects are really flawless and help to create this imagined land.
But there is a big problem with the narrative. Everything seems to be building up and the pay off seems rushed. It feels like a significant portion of the film was cut out, or that they decided they couldn't afford it. Something happened, because the effect of this is that it seems a bit slap-dash. It is jarring and doesn't leave a good impression.
Then, there is there is the problem of what happens once everyone arrives in Tomorrowland and confronts Nix.
Hugh Laurie plays Nix. As the architect of Tomorrowland, and everything it is meant to do, he could easily be a one-note character. While he isn’t a lot more complex than that, Laurie does add some touches throughout making him a little more interesting.
Also, the message of the film, as important as it is, is too overt. My main complaint about Spike Lee or Oliver Stone films is that they aren't subtle. For each film, the filmmaker has a message they want to get across and they beat you over the head with it. Get it? Get it? Until the experience is less than enjoyable. It makes watching their films a bit like sitting in a classroom, listening to a teacher lecture on a subject. And that teacher is not interested in a differing opinion. No way.
Many filmmakers successfully incorporate messages into their films - Sidney Lumet immediately comes to mind - +while still telling entertaining stories. "Tomorrowland" just skirts the line - it is blatant enough to stick out and announce itself, but it doesn't completely derail the enjoyment of the rest of the film.
I don't usually read other reviews before I write my opinion - I don't want to be influenced by other writers - but I saw a brief excerpt from Richard Roeper's review. He really criticized the film's message, mostly because it had a message at all. It is an important message and to disregard it completely out of hand is doing a disservice to everyone.
Brad Bird is the director of a handful of great films and one less-than-stellar entry does not make him a bad director. It is a small misstep and I can't wait to see what comes next from the mind of this talented visionary.