Brad Bird is an amazing storyteller. He has a terrific understanding of not only action, but also character, emotion, themes, and structure. So I’m amazed that his latest film, Tomorrowland, is an absolute disaster that’s horribly paced, bloated on runtime but short on story, and crams its cloying message down the audience’s throat. It’s the kind of screenplay I would expect from co-writer Damon Lindelof (who has good ideas but has difficultly constructing them into fulfilling story arcs), but not the guy behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. And yet for all of its celebration of Imagination!™, Tomorrowland is a bland, empty spectacle save for its lead actors and the energy they bring to a film that is shallow at best and philosophically despicable at worst.
In 1964, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a brilliant inventor who’s unhappy with his unsupportive father, finds his way into Tomorrowland thanks to the help of a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Tomorrowland is a shiny, futuristic utopia where scientific discovery is always positive and everyone is optimistic. Cut to the present day and we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a rare optimist who looks at the horrors of the world and wants to figure out how to save the future. Athena, who hasn’t aged, decides to give Casey a pin that transports her to a vision of Tomorrowland, but the vision doesn’t last. Casey and Athena then set out to find an adult Frank (George Clooney), who is still depressed about his exile from forty years before, so they can all work together to return to Tomorrowland and save our world.
After setting up a clunky framing device where Frank and Casey bicker about how to tell the story, the movie slogs through setting up its characters and Tomorrowland. It wants to keep Tomorrowland a secret, but it also wants to convey its importance, so we have a character who left for an unexplained reason and another character who’s going there because the vision was so enticing. We’re supposed to be on Casey’s side—look at the wonder of jetpacks and skyscrapers!—and driven to go to this magical place, but the journey there is a chore.
Rather than quickly put Frank, Casey, and Athena together so they can go on a big adventure about dreaming big, Bird spends large sections of his movie just hammering us over the head with the film’s message—the world is bad, but optimism combined with imagination will save the world. It’s a facile sentiment that’s directed at children, but with no explanation on how to proceed. “I get it that things are bad,” Casey says to one of her downer teachers, “but what are we doing to fix it?” Tomorrowland wants to celebrate inventors and dreamers like Nikola Tesla and Jules Verne (literally two of Tomorrowland’s founding fathers), but it has all the insight of a life coach.
Which is so damn frustrating because as simplistic as the film’s message may be, it’s one that’s appropriate for our times, and it should be uplifting and inspirational for the whole audience rather than just the little ones. But Bird, who previously showed that he’s remarkably skilled at taking the gee-whiz excitement of the past and spinning it into modern adventure, decides to drag us through the mundane world, and then hides behind, “That’s the point!” He drowns the audience in exposition and pontification rather than letting us experience old-fashioned wonder.
Tomorrowland constantly wraps itself up in concepts at the expense of the story. It takes over half an hour for the story to get going, and almost an hour before Frank becomes a participant in the plot. Everything takes so damn long because Lindelof and Bird are too busy telling us about the importance of imagination and optimism while rarely showing either. Casey is a hopeful character, but Tomorrowland is as much of a doomsayer as her teachers. Aside from a look at Tomorrowland in its prime, Bird throws a couple rocket ships and ray guns our way, and that’s it. The movie is too busy scolding us for our lack of optimism while rarely offering anything beyond “Optimism: good; Pessimism: bad.”
Removed from a propulsive story and subtlety, the movie’s sole redeeming aspect are the lead actors. It’s borderline criminal that it takes so long to get Clooney into the plot, but once he’s there, he plays the curmudgeonly inventor perfectly. It’s an archetype, but the actor knows how to invest it with just enough humanity to help us understand his motivations. Robertson is good too, and she’s compelling enough to make us forget that this character who’s supposed to be one of the most imaginative, optimistic people on the planet rarely shows any imagination and only has occasional fits of optimism. She’s more quick-witted and curious than a paragon of the film’s values. She doesn’t know how to make the world better, but her desire to do so is good enough to give the Earth a chance.
But the real breakthrough is Cassidy, who acts with wisdom beyond her years without ever coming off as precocious. Athena doesn’t age because she’s a robot, but Cassidy’s performance isn’t robotic. The character is in the odd position of trying to save humanity even though she’s not human, and somehow Cassidy makes it work. Even more impressive is how she and Clooney balance their characters’ complicated relationship.
Frank fell in love with Cassidy when they were young (or rather, he was young, and she looked young), and after he was exiled, he resented her. When she comes back into his life, he acts like a scorned lover. To be clear: a guy in his late 50s is angry at a robot that looks like a child because it broke his heart. There is no reason that should work. That should be outright creepy, and the only thing that saves it is that Cassidy is giving such a mature performance and Clooney is displaying the pain of his inner child. These performances allow the two characters to meet in the middle and come to something resembling a sweet reconciliation without verging into something sexual.
Where Tomorrowland truly gets icky is a conclusion that’s basically pushing a notion of exceptionalism. The end of the movie has Frank and Casey sending out children (as you may or may not know, they have been occasionally referred to as “our future”) to secretly dispense the special pins to special people—scientists, artists, judges, etc.—who will then come to Tomorrowland to make it better. This specialness will then be beamed through an antenna that was previously broadcasting negative vibes because Tomorrowland’s Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) was trying to scare humanity straight and instead we decided to “embrace annihilation”, at which point he shrugged and basically said, “Screw it, I’ll live by myself in a crappy, rundown Tomorrowland with robots as my only company.”
The exceptionalism in Tomorrowland is so disheartening because it’s about a selection process, which means separating the saviors from the saved based on an arbitrary evaluation of “optimism” and “imagination”. Apparently, it would be wrong to give pins to the people who don’t have what it takes to make the world a better place. The ending wants to celebrate the geniuses and dreamers that will create a better tomorrow, but that means everyone else needs to stay out of the gated community and wait until the paragons of virtue beam a happier place into our brains. That philosophy isn’t optimism; it’s cruel and reveals the film’s message to be hypocrisy.
When Casey goes into the vision of Tomorrowland, we can see on one of the walls a quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s a quote that works well for Tomorrowland. The film imagines it’s deeper than it is, and doesn’t know how to dream bigger than its platitudes.