Tomorrowland features an assembly of parts you might not at first think to try together. There’s Brad Bird, an animation veteran (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) on only his second live action feature following…Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Then George Clooney, who’s been known to take a spin through the, ahem, Fantastic given the right director. And then there’s Brit Robertson, just beginning to emerge from years as a teen actress (and still playing one here). But perhaps most peculiar of all, they’re all brought together in a plot that bears shocking similarity to The Matrix by way of Bioshock.
For the most part, said plot follows Casey Newton (Robertson), daughter of a NASA engineer with a penchant for high minded, if still self-serving vandalism. NASA is being dismantled, and Casey just can’t stand the disassembly of the Cape Canaveral Launchpad. She regularly sneaks on the premises at night and shorts out all the deconstruction equipment. Soon enough she’s caught and arrested, but discovers the token of a mysterious observer, a lapel pin that, until it runs out of batteries, summons the vision of a futuristic city, cheery and bright, bastion of artists, scientists, and dreamers, and replete with jet packs and rocket ships. By this point it’s already been made clear just how much of a headstrong idealist Casey is, but with this inspirational vision of the future, she sets off to find someone who might be able to take her to this place.
That’s when the really Matrix-y bits start to set in, with Morpheus and Trinity analogues in the form of tween-aged Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and aging curmudgeon Frank Walker (Clooney), respectively. Part of the interest I had in the movie stemmed from just watching how Bird translated and tweaked such a similar narrative to fit a PG context.
It’s not a perfect transition, mostly because unlike The Matrix, Tomorrowland has some trouble establishing either its own stakes or a meaningful villain. The plot is mostly an extended chase sequence with little bits of exposition in the lulls, but it’s not until about the final half hour of the movie that the protagonists stop worrying about anything but not dying in that instant and it’s revealed who the villain is and what McGuffin (and make no mistake, it is a giant McGuffin, not anything of substance, despite pretensions to the contrary) they’re actually fighting about.
In particular, there’s a failure to make Casey an active character, despite her initial take-charge characterization. As soon as she begins to seek entry to Tomorrowland, the combination of Athena and Frank assume all decision making responsibility. And, in fact, it’s the two of them and their relationship that take center stage at the film’s climax, not Casey or any of her supposed genius.
As terrible as that is for both a plot and character, the minimization of Robertson’s role as the film progresses can’t quite be considered a loss. She’s not bad in the role, but she’s also tasked with being the most adult character in the film to deliver unabashed and unconditional optimism. At its worst, this comes through a horribly inelegant parable that becomes a running metaphor for the struggle of creativity versus apathy.
That struggle is a real one when it comes to the movie’s visuals as well. Tomorrowland is inspired by the ostentatious vision of the future from the Disney theme park section of the same name. To its credit, the movie does a commendable job preserving that sense of whimsy, imagination, and childlike wonder. There’s an entire (long to a fault) sequence that begs us to share in Casey’s joy when she first lays eyes on Tomorrowland’s inspirational magnificence, barely even bothering to show her amazed reaction so as to fill us with a new visual thrill every second. And while it’s easy to share in this simple fun for a time, these supposed inspirations are also A) all too familiar to anyone who’s seen a couple sci-fi films in the last twenty years or more, and B) too-obvious CGI constructions. Giant robots, flying trams, and fluorescent cityscapes are far less impressive when the actor might as well be walking in place against a green screen.
But as apathetic as I may be to large parts of the plot, character’s arcs, and visual design, the unapologetic earnestness of Tomorrowland will stick with me. Tomorrowland pushes its inspirational message of, “You really can change the world if you’ll just believe your hard work can impact people for good.” As easy as it is to be pessimistic, or to try to offer objections as to why that’s too simplistic a view, the best sequences of Tomorrowland choose to focus our attention on what could be possible when we access the best parts of our collective humanity.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Tomorrowland is a brilliantly earnest, although woefully misplotted adventure that finds itself edging into an overall recommendation mostly on the virtue of serving an underserved market. To the seven- to ten-year-olds of the world, Tomorrowland’s most worrisome elements will certainly go unnoticed in favor of a focus on invention and adventure. And although I’m not sure that’s the bar we should be setting for children’s fare, it’s not to say that Tomorrowland is a terrible movie even for a more senior moviegoer. It bravely calls out cynicism in the face of pure motivations, but is also far too frequently artificial and overwrought.