Review: ‘Tomorrowland’ offers a dull and oddly preachy vision of the future

This may be the hardest review I've ever had to write.

After all, I think Brad Bird is a certifiably great filmmaker. I have been a fan of his work as long as I've seen his name on things, starting with “Family Dog,” the animated episode of “Amazing Stories.” So of course, I walk into his films hoping to like them. The year it was released, “The Incredibles” was my pick as best film, and both “The Iron Giant” and “Ratatouille” have also found spots in my top ten lists at the end of the year.

In fact, for years, one of the things I was proudest of in all of the work I've done writing about movies from the early days of Ain't It Cool News to right now involved “The Iron Giant.” That film is beloved now, and deservedly so. There was a point, though, when it looked like Warner Bros. was going to be sending the movie straight to video. At that point, the film was still under the radar for everyone, and Warner could have pretty easily killed it if they'd wanted to. Someone who was working on the film got crazy about this idea, and they reached out to me through some mutual friends. As a result, one late night, I drove to a friend's apartment, where I was shown an unfinished work print of the movie on VHS. Parts of it were black and white, parts of it where still just story reel, and then parts of it were finished in full 2.35:1 and color, and it was breathtaking even in that rough form.

When I wrote about that screening, it created a sudden urgency around the project, shining a spotlight on Warner as they were struggling to figure out what to do with the film. If they had sent it to video, there was a good chance they would have forced Bird to do a pan-and-scan version of the film as the only version of the film, a disastrous possibility. Instead, thanks in part to the spotlight they found themselves in, Warner agreed to release it theatrically. Yes, they ended up dumping it on a painful date in August 6, the same day another five or six films were released, and it was not a theatrical hit in any way. Even so, the film was released in the form that Brad Bird wanted, and I took that as a victory for what we were able to do on Ain't It Cool, film advocacy gone right.

It was because of that shared history that Bird took it so personally when I published a piece on March 3, 2013 that included an early logline for what was at that point an enormously secretive project. Originally known as “1952,” the movie was a perfect example of “the Mystery Box” in full effect, and when I wrote my piece, I wasn't trying to just pierce the secrecy for the sake of doing so. My point was that I've seen it happen over and over now… people get attached to a rumor that isn't true at all, and then they get angry at the eventual movie because it didn't match the spoilers they heard. More than anything, my piece was about the rumors that were flying at the time and the way people were starting to get obsessive about some of those rumors.

What I didn't realize at the time is that the reason they got so angry at me is actually because the logline I shared really is the whole film. I didn't just lift the corner of The Mystery Box for a glimpse inside. I blew the damn thing up, leaving no surprises at all for anyone, and now that I've seen “Tomorrowland,” I'm a little stunned by the entire enterprise. For the first time in his career, I am almost entirely baffled by one of his films. “Tomorrowland” may be well-made, but whether you're talking about it thematically or dramatically, this is a profoundly mixed bag, and I suspect family audiences are going to hit this thing like a brick wall when it opens next Friday.

Here's the logline I ran in 2013:

“A teenage girl, a genius middle-aged man (who was kicked out of Tomorrowland) and a pre-pubescent girl robot attempt to get to and unravel what happened to Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternative dimension, in order to save Earth.”

So, yeah, that's the movie. But here's what shocked me: that's the whole movie.

The film opens with a surprisingly long prologue about young Frank (Thomas Robinson) attending the World Fair in the '60s to enter a contest for inventors. He has a jetpack with him, and while it doesn't quite work, Frank believes he's close and should be rewarded. One of the judges of the contest, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), tells David to go home, but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) goes after Frank and gives him a mysterious pin, then tell him to follow them. This leads Frank to his first exposure to Tomorrowland, and for a few minutes, we get the fully-realized '60s future that must have been one of the most appealing things about this film to Bird. His sensibilities draw most clearly from the pop culture of the '60s, and in particular, the bright and shiny version of that pop culture. There was an optimism to much of that pop culture that is essential to Bird's work, and the first big sequence feels like a tour of a future that we were promised in the age of astronauts as rock stars.

Eventually, the film shifts its focus to Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who is a bright girl raised around the aerospace industry. She's angry at the way funding cuts are forcing the dismantling of the local launch pad, and she spends her time undermining that demolition. She is arrested on one of her nights out, and when she is released, she finds one of those same mysterious pins we saw in the opening mixed in with her things. Every time she touches the pin, she finds herself transported to another world, one that we recognize from the prologue.

Part of what drove me craziest about “Tomorrowland” as an experience is that it seems to be the first act of a movie for about 2/3 of its running time, all road trip with no real payoff. By the time we finally make it to Tomorrowland, it's time to wrap things up, and we spend just enough time in the titular location to get the entire theme of the film delivered to us in perhaps the most pedantic fashion possible. Because make no mistake… this is a message movie, science-fiction as statement in the way that films like “The Day The Earth Stood Still” or “Soylent Green” are, and everything is in service of that message. It's the point of the film, and Bird makes sure there's no way you can miss it.

The problem is that everything else in the movie feels like busywork, noise and motion designed to keep you distracted until we reach the moment where Bird can drop his theme-bomb on us. There is lots of running and things blow up and we see that “touch the button, see another world” trick a number of times, but none of it struck me as particularly entertaining. That's part of what I'm having trouble with, because Bird is so good at constructing set pieces. I'm fairly adamant that if you're going to make this kind of film, and you're going to build it around set pieces, there is an art to that process that is not simple. It involves having an impeccable sense of geometry, but it also relies on set-ups and pay-offs, smaller beats within the larger scene, each of them satisfying in its way. Look at a sequence like Tom Cruise climbing the outside of that building in Dubai in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” or the entire scene on the island in “The Incredibles” when the family finally becomes a superhero team. Those are both sterling examples of how good he is at this stuff. And there are certainly plenty of individual beats within the action scenes in this film that are well-executed or sharply imagined, but for the most part, I don't think the action serves the story at all. It is a distraction, and there's so much of it that you start to realize at some point that they're avoiding the story they're telling instead of using the action to advance the story or the themes or the characters.

The other major complaint I have with this film has to do with the lead. Britt Robertson is just fine as Casey, and I'm all for a girl Marty McFly, that sort of breathless, excitable lead with a sharp sense of curiosity, and I like that there's nothing remotely resembling a romantic storyline for her in the film. But much of the film hinges on the idea that Casey is special, and because she is special, she can somehow influence the outcome of this situation. There are two moments where we see her supposed impact on the world. Yet, in the end, for all of the running and jumping and fighting of robots, Casey remains fairly passive, and the way the outcome is arrived at struck me as ridiculous. The filmmakers are so focused on delivering that big message that it doesn't matter if anything around it makes any dramatic or thematic sense.

It's almost impossible to discuss this without getting into that big idea, so let me warn you here that I'm going to address it directly. You can skip to the end of this piece if you don't want to know anything else, and just know that I feel like this is a movie that feels hollow, that never manages the magic trick of making this feel alive. It is a confounding film, and one that I wish I enjoyed more.

What surprised me was that this looks from the outside like a further exploration of Bird's favorite idea, one that has been threaded through his earlier films in varying degrees. Essentially, Brad Bird believes that special people should be celebrated and respected for those things that make them special. He seems to believe that we should get out of the way of genius and allow them to do what they are here to do. You can see these ideas in “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” quite clearly, and “Tomorrowland” looked like it would explore that idea more overtly with its story of this secret world where all the scientists are able to do all these amazing things that they had in mind. But that's not really the point of the film. Instead, this is a direct refutation to most of what we digest right now in pop culture. Bird and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen take the position that the reason we feel like we're on an express train to dystopia right now is because we love dystopian entertainment. Basically, they see society as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they argue that our entertainment drives us towards that world. They make the case for optimism as one of the most essential things missing from our cultural conversation right now. If we decide to embrace optimistic entertainment, then that can change our course and lead us towards a much brighter and more positive future. There is a delightful irony in the notion that “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as dystopian a view of the world as I can name, delivers massive entertainment and a thematic richness that “Tomorrowland” never quite manages. I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea, but I also don't think the rest of the movie justifies or even fully embraces that idea.

And by far, the biggest disappointment is Tomorrowland itself. For all of the anticipation that the film tries to create around the place, it is a massive dud when we actually get there. There's nothing special or exciting about it, and there's no sense of wonder to it. You cannot spend an entire movie promising us this remarkable special place and then deliver something that looks like generic mall architecture. To make this film really pay off, you need to create a Tomorrowland that calls to us, that makes us wish it were real. For this film to live up to its promise, we need to believe that Tomorrowland is a better world than this one, and the film simply can't deliver on that.

George Clooney's fine as Frank, but like Robertson, he's playing a cipher here. The most interesting performance in the film comes from Raffey Cassidy as Athena, the little girl robot who is the focus of most of Frank's anger. The obvious dynamic between them has to do with Frank getting his heart broken by Athena when they were young, and that's certainly interesting, but like every good idea in the film, it feels like it is only half-way explored, raised but never fully dealt with in a satisfying way. Cassidy has a great deal of poise, and she's good at playing something that's almost lifelike, but not quite. Other cast members find themselves burdened with material that never strikes the right tone, like a long sequence with Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn. They do what they were asked to do, but it feels so broad that it feels like an entirely different film.

The worst word I can use about “Tomorrowland” is “dull,” and that's a word I never expected to use regarding anything that Brad Bird directed. The technical team all does fine work, whether talking about Claudio Miranda's photography or the editing by Walter Murch and Craig Wood or Michael Giacchino's score, but throwing all the gloss in the world at this film can't make up for the strange missed opportunities in the premise and disappointing sense of “That's it?” that comes from the various revelations. When your entire film is a Mystery Box, then it would seem imperative to make sure there's actually something in the box once it's opened. This is not a “bad” movie, but considering the talent involved, it is safe to say that this was a fairly major disappointment.

“Tomorrowland” arrives in theaters Friday.