"Tomorrowland" may be one of the most heartbreaking motion picture releases of 2015not because it puts the viewer through an emotional wringer, but because it has all of the potential in the world to achieve this very thing, but grievously misses the mark. Inspired by, but not beholden to, the futuristic Disney theme park land, the film shrewdly uses its conceptual ancestry as a jumping-off point for an utterly original story, one dreamt up within the minds of writer-director Brad Bird (2011's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
") and co-writer Damon Lindelof (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness
"). There are wondrous sights and individual sequences that inspire mouth-agape awe in "Tomorrowland," and yet these moments (the vast majority relegated to the opening hour) are betrayed by a verbose, heavy-handed screenplay that halts the story's momentum in its tracks and leads to a frustratingly anticlimactic third act. Bird and Lindelof have fallen into the trap of relentlessly telling rather than showing, and what they have to say in scenes anchored by lumbering exposition and tedious, inelegant lecturing proves well-meaning in intention but ultimately trite in execution.
The prologue is dazzling, daring and steeped in richly conceived imagination, the start of what initially looks to be shaping up as an instant Disney classic. 11-year-old Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) climbs off a greyhound bus at the 1964 New York World's Fair with a not-yet-perfected creationa jetpack intended to activate flighthe plans to submit at scientist David Nix's (Hugh Laurie) Hall of Invention attraction. Nix turns Frank down, but perceptive young girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) senses his capabilities and gifts him with a commemorative "T" lapel pin. When Frank climbs aboard one of the boats at the grand opening of the "It's a Small World" ride, his curiosity turns to disbelief when he is instead transported to an idyllic utopia called Tomorrowland, a grandly progressive landscape free from the politics, bureaucracy and greed of modern society.
In present-day Cape Canaveral, impassioned teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is picked up by the police when she is caught trying to circumvent the demolition of the NASA launch site. While gathering her belongings at the station, she discovers a mysterious pin that, when touched, instantaneously zaps her to a fantastical alternate dimension of sweeping golden fields and a majestic city looming in the distance. Soon after setting off to investigate the origins of the pin, Casey gets into hot water at a memorabilia shop and is saved by Athena, seemingly unaged for the last fifty years. Athena has chosen intelligent dreamer Casey for a very important mission, one that can only hope to be accomplished by first tracking down the adult Frank (George Clooney). Reclusive but still very much brilliant, Frank at first wants nothing to do with Casey and her talks of Tomorrowland until he receives an unquestionable sign that she just might be the world's savior after all.
"Tomorrowland" is glorious to simply gaze upon and sounds like a million (or would that be $190-million?) bucks. Claudio Miranda's (2013's "Oblivion
") cinematography is vivid, resplendent and boundlessly colorful. Michael Giacchino's (2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
") score harkens back to the rousing, memorable, event-like compositions found in the best Steven Spielberg-John Williams collaborations. The art direction and visual effects are astonishing, seamless achievements that paint Tomorrowland as a place entirely fresh and flourished with a level of detail that transcends feeling merely like the work of computer artists. Early on, in set-pieces such as the opening one with young Frank and another where Casey boards a tram that takes her throughout this awesome new world, the film deceives expectations by suggesting that there is much more to come in exploring the title setting. Instead, the bulk of the picture is reserved for an increasingly shaggy real-world road trip that begins to test one's patience and then goes downhill from there.
The core conflictthat the planet is being quickly destroyed by environmental destruction, climate change, international upheaval, and a human loss of optimismis a valid and useful one to build a family movie around, but these are tricky social subjects that require a delicate handling. Bird and Lindelof opt instead to pound their messages into the audience with such overt, longwinded force that the film eventually stops being a commercial entertainment and begins to more accurately resemble a stodgy sermon. As for the solution they devise, it is unconvincing and rather cynical on its own, suggesting that people are more or less sheep, their actions dictated by manufactured influences and the pessimism of others.
25-year-old Britt Robertson is a promising up-and-coming actress who impressed in 2015's "The Longest Ride
," but she is miscast and a little too old to be wholly believable as the wide-eyed, high school-aged Casey Newton. The role is problematic as it is; she is treated as the lead and receives the most screen time, but is rendered a surface-ready marionette used in the script to get from point-A to point-B. Never does Casey truly appear to be the crucial figure destined to reverse the grim fate of the earth, her supposedly off-the-charts IQ rarely exhibited beyond raising her hand in class and showing cursory signs that she might have a future career as an engineer. Disappointingly, the evidence from the finished edit suggests that there once was more meat to the character, with Casey's mom (fleetingly voiced by Judy Greer) heard in an early home movie from her childhood and then awkwardly never seen, referenced or talked about again once the timeline moves forward a decade. The loss of her mother might have been a commonplace plot device on its own, but at least it would have given some dramatic weight and a personal arc to a protagonist who is sorely lacking both.
The innately confident, classically handsome George Clooney (2013's "Gravity
") doesn't seem at first glance like he would be the right fit for the bitter, closed-off Frank Walker, but he slides with ease into the part. Clooney tosses aside his sure-headed aura to present a man who has lost the hope and idealism that typified him as a kid, and his journey back to the person he used to be is one of the few elements that is handled in an affectingly low-key manner. As the younger Frank, Thomas Robinson (2010's "The Switch
") is an unabashedly joyous presence, carrying the opening ten or fifteen minutes on his back and running away with what is the film's most exuberantly breathtaking segment. The beginning scenes are so striking that one's good will thereafter extends longer than it should as the writing grows clunkier and the narrative leads to a regrettable shrug. Matching and possibly even surpassing Robinson's sterling work is Raffey Cassidy (2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman
"), as Athena. The details surrounding who this child really is shall not be disclosed here, but it requires a tremendous amount from Cassidy, and she sells every second of her challenging role.
"Tomorrowland" is bursting with innovation until it's suddenly not, a would-be work of pure cinema that fights against its own cinematic qualifications. Just as the story should be reaching its culminating liftoff into the stratosphere, the scope closes in, the action lurches to a crawl, and the undernourished characters never quite find the dramatic catharsis director Brad Bird is hoping they reach. Talky and convoluted while missing the consistent thrills and fireworks of a summer-released blockbuster, the film ends up in a strange limbo where it has everything it takes to deliver upon its early promises as electrifying, emotionally rich spectacle except, unfortunately, for the delivery itself. "Tomorrowland" has so much going for it that it is difficult not to be let down by the reality of what has found its way to the screen.