Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland starts with the leads—grizzled, graying Frank (George Clooney) and much younger, perkier Casey (Under The Dome’s Britt Robertson)—talking into a camera, arguing about who’s going to tell their story, and how they’re going to tell it. Sometimes they show a clock displaying a running countdown. Every time one interrupts the other, they have to start over. It’s like watching an old married couple start telling a joke together, then break down into arguing over the details, such that they can’t get anywhere near the punchline. As a framing device for a kid-friendly action-adventure movie, it’s an exasperating snooze that adds nothing to the story, and feels suspiciously like stalling. For a film that’s ostensibly about the wondrous power of the future, the film seems awfully reluctant to actually move time forward.
And as soon as it does move forward, it loops backward—to Frank’s childhood, when he went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair to enter a homemade jetpack in some sort of undefined inventions contest, presided over by a grouchy, equally undefined man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Nix is dismissive, but a young British girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), dressed in fancy clothes and displaying formal manners, slips Frank a token that admits him to a mysterious behind-the-scenes city, full of impossible science-fiction technology and grand and shining wonders.
Cut to the present day, when Casey receives a similar token, which takes her to the glorious, colorful other world whenever she touches it. Before long, Athena has shown up, unchanged since 1964, and mysteriously full of ass-kicking prowess. She brings Casey and the now aged and bitter Frank together, and then… narrative chaos happens. There are chases and wacky technology and grinning evil baddies and big reveals. Most importantly, there’s a moral—a big, important moral so heavily underlined with “You, the audience, must believe this! And then you must act on it, for the good of all mankind!” that Clooney and Robertson practically lean out of the screen to shout it into the audience’s faces. There just isn’t much of a story.
Up until now, Brad Bird has been a no-fail writer-director, capable of handling movies with big messages (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille), big casts (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), and big action. (All of the above.) But for whatever reason, Tomorrowland defeats him. It might have something to do with his scripting partnership with Damon Lindelof, the man behind so many large-scale stories with larger-scale narrative problems, from Lost to Prometheus to Star Trek Into Darkness to World War Z. It might have to do with creative interference from Disney, given that Tomorrowland comes across as sentimental, overthought, overpolished, and artificial in a way that implies Disney Channel thinking at every step. (An exchange where baby Casey promises to go to the stars someday sets the sugary tone: When her parents ask “What if you get all the way up there and there’s nothing?” she gushes, “What if dere’s everyfing?”) Or maybe Bird just believes in his message so strongly that he couldn’t keep the padding around it—the story, the dialogue, the acting, that kind of thing—from feeling secondary. But for whatever reason, Tomorrowland comes across as a grinning rictus of a movie, a desperate door-to-door evangelist trying to force its foot into the door and push its salvation by any means possible.
Tomorrowland’s plot problems are significant and pervasive. It’s never entirely clear where the central baddies chasing Frank and Casey come from. At one point, Athena—who is unequivocally on Frank and Casey’s side—leads the villains to them, with near-fatal results; afterwards, she chirps that they “needed some motivation,” and the whole business is never mentioned again. The film is full of thrilling setpieces—imaginative fight sequences featuring wacky homebrew futurist technology, soaring tours of the breathtaking future world, a giant-robot fight with a bomb in the middle—but as effective as some of the individual sequences are, they don’t fit together in any comprehensible way, because they’re predicated on reveals that contradict each other, or leave gaping logic holes. (See The Reveal for more.) It’s like riding a roller coaster that’s all downward slopes and no upward ones. The film operates with cartoon physics, with protagonists frequently suffering massive amounts of physical trauma, then hopping up unharmed, ready to continue the latest chase. So maybe in this word of time travel, force fields, blaster guns, and Wile E. Coyote resilience, all-downs-and-no-ups is possible. But that fits poorly with the film’s attempts at real-world preaching.
At least the message is positive. Tomorrowland makes the daring and fairly intelligent argument that humanity has come to both fear the future, and to embrace that fear as an excuse to not work to improve it. It’s a cogent idea, and a great start for a story. But the film is deeply confused about the details used to flesh it out and get it across. Lindelof and Bird’s script manages to turn fear of the future into a physical, concrete object—something that can be dramatically defeated in the nick of time—but they do it so sloppily that the problems still remain abstract. Bird’s films are usually full of telling detail that makes for complicated characters. Here, everything is a vague, bright wash of color, covered with shiny Disney lacquer. It’s unclear, for instance, how old Casey is; her character is defined entirely by optimism and a love of NASA. (The actor is 25; the character lives at home with her dad and little brother, and could be anything from a high-school student to an unemployed college graduate.) It’s unclear where Tomorrowland is (the future? another dimension? another planet?) or how it’s run, or why Frank was kicked out. The villain’s ultimate motivation is almost exactly the same as the one in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, with the exact same circular, insensible logic. Pretty much any concrete question involving “How” or “Why” in the movie goes unanswered, amid Lost-style thinking that says, “Yes, this makes no sense, but there’s no time to explain—we have go to somewhere else to do something else mysterious now!”
That last issue, at least, could be overlooked if Tomorrowland managed to instill the sense of wonder it’s going for, if it managed to make those questions seem beautiful and mysterious, instead of ill-considered and poorly glossed-over. The argument can certainly be made that this is a film for children, meant to give them a sense of hope and amazement about how awesome the future could be if we all just pulled together and did our bit. But that doesn’t explain the movie’s 130-minute runtime, which is bloated by unnecessary, unhelpful, and often just irritating scenes like that “Who’s telling this story, anyway?” yammering at the beginning. The kids of tomorrow could certainly use a vision of the future that isn’t full of zombies, wastelands, dystopias, and despair. But keeping people inspired means keeping their attention, and this clumsy, pretty, candy-colored message can’t even keep its own attention focused on something for 10 minutes in a row.