It's hard to fault the optimistic underpinnings of director Brad Bird's new Disney opus Tomorrowland. Taking inspiration from the same brand of utopian philosophy that Uncle Walt himself espoused during his lifetime (and which he imbued the theme park ride of the same name with), the film is predicated on the simple notion that all it takes to combat the host of self-inflicted calamities currently threatening to capsize this Earthly experiment are a few of the right people with a few really good ideas. With that kind of idealism in play, it sort of feels like I'm kicking an adorable little puppy by giving Tomorrowland any less than a rave. And yet, here we are.
Now, just to be clear, I had a great deal of excitement going into this. After presiding over such animated classics as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (not to mention the early days of The Simpsons), director Brad Bird had made a confident, vivid debut on the live action scene with 2011's superb Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which brilliantly revived what many thought to be an ailing franchise. When I heard his follow-up would be wholly original (i.e. non-sequel, non-remake, non-reboot), I was immediately intrigued. And indeed, as conceived by Bird and writer Damon Lindelof, Tomorrowland has no shortage of breathtaking visuals. Where it falls apart is its inability to pull those visuals together into something more meaningful.
Beginning in 1952, we're introduced to Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a precocious boy genius whose technological wizardly gains him access to Tomorrowland, a futuristic utopia that exists just out of phase with our dimension. Full of jet packs and pneumatic tubes and giant robots, it basically looks like the cover of every science fiction pulp magazine from the 1950s. From there we adjourn to the present, where a similarly precocious sixteen year old girl named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) also learns of Tomorrowland's existence, and in the process of trying to uncover its secrets ends up crossing paths with the now-adult Frank (George Clooney), who's been banished for heretofore unrevealed reasons.
Throw into the mix the evil Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie), who for some reason is intent on stopping Frank's attempt to return to the city, and a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who apparently hasn't aged from the 1950s to now, and you have the beginnings of a plot. Unfortunately, when you get down to it that's all Tomorrowland really is is a lot of beginning, with too little middle, and not enough ending. It spends a solid half of its running time just laying out all the necessary bits of exposition to work our way up to the eventual entrée into the location promised by the title, and by the time we finally get there, it sort of feels like the air leaving a balloon.
The cast certainly tries, mind you. If there's anyone you'd want anchoring something like this it's Clooney, who's sympathetic and capable in a cookie cutter part, but even he feels adrift for most of this thing. As is expected from Bird, this isn't a film that lacks on the technical level, and is by no means a cranked-out piece of flotsam meant to cash in on the Disney theme park connection (a la The Haunted Mansion or The Country Bears). Instead, there's a real attempt by Bird and Lost creator Lindelof (who conceived the project and also serves as producer) to imbue their film with some of those Big Ideas that are all too lacking in a lot of big budget moviemaking these days. Just like with the Lindelof-scripted Prometheus from 2012, you have to admire that.
However, in a bitter bit of déjà vu, Tomorrowland ends up suffering from the exact same flaws Prometheus before it did: Great premise, terrific visuals, airball at the buzzer. In essence, this story is meant to serve as an antidote to the thick coat of cynicism that's pervaded so much of our society of late, and to answer the notion that things are so far gone there's no point even trying to effect change anymore. And while a cursory glance at the state of our political or civil discourse makes clear that such a statement is very much needed, I'm not sure this is it. Too lovingly crafted by too-talented a director to be outright bad, Tomorrowland is nonetheless a swing-and-a-miss that's stifled by its expressed inability to be truly transcendent. C