Directed by Brad Bird
Written by Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof
Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, and Hugh Laurie
Tomorrowland is one of the most frustrating movies I’ve seen in a long time. Two thirds of it is brilliant, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure. It’s a blast of a film that makes you feel like a child again, yet never insults your intelligence. At least, not until its final act rolls around, when the film takes a swan dive in both coherence and quality. What were writer/director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof thinking when they decided to wrap up their compelling story in such a hackneyed way?
Tomorrowland opens at the 1964 World’s Fair, where we meet the young, bight-eyed Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson). After he loses a contest, he meets Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who shows him the way to Tomorrowland, a vast, futuristic cityscape. Cut to present day: Casey Walker (Britt Robertson) is an energetic and optimistic science buff who spends her nights trying to prevent a NASA launch platform from being torn down. After being arrested for this very reason, she finds a pin which, when she touches it, allows her to see Tomorrowland. She doesn’t know what she’s seeing or why. To find out, she must go on a journey where she crosses paths with both Athena and Frank, now older, more pessimistic, and played by George Clooney. Both of them have been banished from Tomorrowland. Meanwhile, all three are being hunted by robot assassins sent after them by the mysterious Governor Nix.
While Tomorrowland may have certain narrative flaws, it has zero technical flaws. Bird, along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the visual effects maestros over at ILM, have crafted a feast for the eyes. Tomorrowland seems to have come to life right out of a 50’s sci-fi magazine. Buildings tower above the ground; vehicles travel along roads that twist and turn in mid-air; people whiz though the air on jet packs. It’s a marvelous rendering of a futuristic environment, and it marks some of the most flawless VFX work I’ve seen in some time. Also, the score contains some of Michael Giacchino’s best work to date.
However, none of this can save the film from its third act problems. We spend the entire movie learning about Tomorrowland and why Casey needs to get there. We’re on the edges of our seats. And then, when the characters actually arrive at Tomorrowland, things stop making sense. We don’t get answers to questions raised during the past two acts because Bird and Lindelof can’t properly explain them to us (Lindelof has become a popular punching bag for not knowing how to end things). The film’s message about futuristic optimism becomes muddled. It’s a mess of a third act that makes you wonder if you’re actually watching the same movie you were for the past ninety minutes. It’s a shame considering the quality of the material leading up to it.
Clooney is, unsurprisingly, great. This character is in his wheelhouse. He imbues Frank’s arc with the type of pathos you’d expect from an actor of his caliber. However, while Clooney may have top billing, the bulk of the story’s weight rests on the shoulders of Britt Robertson, who is a revelation. Based on her work in this, I hope to see more of her. There is never a moment when we doubt her optimism or her sense of wonder. Equally impressive is young Raffey Cassidy, stepping into the spotlight after small roles in Dark Shadows and Snow White and the Huntsman. She walks away with many of her scenes. Like Robertson, she deserves to go far in Hollywood.
To date, Bird’s filmography includes The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. All great filmmakers usually have a dud sooner or later. It’s sad how close this one comes to being a gem, only to lose its sparkle at the last second. It’s not the first film ever ruined by a bad ending, but it is one of the most promising. Here’s hoping Bird can return to form for his next outing.
Mark Wanner is an Austin-based film and breakfast taco enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter at @k_mark14
Mark has also recently written on Insidious: Chapter 3 and covered the SXSW film fest with reviews on key films here and here.