Back in the self-proclaimed Space Age of the 1950s and ’60s, visions of the future featured lots of clean, shiny cities filled with happy, productive people whose problems had been solved by technology. How do you recapture that today? How do you put that over for a contemporary audience that looks at the future and too often sees only things that will snuff us out? The task felled a filmmaker as estimable as Christopher Nolan in last year’s Interstellar, but that doesn’t stop Brad Bird from trying it in Tomorrowland. Oh, how mightily he tries. His gumption is commendable. It’s also why this deliberately retro fantasy-adventure saga is a full-scale disaster.
Our heroine is 16-year-old Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a soon-to-be-downsized NASA engineer (Tim McGraw). She’s secretly sabotaging the agency’s attempts to dismantle the Cape Canaveral launch pad when she’s arrested for vandalism, at which point someone slips her a metal pin that instantly transports her to a brighter and better world with a shimmering futuristic city. Her efforts to find the pin’s origins lead her to Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a robotic 10-year-old girl with an English accent and martial-arts skills, and Frank (George Clooney), a former kid scientist-turned-embittered recluse waiting for the apocalypse.
An animation director who successfully moved into live-action with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Bird’s storytelling instincts have completely deserted him here. This 130-minute film could have easily omitted the lengthy — and I mean really lengthy — prologue with young Frank (Thomas Robinson) visiting the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Not only does this prologue offer little in itself, it also takes the wonder out of the moment when Casey first discovers the powers of the pin. Bird wants badly to create a sense of wonder, but he seems to think that showing us a world of maglev scooters and casual interstellar travel is enough. The same filmmaker who conjured a breathtaking digital view of Paris in Ratatouille now films a scene in the real-life city that involves a rocket being launched out of the Eiffel Tower. It’s way more ambitious than the scene in the Pixar movie. And way less powerful.
I noted in my Insurgent review that the big Hollywood studios have mostly scurried away from female-led blockbusters, so it would seem that we should salute Disney for building this big-budget summer film around a girl. However, any girl-power message here has been lost amid the CGI. Casey has been carefully scrubbed of any identifying personality traits other than a love of machines. She has no friends and no boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter). She spends most of her time shrieking in surprise as Athena or Frank impatiently explains the other dimension that they’re traveling to and why robots are hunting them down. There is a running gag where men, including Frank, assume that she doesn’t know how stuff works because she’s a girl, but Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof don’t seem to realize that they need her to prove everyone wrong in spectacular fashion for the punchline to hit. The short-statured, athletic Robertson has done good work in other places (Mother and Child, Cake, TV’s Life Unexpected), but here she’s indistinct and unmemorable. Indeed, Bird pays so little attention to his actors that even Clooney gives a one-note performance.
The worst thing is the contemptuous, hectoring tone that seeps in here. The running bit where Casey keeps seeing ads for a fictitious Hollywood film about global catastrophe is one thing, but it’s quite another when this movie’s villain (Hugh Laurie) goes on an interminable rant about how we’re all poisoning our minds with dystopian fantasies and fearful news stories. It’s like the movie is shouting in our faces, “What’s wrong with you? Be inspired!” Disney’s animation arm put out Big Hero 6 six months ago, which made the same point in a much more positive, celebratory manner and was better than this movie in every possible way.
Tomorrowland is meant to be uplifting, and I came out of it thoroughly depressed. One scene is emblematic of this movie’s failures: when Casey uses the pin in a police station and gives herself a vision of a billowing wheat field, taking a few ecstatic steps before bashing her head against the wall of the police station, where her body has remained. Brad Bird is in his heroine’s shoes. He’s so focused on his bright, gleaming vision of hope that he forgets to look where he’s going.
Starring Britt Robertson and George Clooney. Directed by Brad Bird. Written by Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof. Rated PG.