Tomorrowland does have a message at its core, and it is one that it wholeheartedly commits to. However, the film makes the grave mistake of doing this whilst being a structural mess. This is unfortunate because the film itself is so fascinatingly realized, and is directed by one of the most talented filmmakers currently working: Brad Bird.
This movie has a slapdash mess of a story. It’s sad to say this about someone like Brad Bird, who has written such incredible films as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, but any film where it takes the plot until the third act to reveal itself has major issues. There also is a major issue with George Clooney’s character Frank Walker in this film. The movie opens in media res, where we see Walker talking directly to the camera as he prepares to narrate the story, and it becomes further discombobulating when the movie turns to the other co-star of the film, Casey Newton, who is incredibly charming and relatable. Her character, distinctly played by Britt Robertson in a star-making turn, is positioned as being the entire crux of the film’s message of remaining optimistic and not being afraid to have ideas, but once George Clooney’s elder Frank shows up (over an hour into the movie!), he immediately takes over as the lead, and he becomes the one who makes the ultimate choice and gets to butt heads with the main villain.
About that villain – he could hardly be designated as such. Governor Nix, played in a typically droll performance by British actor Hugh Laurie, is actually pretty sound in his methodology. I won’t get too far into specifics, but he has a set intention in why he is doing what he does, although he seems to have taken the more cynical, dare I say realist, outlook on the film’s events. It truly would have mattered if the movie brought the bright and optimistic Casey up against Nix in the final act, but she sadly and literally has nothing else to do, with the boring Frank unfortunately getting the majority level of import in the final act.
A great and entertaining aspect of the film is the character Athena, an adorable and badass robot played by Raffey Cassidy. She steals the scene every time she’s on-screen, and she ultimately becomes one of the prime, emotional focalizers of the film’s story (or lack thereof), which is ironic given her robotic design. Unfortunately, the film makes a terrible and poorly thought-out misstep when for a majority of the film’s runtime, there is an ever-present romantic tension between Athena, who obviously takes the form of a little girl, and an older Frank. The fact that this made it into the final cut of a Disney movie appalls me beyond belief.
Thankfully, Bird gives this movie an uncommon and surprising amount of depth. He manages to make the ultimate, been-done-to-death conflict and stakes that the world is about to end refreshingly different in choosing to focus on our common culture that worships cynicism and laziness. Billboards and advertisements for the latest apocalyptic disaster blockbuster appear throughout the movie, and global warming is tackled head-on. Once Casey, Frank, and Athena actually make it to Tomorrowland, the conflict they are presented with absolutely stunned me and it soon became clear that Bird was prepared to go all the way with it. It has become abundantly clear that films, television shows, stories, and all other forms of our pop culture have taken turns for the worse, relishing in dystopian futures and the destruction of major cities at the climax of most blockbusters. Tomorrowland asks “what happened to the optimism of a utopia?”, and it is a question that is incredibly warranted. This movie shouts optimism from its very epicenter.
The design of this film is imaginative and should be stimulating to younger audiences. It is as retro as retro can get, replete with jetpacks, lasers, chrome, and rockets galore. Each set-piece is thoroughly imagined and realized, whether it is a ray-gun fight in a nostalgia-tinged gift shop, Casey and Frank escaping out of a firefight via bathtub, or the three principal characters traveling to Tomorrowland by blasting off in a Victorian-era rocket from the Eiffel Tower. Michael Giacchino does not let his fans down here, creating sounds that can literally only be described as optimistic. The concept of Tomorrowland itself is also highly unique and almost revelatory in a science-fiction film. Where this film simultaneously suffers and succeeds is in its themes and message though.
Bird has been accused of being an Objectivist for years now, a philosophy that believes firmly in the abilities of a select few being worthy of praise or achievement. The Incredibles’ villain Syndrome puts it best when he states during his own monologue that “when everyone’s special, no one will be”. Bird continues to not help in dispelling these controversial claims by making an outright treatise on his beliefs with this film.
Despite all of these problems, Tomorrowland is still a worthwhile film. I was happy that I had the opportunity to see it, and I would give my recommendation of it to anyone, regardless of ticket prices. Bold films like this are hardly a dime a dozen, and Brad Bird continues to be one of but a few storytellers working in the cinematic medium who are truly daring. It will also enthrall and thoroughly enrapture any child who has dreamed of a bright future, and I suspect it is in that generation where this film’s real legacy will be determined.