7 out of 10
Britt Robertson as Casey Newton
Directed by Brad Bird
When teenager Casey Nelson (Britt Robertson) discovers a colorful pin among her belongings that transports her to a fantastic futuristic world full of wondrous inventions when she touches it, the only way for her to return to “Tomorrowland” is to find inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) who seems to hold all the secrets to the mysterious city.
Being that Tomorrowland has been a movie deliberately ensconced in mystery from its inception, I’m going to do our best not to get too much into the plot, but I’ll say just enough to get into what works and what doesn’t. Just bear in mind that the secrecy around the project may not only have been slightly unwarranted but could possibly be its undoing if not for the fact that it isn’t a half bad movie by a longshot.
We meet the first of our protagonists, George Clooney’s Frank, as he’s telling an unknown audience of his younger days, and we watch young John Francis Walker bring a jetpack invention to the 1964 World Fair to show it to an inventor (Hugh Laurie) and his pretty daughter Athena, or at least that’s how things seem. She gives him a brightly-colored pin that takes him to a bright and shiny city of the future full of amazing inventions where his jetpack suddenly fits right in.
While it may seem like director Brad Bird is trying to set up an Amblin boys’ adventure-type movie, the focus soon shifts to Casey Nelson, a rebellious teenager who is in process of sabotaging a NASA base at Cape Canaveral. We spend a little time with her, watching her interact with her father (Tim McGraw) and younger brother, but it’s only when she finds her own pin that she starts seeing that same city Walker visited as a boy.
It’s another hour before we see Clooney again and even longer before the movie brings back Laurie’s character, which is probably what hurts the movie more than anything else. Having previously seen the section of the movie where Casey and Frank first meet and are chased by killer cyborgs, I was expecting that to take place much earlier in the movie, but once they start figuring out how to get back to the futuristic city, that’s where the movie picks up steam and things come together. I’m not quite sure it really needed to spend so long introducing the younger characters to set things up, but Robertson certainly isn’t strong enough to carry such a long section of the movie.
While Robertson eventually started to grow on me, Raffey Cassidy’s Athena is the real gem of the movie, as much a find as Freddie Highmore was in Finding Neverland, as she gives a suitably charisma-free performance that works for reasons I won’t reveal.
Other than a fun scene of Casey visiting a movie memorabilia store called “Blast from the Past!” where the set dressing makes references to lots of great sci-fi of old, Tomorrowland never tries hard to cater to the geek crowd, instead trying to create an entry point into sci-fi for younger kids, both boys and girls. Anyone under the age of 11 or 12 will be absolutely amazed by all the things they see on-screen — shiny skyscrapers and cool gizmos — than their far more cynical parents, offering a decent alternative to the young adult pap we’ve been getting lately.
Granted, there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, especially in that last half hour when there’s as much explanation about what’s going on as there is action. It starts to get into some complicated ideas that may finally rope in some of the adults who had been rolling their eyes before that, but unlike in previous things he’s done, screenwriter Damon Lindelof at least tries to answer any questions to make sure this is not a movie that just exists to set up a sequel.
Tomorrowland is such a different animal from the recent Mad Max: Fury Road in terms of how we look at the future, continuing the optimism Brad Bird previously displayed with The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. As his second live-action film, it’s not nearly as well directed in terms of blending CG and live action, because a lot of the action sequences seem like bad wirework, but ultimately the attempt to avoid cynicism that’s inherent in the storytelling becomes part of the message Tomorrowland is trying to convey. While that’s nice, it leads to a movie that’s not nearly as fun or entertaining as the darker Mad Max.
The Bottom Line
As fantastically inventive and clever Tomorrowland tends to be, it works more in its concept than it does in its execution, and it feels somewhat deceptive in the way it deliberately hides what it’s really about in order to maintain an unnecessary degree of secrecy. In other words, “Honest Trailers” is really going to have a field day with this one.