Is it greedy to want more than you get when you admittedly get more than you should?
Tomorrowland is directed by Brad Bird, one of the few directors working today who (with one exception) has made nothing but masterpieces, such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Like a more optimistic James Cameron, Bird’s background in animation and skill for plotting out complex action sequences has shaped him into a director capable of nearly anything.
Teaming up with Damon Lindelof (the divisive co-showrunner who helped Lost escape its desert-island roots to become a millennium-spanning, time-hopping parable of good and evil), Bird wrote Tomorrowland out of the imaginations and inspirations of the utopian, futuristic region of Disney’s theme parks. As an adaptation of such, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly more Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl than The Haunted Mansion.
Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is the teenaged daughter of a former NASA engineer (Tim McGraw) whose job has been eliminated, leaving them struggling at times to remain their optimistic selves. Casey spends her evenings breaking into Cape Canaveral and nobly sabotaging the government’s plans to dismantle rockets that were once meant to usher in humanity’s future.
When she’s caught trespassing one night, Casey gets arrested. After her release, Casey finds a strange pin in her returned belongings. Upon touching it, she suddenly finds herself in an otherworldly field, with a futuristic land of shimmering spires and jetpacks in the distance. Or rather, she sees a vision of it, while not actually leaving our realm (as she discovers when she blindly walks into a wall in the police station lobby).
The mind-transporting pin doesn’t work for anyone but Casey, which drives Casey on a quest for answers about the pin and about the utopia she keeps seeing. She’s soon joined by the young, mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy, channelling the regal whimsy of Audrey Hepburn), who helps her track down Tomorrowland’s grumpy counterpart to the hopeful Casey, Frank Walker (George Clooney). Together, the three of them go to the titular land of unrestrained scientific progress – only to discover all is not as it first appeared.
Clooney’s presence here is fitting, since it’s a full circle of sorts for him. Clooney himself co-starred in 2013’s Gravity, the Oscar-winning spectacle from 2013 that helped rejuvenate the public’s interest in space. It also strongly informed last year’s Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey’s grizzled scientist living an unsatisfying life of disillusionment and delivering speeches about how “we used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.” Such a line of dialogue would feel just as natural coming out of the mouth of Frank, although it’d surely be laced with more cynicism.
Another thing Tomorrowland shares in common with Gravity and Interstellar is its out-of-this-world visual effects. With Bird at the helm of the ship, Tomorrowland was always going to have solidly impressive visuals, but the art design, background details, and meticulous planning by the film’s pre- and post-production teams pack the movie with an amazingly large number of ideas and inventions.
Despite the blind assumption that Tomorrowland’s action sequences are fantastic, the truth is that Tomorrowland’s action sequences actually are fantastic. Weaving together the youthful exuberance and nostalgia of The Iron Giant, the positive values and heart of The Incredibles, and the throat-clenching tension and spectacle of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Bird has made an amalgam of skills with which he’s already shown himself to be a master individually.
The one area of the movie that feels like it didn’t receive quite as much attention as the rest is the script, and it’s in here Tomorrowland stumbles just a bit. It folds in important current events, which does instantly date it somewhat, but in a way that will hopefully age charmingly, like A Clockwork Orange, Tron, or Cold War-era Bond films.
More detrimentally, it has a wonderfully entertaining (if narratively overlong) first act, and a fiendishly clever (if narratively overlong) third act, but barely a second act to speak of. The first and third acts are unbelievably good, deftly juggling its message with its entertainment, but despite the quality of the acts that are there, you’re left somewhat hungry for a more satisfying second act, which would have tied together the set-up and the climax better, thus making a more solid masterwork.
Like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, it’s almost more fair to compare a Brad Bird movie not to your typical multiplex fare but solely to Bird’s previous creations. As such, Tomorrowland may technically be the second-worst of the director’s five theatrical features – but compared to most other movies released by big studios, it’s still a thrill ride unequalled by most everything else out there.