It’s the end of the world as we know it – again — in Disney’s Tomorrowland, an ambitious and visually stunning adventure saga whose creative prowess ultimately sputters under the weight of a clunky narrative structure and vaguely sanctimonious social commentary. Director Brad Bird is considered a cinematic visionary, and deservedly so, having crafted an impressive repertoire of indelible stories with emotional depth and timeless entertainment value. His Pixar triumphs Ratatouille and The Incredibles, along with breakthrough favorite The Iron Giant and thrilling action caper Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, make him a natural choice to helm this idealistic, time-bending romp based upon a theme park attraction first conceptualized in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, the meandering script from Bird and Lost scribe Damon Lindelof packs a number of promising starts but very little follow through, keeping Tomorrowland grounded firmly on Earth despite its best intentions to reach infinity and beyond. It certainly looks fantastic, presenting an IMAX-worthy series of dazzling sequences and innovative setpieces that offer a fresh perspective on the film’s otherwise familiar roots. Sci-fi fans should be undoubtedly delighted with the stellar world-building effort put forth in creating Tomorrowland itself, but those looking for a satisfying payoff will likely feel cheated when very little time is actually spent exploring this elusive Emerald City. Meanwhile, even the most enthusiastic viewer could find the film’s schmaltzy subtext a bit gooey, even for Disney.
Our heroine is wide-eyed Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride), a determined and rebellious science whiz who lands in the clink after getting caught infiltrating a planned demolition at a NASA launch site. After her supportive but weary father (Tim McGraw) bails her out, she discovers a mysterious pin among her belongings that, when touched, instantly transports her to an astounding parallel universe. Watching Casey struggle to maintain a dual existence in both worlds while navigating the pin’s limited abilities provides a delightful, if gimmicky, foundation for what should unfold next, but doesn’t. Her brief introduction to Tomorrowland does capitalize on an intriguing prologue in which equally precocious boy genius Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) stumbles upon the eponymous futurescape decades earlier, but the continuity ends virtually there.
The plot lurches into gear when perpetually 12-year-old Tomorrowland ambassador Athena (Raffey Cassidy, Snow White and the Huntsman) recruits Casey to unite with the now grown and washed-up Frank (George Clooney), insisting the two are destined to help restore the once-flourishing city to its former splendor. Turns out, Frank was exiled from the techie heaven after exposing an imminent global catastrophe, and has spent his years back on Earth holed up in a deceptively shabby rural home watching the doomsday clock. Tomorrowland apparently crumbled in Frank’s absence under the rule of haughty “governor” David Nix (Hugh Laurie, House), whose compelling presence is negated by ambiguously villainous motives that seem to merely exist without any proper explanation.
Grizzled, grumpy Frank is adamant he never revisit Tomorrowland, but Casey’s impervious curiosity and Athena’s unblinking devotion get the better of him and the trio embark upon a wildly uneven and altogether nonsensical attempt to, as the film’s tagline suggests, “Remember the Future.” So what does that entail? The movie isn’t quite sure itself, tossing one idea into the mix after another. Highlights include an antique spaceship hidden underneath the Eiffel Tower and Frank’s Rube Goldberg-esque collection of booby traps hidden throughout his house, but it’s hard to justify both these scenes belonging in the same movie. Oh, and there are angry robots thrown in for good measure, and don’t forget that pesky apocalypse still lurking on the horizon, too. All these tactics are enjoyable and inventive enough on their own, but the glaring lack of cohesion between them prevents Tomorrowland from truly achieving the childlike wonder it so desperately seeks. Instead, it provides a haphazard collection of surface-level pitches that could potentially work if they were at least given something upon which to land.
“Must I explain everything to you?” an irritated Frank sighs to Casey. “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?”
Tomorrowland succeeds solely as a popcorn-munching aesthetic feast, but its uneven pace and jumbled thematic platitudes make for an ultimately hollow experience. At its best, the film offers brief glimpses of greatness, as though you’ve suddenly put our finger on a magical pin. But, like Casey, you may just wish the ride would last longer.
Tomorrowland hits theaters Friday, May 22.