It would be difficult to name a more dependable modern film director than Brad Bird, the animator turned writer/director responsible for some of the most beloved animated films of recent decades, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. His transition to live action with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol raised eyebrows, but turned out to be a rousing crowd-pleaser of a blockbuster, a smooth transition into another chapter of his career. It’s been four years since the fourth Mission Impossible film, and Bird has returned to the screen with his ambitious new project, the science fiction fantasy Tomorrowland.
Taking its name and inspiration from the Disney theme parks, Tomorrowland concerns two generations of inventive dreamers and their trips to a magical futuristic city where those dreams seem possible. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is the daughter of a NASA engineer and lover of all things science, so much that she spends her nights sabotaging efforts to tear down a decommissioned launch pad at Cape Canaveral. After an unsuccessful attempt lands her in jail, she discovers a mysterious pin among her belongings that transports her to a brave new world whenever she touches it. This event puts her on a collision course with Frank Walker (George Clooney, as well as Thomas Robinson in flashback), a middle-aged reclusive inventor banished from the city she so desperately wants to visit again. Walker was sent away from Tomorrowland by Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) due to his inventions having unintended consequences. With the help of an android girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Walker and Newton head back to the fabled city of the future with the very fate of humanity in the balance.
Brad Bird has always been an exceptionalist at heart, filling his movies with big-thinking individuals fighting against a society that wants to keep them down. Tomorrowland certainly fits into this mold, with Robertson and Clooney playing two sides of the same personality, optimist and pessimist alike, one the victim of an uncaring world, the other too young to be corrupted. Indeed, at its best, Tomorrowland feels akin to Bird’s earlier work, bursting at the seams with ideas and visual wonder that stokes the embers of the imagination. The retro 50’s futurism that has always been a stalwart of the theme park transitions well to the big screen, with its jetpacks and hover rails and white jumpsuits, all melding together in a shining city that reaches beyond the clouds. It is a stark contrast from the world of today, one marked by grime and dirt, which makes for effective editing techniques (that moment when Newton first touches the pin and is transported to another world is breathtaking) and juxtaposition throughout the film. It is just as striking when Walker and Newton make their grand return to see a city ravaged by time, a shell of its older self lorded over by (the oddly unaged) Governor Nix as he tries to hold onto its former glory.
The bona fides of Tomorrowland’s visual world and the performances of its leads are so strong it can sometimes be easy to overlook how shaky the foundation upon which they are standing truly is. Bird came onto the project with an already predominantly complete screenplay from Damon Lindelof, the co-showrunner of Lost who has had a spotty film scripting career of movies like World War Z, Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, and while Bird has clearly made tweaks to the story to drive things more in that exceptionalist direction that so often tickles his fancy, it is still a film that often leaves its audience wanting. The central macguffin, a machine that seems to have determined the end of the world with 100% certainty, is never adequately explained, instead clinging to the sort of vagueries that succeed only in undercutting the desperation of the situation. In truth, this harms the efficacy of the villains most, creating a plot wherein events just seem to happen, lacking the connective tissue to drive the action forward organically.
It is quite a shame that the script for Tomorrowland does not remotely live up to its production design. It is a frustrating cinematic experience, one that can only feel like a profound disappointment considering the pedigree of its director and the potential of the half-baked ideas it does display. Individual moments and scenes, like robot secret service agents with unnaturally sickly sweet smiles that belie their murdering intentions, or the enjoyable cameo appearance of Keegan Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, that point to something special burbling below the surface, but it never amounts to more than a glimmer. Tomorrowland is never a bad movie, but it is never a good one either. It shambles along for its 130 minutes, always just out of reach, always vexing in its utter lack of substance. It is a film that commits the cardinal sin of summer blockbusters that strive to be think pieces. For all of its bluster and its big thoughts, it is just, well, boring.