There are moments in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland that overflow with joy and awe as the film whisks us away to another world of boundless imagination, possibility, and promise. In fact, the more we are forced to decipher from the fleeting glimpses of Tomorrowland and the more we are encouraged to wonder at what it truly is, the more successful the film is. It is an unfortunate shock then that as soon as the film pulls back all obfuscation of the eponymous world, it descends into awkward preaching and pandering.
The structure of Tomorrowland’s narrative is a little awkward at first even, as the film opens with star George Clooney speaking directly to camera in between interruptions from his costar Britt Robertson. Eventually, they decide to tell the story of Clooney’s character Frank Walker, who attends the 1964 world fair and impresses David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and the young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) with his jetpack invention. He is whisked away to a strange futuristic world called Tomorrowland. Clooney is interrupted again so that Robertson can tell the story of her character, Casey Newton. The rest of the narrative follows from here with Casey as the main protagonist. Casey is the teenage daughter of a NASA engineer who is overseeing the deconstruction of a launching pad at Cape Canaveral. Casey disagrees with this course of action, so she sabotages the machinery on site, generally has an adventurous spirit. After she is arrested one night, her personal effects are returned with an extra item: a strange pin that transports her to Tomorrowland whenever she touches it.
Without a doubt, the strongest sequences of the film involve Casey holding her pin and exploring Tomorrowland, as well as the resulting fact-finding mission after her pin runs out of power. In this portion of the movie, there are many details which suggest that the world she inhabits is one full of strife, the best of which is a billboard you see for a split second of an upcoming disaster film (I forget the name, but it is ToxiCosmos 3 or something weird like that). In one image, the film comments on Hollywood’s preponderance of sequels, the public’s support of disaster movies, and intimates that the world’s attention is diverted away from innovation and towards cynicism. This is the major theme that the film with pound over your head with Bond Villain-style soliloquy in the final act, and it is a shame that this magnificent symbol is squandered so clumsily.
I can’t fail Tomorrowland completely, despite its glaring weaknesses. There are awe-inspiring sequences, great character work, science fiction concepts, and even stretches of humor throughout. Even after the film climbs up on the soapbox, the special effects are still remarkable and tastefully applied, with a robot-fight far better than anything from the mind of Michael Bay. But ultimately, Tomorrowland fails to hit is mark. Had this movie continued with the tone and relative subtlety of the earlier acts, it would have continued Brad Bird’s two-and-a-half decade streak of very strong films. Unfortunately, it feels like Tomorrowland is itself guilty of the sin it places at its thematic core – robbing the audience of wonder and replacing it with cynicism.