Envisioning just what form humanity’s future will potentially take is a topic that has long been mined by movie makers in search of some serious sci-fi spectacle. But as Hollywood’s biggest movies are increasingly geared towards the dark and dystopian, a sizeable gap has emerged in the market that’s just begging to be filled by a film that looks towards tomorrow’s world with a sense of hope and enthusiasm.
Step forward, Disney’s Tomorrowland.
Taking its name and inspiration from the futuristic theme park found at Disneyland, and Walt Disney’s own philosophy of optimism and innovation, Brad Bird’s sci-fi spectacular is a visually stunning tale told with great pace and imagination that is ultimately let down by uneven storytelling.
The film’s issues with narrative structure are made immediately obvious as we begin with a 60s-set prelude where young inventor Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) attends the historic 1964 New York World’s Fair. Whilst the sequence provides some interesting background into Frank’s character and insight into the titular city’s founding principles, it’s entirely superfluous to the main plot and might have been better placed as a promotional short or embedded later in the story.
When the story finally does get going we skip ahead to the present day where we meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a rebellious, optimistic science enthusiast who lives near a NASA base with her engineer father and curious little brother. The discovery of a mysterious pin gives Casey a glimpse of Tomorrowland and encourages her to seek out an older, world weary Frank (now played by George Clooney) to find out more. Together they team up with fellow Tomorrowland exile Anthea (Cassidy) – think a cherubic Terminator – in order to save the world from its seemingly inevitable fate.
As with his previous films, Bird directs the action with pace and exuberance, delivering gripping and innovative set-pieces – including a spectacular chase the involves a flying bathtub and a rocket hidden within the Eiffel Tower – that makes for a thrilling and enjoyable ride. Bird’s boundless imagination is also evident in Tomorrowland’s design, conjuring a shimmering world of swirling towers and clever details like a hover-powered monorail, while the director also has fun evoking classic adventure films like E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, and even Indiana Jones, to give the action a charming retro feel.
But amid the dazzling sets and whooshing set-pieces, the story somehow gets left behind. The theme of recapturing an aspirational view of the future for a new generation is a great starting point, but not enough to form a convincing and enchanting storyline in and of itself. The film suffers from the absence of a compelling threat, as Bird initially appears to be obscuring what’s really going on before it gradually becomes clear that there really isn’t much to conceal. And once you cotton on to the obvious direction in which it’s headed, you know it can only end in underwhelming disappointment.
This inevitably has an adverse impact on the characterisation. Robertson and Cassidy are intriguing and likeable leads, but without a propulsive plot there’s little room for their characters to develop. Casey starts out as an inventive optimist and, aside from an all-too-brief moment of self-doubt, stays that way throughout, while Frank’s transition from cynical outcast to reformed believer is rushed and never quite rings true – and the less said about his uncomfortably creepy ‘love story’ with 13-year-old Anthea, the better.
Ultimately, Tomorrowland is a film that never adds up to the sum of its parts, its giddy visuals and whimsical set-pieces undermined by wayward plotting (not to mention a complete waste of a machiavellian Hugh Laurie) that means it will likely be forgotten as soon as the next bleak dystopian fantasy replaces it in cinemas.
Runtime: 130 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi/Adventure; Released: 22 May 2015;
Director: Brad Bird; Screenwriter: Damon Lindelof;
Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy
Click here to watch the trailer for Tomorrowland