January 4, 2016
Brad Bird is a sensational director. He kicked off his career in animation, impressing audiences with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and particularly with his 1999 masterpiece The Iron Giant. A few years back he proved he could direct live-action as well by helming the excellent action sequel Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Sadly in 2015 this winning streak broke, and as Spielberg has 1941 and Coppola has Jack, so Brad Bird has Tomorrowland.
Now it would be possible to defend Tomorrowland to a greater extent than one probably could the other bad movies I've mentioned. For one thing it has a fairly strong cast including George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy and Britt Robertson. For another it does have the occasional bright spark of funny dialogue, or a cool shot, or an intriguing concept. As a film, however, it is a near-total failure. It is drawn-out and ridiculously boring. Its narrative structure is blown wildly out of whack, with the bulk of the film filled with a ponderous first act and the rest of the story squeezed madly into the last half-hour. It talks about the important of utopian visions and spends the bulk of its time showing the audience misery and decay - and even weird segues into a sort of uplifting, Disney-esque take on Randian objectivism.
Teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is arrested after sabotaging the demolitions equipment at a NASA launch facility. When she is released on bail she finds a mysterious pin in her possessions. When she touches it, it transports her to a high-technology utopia. When she attempts to track down where the pin came from she finds herself under attack from killer robots, rescued by an advanced android in the shape of a young girl (Raffey Cassidy) and teamed up with a cynical, middle-aged inventor named Frank (George Clooney). Together they race to rediscover Tomorrowland and save the world from imminent destruction.
At least that's what the film says. The truth is that the film renders the threat to the Earth in almost entirely abstract terms. It sets itself up as a mystery story despite having already answered half of the questions in an overly-long and unnecessary prologue sequence. It spends inordinate amounts of time showing its characters having conversations in cars. With a stronger writer, director and editor, the first hour of the film could take about 25 minutes. All of the film's stronger elements - the chases and shoot-outs, flying a century-old rocket out of the Eiffel Tower, the arrival and exploration of Tomorrowland - are rushed through in a panic in the film's second half. They fly past at such a breakneck speed that there's no chance to appreciate any of them sufficiently.
There is a decent idea at Tomorrowland's heart, but the bottom line is that Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof failed to pin it down. Correcting their mistakes would not have simply required a tighter edit, but rather a page one rewrite from the very first scene. The film is an unholy, damn-near unwatchable mess, enjoyable only for people who can shut their brains off for minutes at a time to appreciate momentary glimpses of excellent photography, or comic timing, or dialogue. For the rest of us it is probably too tiresome a chore to undertake. Yesterday I figured the most disappointing film of 2015 was the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending. Today I realised it was Tomorrowland.