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Movie Review: 'Tomorrowland'

Disney's Tomorrowland is a mass-branding, incoherent bore. WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.

Review by Matt Cummings
A young person's mind is like a sponge, taking in anything and everything in an attempt to understand its world and (more importantly) its purpose. Children are wonderfully investigative, perhaps more so than parents would prefer on occasion. For a film like Disney's Tomorrowland, that love of information, imagination, and youthful exuberance should be proudly on display. Instead, it's a mass-branding, incoherent bore that few kids will stick around to finish.
The disenfranchised scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney) was once a wide-eyed 10 year-old (Thomas Robinson), enthusiastically dreaming and building machines that he thought would improve his world. As a boy, Frank attends the 1964 New York World’s Fair and meets the British girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who gives him a pin that unlocks a magical, futuristic world. Parallel to that is the modern story of Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a bright 20-year-old who is jailed after trying to shut down the destruction of a NASA launch pad, which would officially end America's journeying into space. When she emerges from prison, Casey finds a similar pin in her effects that, upon touching it, reveals the same futuristic dream world that Frank visited. Through their shared experiences, the duo form an uneasy alliance to find Tomorrowland and rescue humanity before the city's evil leader (Hugh Laurie) can destroy the Earth by filling it with negative feelings. If this plot sounds convoluted, imagine my trouble in keeping it to one paragraph. But to its credit, Tomorrowland is not your typical summer fare, attempting to flex it intellectual muscles by placing science front and center in Tomorrowland and its story in a distant second place. Whether that works or not depends if you like not knowing about its actual plot for a good 60 minutes. Leading up to that point, the series of elongated experiences by our leads aren't powerful or concise enough to keep the story from falling apart. By the time it's all revealed, we've seen nothing more than several vignettes about our characters, the world around them, and the dream of Tomorrowland that's largely been abandoned. All of that wonder gets sucked away in a second/third act that ate far more dark than they need to be. An entity, convinced that the Earth needs to be destroyed to be saved, is a notion already played out this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and here the message is too clunky and boring to keep our interest.
Say what you want about negativity in movies these days, but when Bird suggests that all of it is due to a race of robots who've broadcast negative feelings through a wormhole, and that the end result has no effect on Tomorrowland, one cannot help but scratch their head. What is the purpose of a movie with such a seemingly contradictory message? No matter, because Bird is here to wow hiding a 19th Century rocket inside the Eiffel Tower? The resulting launch emits an EMP that wipes out all of the electronic devices in Paris; how that's critical or even necessary to the story isn't important, because we're here to entertained by Mouse House, right? Not really: it comes off looking like the Free Mason's underground structures in National Treasure or the hidden rooms and devices in The daVinci Code, but with little glue to keep this model spaceship from breaking up during launch. There are important and perhaps challenging themes to debate here, but the PG-rated packaging seems like the wrong place to do that. Moreover, there's the sense that Tomorrowland itself is just a place for a certain type of person, namely someone smarter (and therefore better) than everyone on Earth, who when released from our chaotic world will leave all the stupid people to destroy themselves. Instead of trying to bring the world of Tomorrowland to Earth, Writers Damon Lindelof and Bird choose the easy way out: feed Earth what it wants so that it will be destroyed. But why? What does Laurie's character and Tomorrowland get for that?
And then there's the shameless branding that happens throughout, from the multiple Star Wars references to the "It's a Small World" ride and the look of Tomorrowland itself. It's terrific that Disney is trying to push the idea of the role of youth in the development of science and technology; but its self-congratulatory nature does nothing to encourage their intended audience. Roles outside of Clooney and Robertson are terribly one-layered, including Laurie as the one-note bad guy. He really has no purpose here than to be the antagonist for Frank, desiring to destroy Earth without even telling us why it's needed. As I've already said this season, it feels like there's a much longer (and perhaps better?) cut of Tomorrowland out there (see: Avengers). With such a long-winded beginning, I have to believe that other acts would have benefited from such treatment. The production values by Bird's team are excellent, including the city itself and Clooney's rather ramshackle of a farm house. Both serve as the dream of Tomorrowland lost on a people obsessed with conflict and the darkness that has engulfed our society. One of the best scenes of film happens at that farmhouse, as Casey and Frank are pursued by robotic agents left on Earth to watch Frank; when it' attacked, he employs some genius suppression measures to deal with them. But while he lets Clooney and newbie Robertson (who's excellent by the way) do a lot of the heavy lifting, not much of what they say amounts to much. Good reveals and character interplay are the hallmarks of good filmmaking; here, all the joy of scientific discovery promised in its very good teaser trailer are almost completely lost. And why call a movie Tomorrowland, when our characters spend so much away from it?
In the end, Tomorrowland tries to be too much, wasting every asset of its excellent cast and stunning special effects. Its soapbox dialogue and meandering plot won't inspire children in the least, when they've already seen a rocket-powered genius (Iron Man), a worrisome scientist (Bruce Banner) and an evil organization (Hydra) done much better in other Disney properties. I applaud the studio's bold idea for a movie; I criticize them for mishandling its promise so profusely. Tomorrowland is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language and has a runtime of 130 minutes. Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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