'Tomorrowland' doesn't really know where it's going


Tomorrowland / B-

File this under: When exceptional filmmakers make unexceptional films.

Brad Bird has had such a string of artistic and commercial successes that it was only a matter of time before he stumbled. Ever since his feature debut with The Iron Giant – an animated classic that was overlooked by audiences but beloved by critics- Bird has become a bit of a wunderkind, delivering a pair of Pixar classics, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and reinvigorating the Mission Impossible franchise with its most entertaining installment to date, Ghost Protocol.

Now, with his latest film, he's working without a net – no literary source material, no well-established prequels, and no corporate creative infrastructure to guide the way. Tomorrowland, despite its obvious Disney synergies, is clearly a passion project, the kind of stand-on-its-own big budget movie that esteemed filmmakers get to make once they've generated oodles of box office cash. For Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar) it was Inception. For Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) it was John Carter. In terms of artistic achievement, Bird's movie falls somewhere between the two. Its box office returns have yet to be determined.

The plot, as it is, concerns teenage genius Casey Newton (the highly charismatic Britt Robertson), the precocious daughter of a NASA engineer, who finds a magical pin that, whenever she touches it, reveals a futuristic world called Tomorrowland. Determined to find her way there, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), the one person on Earth who can supposedly access this alternate dimension. But first she must contend with smirking homicidal robots, an ageless English girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and a series of seemingly inescapable predicaments. None of these actually advances the story, characters or themes of the film but they're handled with great invention and panache.

Bird confirms his carefully honed action instincts early in the first act with a 1960s flashback to Frank as a bright-eyed boy. Sneaking into Tomorrowland, young Frank is knocked off a platform and sent plummeting to the Earth thousands of feet below. Forced to 'swim' toward his tumbling jet pack (made from vacuum cleaner parts), his hairpin save is a giddy and dazzling introduction to the film's embrace of child-logic physics.

Tomorrowland's middle section builds on that sensibility with a series of masterfully executed suspense sequences involving ray gun-toting android assassins, hidden doors, plasma bombs, a booby-trapped farmhouse, vertigo-inducing climbs and tumbles, and machines that split, unfold and reassemble themselves with clockwork precision. Monorails, zero-G swimming pools and big clanky robots complete Bird's Jetsons-like vision.

But while the choreography, editing, and effects are thrilling, Tomorrowland itself is a bit of a let-down. While Bird teases us with some spectacular details, we're shown remarkably little of this supposed wonderland of futuristic innovation. Shouldn't a magical destination be, well, magical? Instead of leaving our jaws agape in wonder, Tomorrowland's architecture looks like a cross between Disney's Epcot Center (with Space Mountain thrown into the background) and a high-end shopping mall.

Worse, the actions scenes Bird has concocted feel like delay tactics, a too-long introduction that pushes the real (and overtly pedantic) plot into the last third of the film. The movie doesn't actually have an antagonist and the stakes -world destruction- seem, at best, abstract. Yeah, there's a ticking clock counting down toward doomsday and Hugh Laurie lecturing us (convincingly, I might add) that humanity is more interested in destruction than progress, but we never feel like anyone is in any actual peril. Which makes Casey's designation as the “chosen one” superfluous. It doesn't help that she doesn't demonstrate any particularly special traits beyond general smarts and a whole lot of optimistic gumption.

Which echoes Tomorrowland's ultimate agenda. Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof seem to be commenting on the current state of movies, lamenting their inability to curb their destructive and more cynical impulses. Their challenge to Hollywood and its audiences is to dream big optimistic dreams. Which is a very nice sentiment. The irony is, of course, that the recently released Mad Max: Fury Road, for all its dystopic violence, presents more thematic richness on a grander, more entertaining scale, proving just how hard it is to practice what you preach.

Tomorrowland is rated PG and has a running time of 130 minutes.