It’s always funny when a movie teeters on the brink between success and failure: watching them as they ascend toward greatness, only to plummet back down to earth as nothing more than burning fuselage. Like Icarus on wings of celluloid. “Tomorrowland” is an extremely earnest, extremely frustrating movie—a film that overcomes a laborious and almost unwatchable first 30 minutes before being saved by George Clooney. It eventually transforms into something I almost could have highly recommended. I spent the first half of “Tomorrowland” wanting to punch it in the throat. By the end, I wanted to wrap my arms around it and give it a hug for trying so hard. It’s that confounding.
The movie starts out ugly—really ugly. It’s as if someone at Disney watched the movie and declared, “No one’s gonna get this,” and ordered a hastily cut-together bookend sequence to introduce the audience to its two heroes. Francis Walker (George Clooney) is a grizzled genius who, as a boy, had found his way to a mythical futuristic city where the world’s greatest minds gathered to create a scientific paradise that would usher in a new age of thought. But something went horribly wrong. Before we can get to that, the story is taken over by Casey (“Under the Dome”’s Britt Robertson). Like Francis, she’s a young dreamer who learns about this mysterious technological utopia.
Filmmakers spent an inordinately long time bringing Casey into the story, something that is completely undone by the film’s opening. Within the first 10 minutes, we’ve met old Francis and seen how his younger self happened upon “Tomorrowland.” After we get this breathtaking look, we’re dragged back into the real world to deal with Casey’s origin story, which is nowhere near as interesting. We labor through her home life, her obsession with space exploration and her rebellious scientific side, as she attempts to shut down the demolition of a NASA launch pad. Like Francis, she’s approached by a charming young girl named “Athena,” who provides them the means to discover “Tomorrowland.”
I cannot stress enough how turgid the film’s first 30 to 40 minutes are. Britt Robertson is a nice enough actress, but they have her “aw-shucks” meter cranked up to 11. Her performance is like something out of a 1930’s serial back when acting relied heavily on overselling every single line. It’s as if there were someone just off camera with a loaded gun yelling, “Bigger!” At any moment she could have broken into a musical number, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
I never thought I would utter these words in a review, but here they are: “Goddamn was I glad to see George Clooney.” I’ve got nothing against Clooney, per se, but he hasn’t been interesting in a long time. I was surprised to see him deliver his most nuanced performance in years in a movie like this. He’s the perfect curmudgeon, which acts as a nice foil against Casey’s ludicrous amount of gumption, moxie and chutzpah.
The second half of “Tomorrowland” is so much better than the first. Once Clooney shows up, we finally get some forward momentum and learn about the tragedy that has befallen Tomorrowland, and the adventure to save the world begins. There are still hints of terrible that linger throughout the second half. There’s a 10-minute sequence in the middle of the film that has our heroes find a teleporter that transports them from New York to the Eiffel Tower, so they can launch a rocket that will then take them to Tomorrowland. I was aghast during this whole sequence, rolling my eyes and screaming, “Jesus! Brad Bird, just get them to Tomorrowland already!” It would be like going to see “Jurassic Park” and watching Jeff Goldblum declare, “Life … uh … finds a way,” every 10 minutes for an hour before letting anyone into the park.
Ultimately, I have to recommend “Tomorrowland” because it tries so hard to be something unconventional. Even its very glaring faults are because its director, Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), has attempted to make a feel-good PG adventure with some big ideas. But he handles them so clumsily.
The film’s message is delivered in such a ham-fisted fashion, like Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston with two pigs strapped to his forearms. Yet, damnit, the film’s final act got to me—even the super-preachy sermon about believing in hope versus despair. The ending felt like a cross between a United Nations teen summit and the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad from 1971. Enough is here to recommend seeing “Tomorrowland” if you can suffer through the uneven, amateurish first half.
Starring Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh laurie
Directed by Brad Bird