“Tomorrowland” is an uneven film. It gets off on the wrong foot, builds promisingly, has a terrific middle, but then stumbles and meanders its way toward an underwhelming conclusion. Let’s get the worst scene out of the way first. At the 1964 World’s Fair, young Frank (Thomas Robinson) presents a homemade jetpack to the judge of an invention contest (Hugh Laurie). The judge asks him what purpose the jetpack serves. Frank responds, “Why can’t it just be fun?” The line is supposed to paint Frank as a wise, whimsical dreamer. The problem is that a jetpack is going to have a much higher purpose than just fun. Frank has theoretically revolutionized transportation with a device that allows man to fly independently of an airplane, and here he is assigning it the same purpose as a pair of novelty chattering teeth. It’s hard to take Frank seriously as a genius after that.
The film manages to pick itself up. Frank is given a mysterious pin by cryptic child Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who invites him to stealthily follow her. He stows away in a prototype of an iconic Disneyland ride (ironically one not located in the Tomorrowland section of the park) and winds up in the intellectual paradise of Tomorrowland. Flash forward to present day. Teenage science-lover and perpetual optimist Casey (Britt Robertson, too old to be playing a high-school student) is given one of the mysterious pins. The pin gives her a vision of Tomorrowland and she is so entranced that she goes on a cross-country adventure to find out how to get there. Eventually she teams up with Athena, still as cryptic and childlike as ever, and an older, jaded Frank (George Clooney), who thinks that Casey might just be the key to saving humanity.
The trio does make it to Tomorrowland around the film’s two-thirds mark, but the best stretch of the film is the time between Casey’s imagined trip and the actual trip. The early visions of Tomorrowland are spectacular (think of an entire city designed by World’s Fair architects with people dressed in the most extravagant futuristic fashion), the three characters are funny and endearing in their chemistry, and we get some mature action sequences for a kids’ movie. Casey is hunted by some evil robots who turn intrusive humans to dust, and Frank doesn’t think twice about absolutely brutalizing the killing machines. Even Athena takes a nasty hit that’s shocking to see happen to a child. I’m not necessarily saying that kids won’t be able to handle this violence, just that violence is definitely present.
The movie winds up in Tomorrowland, which has lost its luster under the leadership of Governor Nix (Laurie). Nix has been sending out a doomsday prophecy to all of humanity, and rather than do anything about it, we’ve all subconsciously chosen to accept it. He, in turn, has long since accepted that we’re not going to do anything about it, so he’s not going to do anything about it either. But at least our heroes are determined to do something about it. The message of the film is that you shouldn’t just accept that the world is doomed, but you also have to make an effort to save it. It’s a good message turned annoying by being hammered in too frequently.
There were parts of “Tomorrowland” where I thought it was going to go down as one of the best movies of the year. It has some of the best sequences of the year, especially Casey’s initial vision of the city (which is going to get some Oscar nominations for about two minutes of screen time), but the movie as a whole loses its way toward the end with a convoluted “mankind is dooming itself” storyline that you can get from any number of recent action movies. It’s an ambitious movie that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Two Stars out of Five.
“Tomorrowland” is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language. Its running time is 130 minutes.