It's no secret that our world can be an overwhelmingly cynical place. As a society we've become so entrenched in negativity and pessimism that it's easy to become disillusioned with where we're headed. This mindset has extended even to the way we imagine our future: Once, we dreamt of a great big, beautiful tomorrow, but somewhere along the line our visions of the future turned into an endless sea of dystopias and post-apocalyptic wastelands.
With their earnest, retro-futurist adventure tale, "Tomorrowland," director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof aim to cure our collective sense of disenchantment. Arguing that the population uses this sense of hopelessness as an excuse to not attempt to change things, they want to inspire us through ray-guns, rocket ships, and plenty of gee-whiz optimism. It's hard to fault a film with such noble goals -- of course we could use more imagination and creativity in our world -- but the problem comes when the conceit ceases to be a movie and settles for being a TED talk about the healing power of positivity.
In a flashback sequence, we're introduced to Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a young boy attending the 1964 World's Fair with plans to enter his homemade, only semi-functioning jetpack into competition at the inventor's pavilion. When asked by the judge (Hugh Laurie, cluing us in that he'll become important later) what purpose a jetpack that doesn't actually fly could possibly serve, Frank explains (as characters in this film are wont to do) how its mere potential is enough to show people that anything is possible and can inspire them to do great things. It's a nice notion -- and a pretty great defense of the value of art -- so it's a shame that once the film presents that idea, it never does anything to advance it. Frank's invention fails to impress the judge, but a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy, by far the best part of the movie) takes an interest, slipping him a pin that offers entry into a futuristic utopia created by our world's best and brightest.
From there, we jump forward to present day where we meet our teenage heroine, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a brainy optimist who believes that the future can be brighter than society tells her. She finds herself in the possession of a very familiar pin, and the discovery sets her off to track down Frank, now a recluse (and played by a cranky George Clooney) holed up in his inventively booby-trapped home. After some convincing, Casey enlists his help get her to Tomorrowland and uncover its many mysteries.
There's some nicely staged action as our heroes attempt to outrun a pack of humanoid robots meant to keep them from reaching their destination as well as an exciting trip to the Eiffel Tower (which conceals its own hidden wonders). Unfortunately, the action does nothing to advance the plot and frequently feels like Bird and Lindelof spinning their wheels. The few glimpses we get of the gleaming Tomorrowland are appropriately spectacular, but not much else in the movie shows as much imagination (intentionally or not) as those all-too-brief sequences, and that sense of wonder is sorely missing from the rest of the film.
All of the film's great concepts come wrapped in a package of sloppy storytelling, and it's hard not to wonder how much blame lies with Lindelof, whose projects (including "Lost" and "Prometheus") can uniformly be characterized by their oversized ambitions and narrative incoherence. A third act, in which it turns out that the source of all the world's pessimism is a physical object that can be destroyed by blowing it up real good, strikes me as particularly Lindelof-esque. I hate to pile on the guy, since yes, his collaborators have the option to veto any ideas they think are terrible. But when you're the common denominator in so many projects that have such similar issues, it gets harder and harder to ignore the thought that perhaps that's where the blame lies.
Props to Bird for making his lead a young woman and science enthusiast (and how great is it that the three films currently topping the box office all have female leads?), but I hold the director to a higher standard. For a movie about creativity and imagination, I want a little more ingenuity from its storytelling. Each of Bird's animated films, from "The Iron Giant" to "The Incredibles," had their own messages, but found more imaginative, entertaining ways to express them than through simple sermonizing. Thankfully, Michael Giacchino's magnificent score is on-hand, often single-handedly providing the sense of wonder the film itself can't muster.
It's a bit disheartening to find myself criticizing a film with such admirable goals and clear passion behind it, but without the execution to back them up, ideas will only get you so far. Still, I suppose that if the film actually does succeed in inspiring young people toward action and invention, than my quibbles are negated -- even if it never feels like this jetpack ever truly gets off the ground.