Dreadful Script Spells Doom For "Tomorrowland"

“Tomorrowland” really couldn’t be more exciting. On paper.

Beloved writer-director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) dabbling in some of Walt Disney’s finest iconography. A $190 million budget, all the latest bells and whistles on stand-by. Superstar George Clooney on board to star. How could it not be great?

It’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty bad.

With oft-maligned “Lost” scribe Damon Lindelof as a credited writer, it’d be all too easy to lay the blame at his feet for the pic’s eye-popping ineptitude. After all, Bird co-wrote the movie!

But the truth is that “Tomorrowland” plays like a manifestation of every complaint ever lobbed Lindelof’s way. Painfully linear storytelling, overreliance on magical trinkets, odd thematic tics, an unsatisfying finale – it’s all here. And it’s all tragic, given the talent involved.

Early on, the movie – in one of its many high horse moments – tsk tsks society at large for fear mongering in education and entertainment and every other corner of modern life. An hour later, the script uses those same scare tactics – the threat of the apocalypse – to resolve itself, either ignoring its own hypocrisy (dumb) or missing it entirely (dumber). It’s a sin that’s symbolic of the project’s other failings, from its nonstarter of a narrative to its bumper-sticker-ready platitudes to its talky, lifeless finale.

George Clooney leads as Frank Walker, the old, cranky, reclusive version of a formerly wide-eyed child inventor who – in the film’s modestly entertaining and visually inventive prologue – ventures to the 1964’s World’s Fair, homemade jetpack in tow. A dalliance with an early version of Walt’s ubiquitous It’s A Small World attraction sends the youngster down a Disney rabbit hole, disappearing into an alternate reality. Tomorrowland. Where anything is possible and optimism rules.

Young Frank is greeted with a signpost that reads “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” the movie’s first sign of trouble and perhaps a subconscious mea culpa for its inane screenplay. Imagination is a wonderful thing, perhaps even the pinnacle of human existence. But imagination is nothing without knowledge. Like, for example, fun sci-fi ideas without the knowledge of how to corral them in a coherent script.

Once past the aforementioned preface, we’re subjected to even more exposition by way of a teenage girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), heartbroken that her dad’s NASA project is being shut down. Her attempts to stall the demolition end her up in jail, where she finds a magical pin whose touch takes her away to a land unknown to her.

Apart from a sequence that bookends the movie, Clooney doesn’t appear until nearly an hour in, eventually tracked down by Casey and persuaded to take her to Tomorrowland. It’s not like Frank has much choice, though, as evil robots are closing in on the pair, seemingly on hand for no other reason than to ensure our leads keep moving.

Briton Hugh Laurie is misused as the pouty, mostly-absent villain Nix, while young Raffey Cassidy is saddled with the film’s most awkward role – Athena, a perpetually ageless girl robot who falls in love with young Frank Walker and can’t quite shake that feeling when she meets old Frank Walker. The feeling seems weirdly mutual.

In all its condescending, didactic glory, the movie is without a single subplot. It’s all A story and no B story, never returning to Casey’s dad (Tim McGraw) or brother (Pierce Gagnon) and explaining the teen’s prolonged absence with a voicemail to her family insisting she’s fine.

And the exposition never really stops, with Bird and Lindelof explaining everything every step of the way, very little of it interesting, much of it confusing. The most intriguing thing about “Tomorrowland” is its stunning level of violence, inexplicably passed off as PG-appropriate by the MPAA. It’s all enacted on humanoid robots, but it’s insane all the same, with multiple beheadings and a brutal baseball bat beating certain to startle younger viewers.

None of this jives with the screenplay’s “power through positivity” moralizing, a cheerfulness that comes off as obnoxious rather than infectious. But since the story doesn’t make any logical sense – the Eiffel Tower was secretly built as a rocketship! – inconsistency is the norm.

Somehow Bird and Lindelof have parlayed Walt Disney’s most cherished theme park land into a dull, vaguely anti-science movie that evokes latter-day M. Night Shyamalan. The visuals – which are fine – are rarely exceptional, leaving us to gnaw on some excruciatingly happy-go-lucky dialogue and too many unintentional laughs to count. See: a climax that features George Clooney and Hugh Laurie fist fighting over the fate of the world.

From a filmmaker whose four features to date average a muscular 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it all makes for an absolutely crushing defeat.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: May 22, 2015
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof
Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Thomas Robinson, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key
MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language)