Disney sci-fi feature hampered by erratic tone

Disney’s new science-fiction thriller for the family, Tomorrowland, could serve as a metaphor for the future of humankind: kinetic, jumbled, full of both promise and risk.

Although that may be an apt metaphor, it makes for a less-than-satisfying movie-going experience. The erratic tone of the story and its hyper-drive execution tosses the viewer around like the homemade jetpack invented by one of the main characters.

Starring a grizzled George Clooney and a fresh-faced young actress named Britt Robertson as two science-minded dreamers, Tomorrowland imagines an alternative dimension where the most creative minds can develop their ideas free from the political and economic pressures of life on Earth. One can only access this futuristic utopia by invitation, a privilege granted years apart to Clooney’s Frank, a reclusive inventor, and Robertson’s Casey, an optimistic whiz kid.

But of course, there is trouble in paradise, and Frank and Casey must reluctantly join forces to put things right, both in Tomorrowland and here at home.

A homemade jetpack is invented by one the movie’s main characters. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

A homemade jetpack is invented by one the movie’s main characters. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

The core of the problem with Tomorrowland is the script by Damon Lindelof (Lost), Jeff Jensen, and Brad Bird (who also directs). The story suffers greatly from an overabundance of cool ideas and clever contraptions. It’s like the writers sat around in a room tossing out suggestions, and then all of them got piled into a single movie, whether they fit or not. The results are several entertaining set pieces and some wonderful effects strung together with a tenuous narrative line. What is fun in the moment starts to fall apart as soon as the viewer tries to connect the dots.

As director, Bird seems unable to help his story hang together. The pacing and tone suffer from inconsistency. At times, Tomorrowland is a bright, peppy lark in a spirit very familiar to Disney audiences. In other moments, it feels tense and murky. Sometimes, it’s just frustratingly opaque.

Both Clooney and Robertson are appealing in their roles, though they don’t ever establish the kind of genuine chemistry on which the story depends. Hugh Laurie makes for an unconventional villain. Raffey Cassidy, a young British actress with penetrating blue eyes, charms as the mysterious catalyst in the story. Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key are amusing but wasted in supporting roles.

Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Similarly, though often pretty in appearance and intriguing in theory, Tomorrowland isn’t all it could have been.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.