Tomorrowland — vaguely based on the Disney theme park attraction — is a mess. Structurally, it’s a nightmare. Dramatically, it only occasionally comes to life. Technically, it’s sometimes impressive and sometimes a thing of 1930s-level matte paintings and CGI that’s so cartoonish it’s hard to remember it isn’t an animated film. Thematically, it’s such a bizarre farrago of mismatched “philosophies” and ideas that it’s hard to tell what it’s supposed to be. I’d like to call it a “noble failure,” but I’m not at all sure that it’s noble. I am sure, on the other hand, that so far as I’m concerned, it’s certainly a failure.
Put on a very simple — and even charitable — level, Tomorrowland feels like science fiction grounded in Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking — minus the God stuff. The basic idea is that our own fixation with bad news, gloomy prognostications and dystopian fiction is the driving force that is taking the world to hell in your proverbial handbasket. If only we looked on the sunny side, etc. All in all, it’s not a bad notion — just a simplistic one. But what approach have director Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof taken to deliver this message? Why, of course, they’ve come up with a story about — wait for it — overthrowing a dystopian government/parallel universe — complete with all the trappings of the very things Tomorrowland constantly shakes an accusatory finger at us for buying into. While it lectures us about being optimistic, it’s blithely incinerating people with ray guns, blowing things up and even treating us to giant Rock-’em-Sock-’em robots.
But if we put on a happy face, all this will change. After all, the mere presence of one upbeat teenage girl (Britt Robertson, Cake) makes the prospect of our impending doom move from 100 percent certainty to a chance of a happier scenario. All that’s lacking is Shirley Temple showing up to sing “Be Optimistic.” The problem — one of them — is that what Tomorrowland offers is more bromide than anything. And when it does offer something more, that something is an unwieldy mix of Ayn Rand and populism. The whole concept of Tomorrowland is about a millimeter away from Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged — a utopia for the select few — and its recruiting program is interchangeable with John Galt’s approach. Worse — and this gets into the realm of spoilers — its final answer is to return to the same old elitist policies Tomorrowland was using in 1964 of bringing in “just the right people.” The kindest thing I can say is that the film is on the regressive side and bathed in the antiseptic worldview of Disney.
Even if you can overlook all this — and a lot of folks will just because of the movie’s “positive” message — the film is a shambles. We have to wade through an utterly pointless and annoying onscreen narration (gotta get Clooney up there right away) and two protracted backstories to get to the actual plot. The film does improve once it clears away the setup, but the tone remains inconsistent. Enjoyable bickering between Clooney’s disillusioned dreamer and his perpetually 14-year-old former mentor (Raffey Cassidy, Dark Shadows) sits right next to clunky villainy and ham-handed preachiness. A brilliant steampunkish sequence involving an antique rocket hidden in the Eiffel Tower (a nod to Disneyland Paris) is all but obliterated by the rarely convincing depiction of Tomorrowland itself. For that matter, the film is incapable of selling its central premise of DNA-coded Tomorrowland pins. If the right person touches the pin, they’re whisked away to a magical world that looks like a Terrence Malick movie with an Emerald City-like matte painting of Tomorrowland on the horizon. Only not really. It’s just a vision hemmed in by the logistics of the real world — unless you move to the wide open spaces. This somehow not only allows you to get to Tomorrowland, but to interact with its inhabitants. How? I have no idea, and I doubt the filmmakers have either.
The film is not devoid of merit. But its merits — ranging from some terrific visuals to excellent work from Clooney and young Raffey Cassidy — just aren’t enough to save it. Even allowing for the possibility that it’s all well-intended — if wooly-minded — the approach is so adamant about forcing positivity on you that it has all the charm of being stuck for two hours in a room with an endless loop of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” playing. Ultimately, I can’t get away from the sense that what I sat through was essentially the world’s most expensive TED talk. That’s an awful thing to have to say about any movie. Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action, violence and peril, thematic elements and language.