Before I go into discussing why this movie and its existence haunts me as much as it does, I figure I ought to explain the expectations I had going into this feature.
When I first heard the concept of Tomorrowland, my 15 year old self had trouble containing his excitement. There was this overall sense of glee and joy upon hearing that a movie based off my favorite section of Disneyland was going to be made, and that it would be directed by Brad Bird who, for me, has always been one of the most inspirational directors working in Hollywood. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is primarily known for animation having done The Iron Giant in 1999, but he is most known for his work with Pixar having created the Incredibles and Ratatouille. It wasn’t until 2011 when Bird was given the chance to helm a live action film with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I had seen all his movies and loved all of them. Until Fallout was released in 2018, Ghost Protocol was actually my favorite Mission Impossible movie.
The trailers then were released for the movie and they were very secretive in how they presented itself.
The first teaser merely showed a mysterious main character, Casey, played by Britt Robertson, checking out of what seemed to be either a prison or a police station. The police goes through all her items that she went to collect, until she notices a bizarre pin with a letter “T” painted on the front. When she touches the pin, it transports her to a wheat field with a futuristic city in the distance waiting to be explored. This was such a cool concept, the idea of being transported to a city merely by holding onto a pin, I wondered where they were gonna go with this concept.
The next few trailers were released and they slowly revealed a little more about the plot, but honestly not much else. They showcased that the pins were more of a temporary calling card to the city of Tomorrowland and that the film would actually be about the journey to the city. Admittedly, the trailers were really vague and didn’t provide much info on what the movie was about but what kept me on board for this film was the grand sense of adventure that the trailers promoted. I went into this movie under the impression that the film would be a fast paced sci-fi adventure spent mostly in the futuristic city with some possible world ending stakes involved too.
By the time I had turned 16 and the movie was ready to be released on Memorial Day Weekend of 2015, I didn’t know what to do with myself. A theater close to my house had just opened up a new IMAX theater and I forced my dad to take me to the new theater to experience this movie. I had just gotten over my anticipation for Avengers: Age of Ultron and this was a movie that deserved a proper and ultimate movie viewing experience. When I walked out, I found myself disappointed and even slightly confused by what I had just watched. It was one of the most ambitious, yet bizarre and even unsatisfying movies I’ve ever seen in my life. As a teenager, this movie cursed me because I acknowledged the potential for greatness it had but knew that this movie was just too ambitious for its own good.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie but without giving too much away, what doesn’t work about this movie?
The way Tomorrowland is presented is that the entire idea of the city is a mystery. What is it? What draws people to it? How does one get there? These questions are what is supposed to keep the plot going and hold the audience’s intrigue. This is fine as the film can potentially become more exciting due to this intrigue, especially if the characters find themselves struggling to find these answers due to unfortunate events. The problem is the excuses the script gives as to why the characters do not have all the answers they need is so lame. Let me explain.
Oftentimes, in order for Casey, played by Britt Robertson, to find the answer to a question she is looking for, she just needs to ask someone she knows for help. She comes in contact with an android, Athena, played by Raffie Cassidy, who is extremely strong and can easily fend off bad guys in an instant. As Athena helps Casey in these moments Casey finds herself asking questions like “What is going on?”, “What’s happening?”, “Why are you doing this?”, and the only response that Athena gives is “I can’t tell you that yet.” There’s no reason as to why she can’t tell her anything yet other than that the screenwriter, Damon Lindelof, would prefer you not find out the main conflict of the movie before the third act. If Athena just tells Casey all the information she and the audience needs to know, the intrigue of the movie ends right away and there’s nothing left.
The writing in this movie just feels really lazy and it even becomes frustrating as an audience member to watch. It’s fine that Lindelof chooses to leave the audience at a state of confusion throughout the movie, he should just find a way to convey that mystery in a meaningful way and he never really does. Had the characters that surround Casey either had the same questions she did or had this movie been set in Tomorrowland with the answers slowly trickling in, it would’ve been a smoother and even more satisfying experience.
Instead, what we get is a drawn out 1st act that goes on for about 90 mins and then a final act that goes on for about 30 mins where a bunch of information is dropped onto the audience. None of it feels earned or coherent, it just feels chaotic, in the worst kind of way. Once we do get to the third act of the movie, you find that the answers to your questions are really underwhelming. It’s not what you expected and although I appreciate a film that can play with your expectations, it’s important that it does so in a way that feels, once again, earned and meaningful.
Most of the movie isn’t even set in Tomorrowland. It’s mostly on Earth and they don’t even reach the city until the finale of the film. In fact, they never even call the city Tomorrowland in the movie except for once towards the end. They only refer to it as “there” or “the city when I touched the pin.” Part of this is because Casey herself doesn’t know the city name, and again they’re trying to build mystery in anyway they can, it just feels weird knowing that they aren’t even really giving you what the film itself promised. Also, it isn’t much of a mystery what the name of the city is when we see George Clooney say the name of it in the trailer and when the movie itself is titled by the city name. We only get a few minutes of the beauty of Tomorrowland before the finale with a flashback of Frank (played by George Clooney) and when Casey touches the pin until she realizes the pin has expired and she can no longer use it as a means to transport herself to the city. This film needed to be set in Tomorrowland and have a more exciting screenplay with more interesting twists. Had it done so, we probably would’ve had a really special and fun science fiction film that would be talked about today.
To be honest, this is one of the worst screenplays to one of the best looking movies I’ve ever seen.
Brad Bird does an amazing job behind the camera and every aspect on the technical side is wonderful! The cinematography, production design, color correction, visual effects and lighting are all spectacular and you can tell they got some of the most talented people in the industry to work on this project. The film was shown in the 1.90:1 IMAX aspect ratio and it made the movie feel even more alive and was actually a great way to experience it. All the scenes in the city of Tomorrowland, although brief, are fantastic! The music builds a sense of excitement and awe for the characters as we experience what seems to be a really cool city. The design of these gadgets and gizmos throughout it are very fun too having taken much influence from Walt Disney’s design of Tomorrowland at the parks and other sci-fi related media from the 50’s and 60’s. The way the buildings are created and cars are modeled feels very reminiscent of that retro look Americans had been used to in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It at times feels like a live action version of a movie like the Iron Giant, the Incredibles, or even Meet the Robinsons (not a Brad Bird film). It’s not a vision of the future we are used to seeing in today’s films but it’s one that I really admired and hope can be put to a better screenplay at some point in the future.
So with that all said and done, what kind of story would I want to tell if I were ever given the opportunity to adapt my favorite section of Disneyland into a feature film?
I think the use of the “mystery box” that Lindelof is known for on shows like Lost was really used poorly within this feature. It felt incredibly unfocused and disorganized which really ruined the experience for me. If a producer had insisted I used the mystery box as a means to tell this story, I would have none of the characters involved in this adventure know anything about what they are encountering. In fact, I would completely redesign this screenplay as to model a more traditional sci-fi adventure film while still remaining its own unique thing. Perhaps the characters that reside on Earth can notice a disturbance on their planet and a signal coming from another mysterious planet many light years away.
From there, my screenplay would follow a group of characters on their way to the city and the oddities they come across as they head towards their destination. Tomorrrowland doesn’t even have to be a city, it can be a country. Hell, it can be a planet for all I care. If we were to go with that, the characters would have so much more to explore. Maybe there are certain parts of the planet Tomorrowland that are more desolate than others. Maybe there’s a war between the classes that reside within the city. Maybe the governor of Tomorrowland has noticed life on Earth and hopes to destroy it as a means to widen his influence in the galaxy. I know it sounds silly but there’s gotta be a way to tell this story in a more satisfying way while still remaining ambitious.
I’ve thought for a while about a screenplay for a movie called “Space Mountain” in fact based off the ride that is similar to these ideas I’ve just mentioned. I’ve structured it mostly as a journey movie where characters find more and more along the way. It’s still underdeveloped, but it’s something I have fun messing around with as a writer. I understand that Lindelof’s vision of this movie and my vision of this movie are very different, which is fine, I just wish the film took advantage of the incredible production on display and made a more fun adventure that could still hold an impact with audiences years after they’ve experienced it for the first time.
Further, the movie is so full of itself. It believes it’s this grand adventure that takes you beyond the cosmos when in reality it’s just a two hour meandering experience where grumpy characters refuse to give other characters answers to questions and where “stuff” just kind of happens with no merit or meaning behind it. I didn’t even mention the fact that one of the main subplots of the film is the relationship Frank, who is now an older man, once had with the android Athena when he was young and the pain he feels knowing that he’ll never be able to experience a meaningful relationship with her because she is an android and cannot grow or experience love. The performances just do not sell it and truthfully these are ideas I don’t feel a Disney movie can really truly do properly. As is, it just feels uncomfortable because all I see is George Clooney being sad that he cannot pursue a relationship with a child and it’s just too ambitious an idea for Disney to successfully tackle in my opinion. Lindelof believes he’s making the next Her or Under the Skin when in reality he should’ve focused more on making an accessible yet unique sci-fi adventure.
Overall, Tomorrowland is a clumsy, awkward mess of a movie that never feels satisfying or fulfilling. It’s one of the most frustrating movies I’ve seen in years and it curses me to this day that it wasn’t as good as it should be. Every once in a while I get the urge to watch it again just to confirm that it is not nearly as good as I thought it was, and I have to stop myself when I get these urges because I know that if I follow through with them, I’m settling myself in for a really disappointing ride. I really wish this movie was better, and I probably would be a better person in a world where this movie was the masterpiece it had the potential to be. I think had the story perhaps remained more simple and had they spent more time in the city, this could’ve been something really special. Brad Bird in particular does a great job with simple yet charming stories and you can tell that story wise, this project is way out of his comfort zone. I still respect that this movie was attempting to be as ambitious as it was, but I can also acknowledge when this movie ultimately fails at achieving the goal it set out towards in the first place. Tomorrow truly feels like another dream away with this one.