Why “Tomorrowland” is Easy to Love and Harder to Watch

Tomorrowland is a very easy movie to like…just not at first. It opens with a frame story about a flashback that jumps to a prologue in another flashback. Confused? Exactly.

It’s easy enough to follow, but inside of five minutes, the film is attempting moments of grandeur it hasn’t earned. The music booms as the visuals loom and no one’s really communicated why exactly it should all matter yet. If you’ll allow me to use a technical term, this ‘nerfs’ one of the film’s biggest reveals – the city of Tomorrowland. Moreover, it undermines the central mystery at the film’s core: how does one get there?

See, Casey (Britt Robertson) is the daughter of a NASA scientist. With the manned space program decommissioned, the only job her dad can find is dismantling the shuttle launch platform. That proves difficult since Casey breaks onto government property and sabotages the cranes every few nights. She wants to go to space one day, and hates what the program’s dismantling represents.

One day, a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) slips a pin into her bag. When Casey touches the pin, she finds herself in a futuristic city of astounding technological innovation. The pin’s power only lasts so long, and she sets out to find anyone connected with it. She has to get there. Eventually, this will lead her to a discontented loner who’s been banished from Tomorrowland – Frank (George Clooney).

Tomorrowland is extraordinarily uneven, but what makes it all work is the unparalleled star power of two of the film’s leads. No, not Clooney. He’s fine in the role of Frank, but this is Britt Robertson’s showcase and she is exceptional. As Casey, she is the quintessential Disney hero for this generation. She’s technologically savvy. She’s good natured, but she doubts the validity of the authority figures who got us into this mess. She’s driven to chase ideals and stand up for them before standing up for herself.

Raffey Cassidy also evokes a lot of empathy as Athena, the mysterious little girl leading Casey closer and closer to Frank. It’s a deceptively difficult supporting role to pull off for reasons I won’t spoil, but the 11 year-old all but steals the film, relegating Clooney to third wheel. She’s also the action hero of the trio, an unexpected decision that works very well.

Director Brad Bird fails them a little by making the action a touch too cartoonish, drawing from the director’s The Incredibles more than his Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. In a live action film, his CG dips into uncanny valley territory – the area where things look and act human, but don’t quite mesh with our expectations. Tomorrowland feels pressure to deliver on incredible sights, but it comes up short. It feels too self-conscious and its most interesting elements are distant CG backdrops. The real sets characters are allowed to interact with are incredibly sparse.

Tomorrowland had a budget of $190 million. I have no idea where that all went. It’s a testament to the actors and the film’s central concepts that it’s all pulled off this well. I wonder at the far more brilliant movie that might’ve been made on a third of the budget, forcing Bird to be more inventive with his sets and storytelling and less extravagant on CG wallpaper.

There’s also a disconnect in the action. Some of it is exceptional, such as when Frank’s house is invaded by androids. Bird’s excellent at complicating the stakes in each moment of an action sequence. When he devolves to giant robots punching each other, it drops his verve for the human element at play. Some of the action clunks a bit, but it’s worth it to see a character who’s ostensibly an 11 year-old girl beating up armed guards while George Clooney stands by looking panicked. I really want my niece to see an action hero like that. At the same time, robots who look absolutely human are decapitated (with sparks and wires showing) or beaten repeatedly in the face with a baseball bat. These moments pass quickly, but a little more creativity in the choreography could have gone a long way to making it as child-friendly as the rest of the movie is.

Tomorrowland is a mess, but in the end it’s a mess with heart to spare. It’s a mess I like a lot because what it has to say matters. It points the finger squarely at the audience. As the world falls apart around us, it says, rather than look to the stars and dream and invent, we embrace the end of the world as an inevitability. Why? Because this demands less of us. It means we don’t have to lift a finger to fix things today. Changing things and making the world better requires a great deal of work and effort. It’s easier to lose the dream and forget you ever had it than it is to chase after it until exhaustion, and then chase after it some more. Tomorrowland asks that if we aren’t willing to do that anymore, why are we even here? Luckily, our hero’s a dreamer. I only wonder if the audience will take after her.

This is a movie made for a specific generation at a specific moment in time, and that counts for something. If you can manage the messy prologue, you’ve got a fast, enjoyable, and important movie in front of you. Not everyone’s looking for the same thing in a movie every weekend. Tomorrowland isn’t the best movie in theaters right now by a long shot, but it is the most inspiring.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Tomorrowland have more than one woman in it?

Yes, Britt Robertson plays Casey, Raffey Cassidy plays Athena, and Kathryn Hahn plays Ursula.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. I’d say the majority of the film’s dialogue belongs to women.

3. About something other than a man?

Save for a few one-liners at Frank’s expense, men are rarely discussed.

Though Robertson is the film’s lead, Cassidy is a strong 1B – she plays the straight man (so to speak) to Robertson’s hopeful wonder and Clooney’s grizzled comedic relief.

With Robertson moving the plot and Cassidy handling the action, this is a film that centers itself on strong leading women.

There are some romantic elements strewn about, or rather the shattered pieces of romantic elements. Something that’s exceptionally unique about Tomorrowland is that Frank is angry at Athena for not requiting romantic feelings he felt as a boy. These reasons are beyond her control. Yes, she’s now 11 and he’s in his 50s, but it makes complete sense in the script and it provides the film’s most emotional moment. It’s actually the most interesting sci-fi territory into which the film treads. The point is that the film gives Frank a problem with Athena living her own life and acknowledges that he’s completely in the wrong about being upset that she couldn’t be a part of his. His narcissism regarding this disappointment has done a lot to ruin the quality of his life and the perspective he holds on the world.

It serves as a bit of a statement about traditionally male expectations about the crushes we have, even if that element isn’t stressed very much because Athena has to go beat up robots 10 times her size.

Overall, the film does a terrific job of depicting young women as leaders. I would be completely comfortable with my niece seeing this film, for instance, because it would give her the opportunity to cheer on heroic women who are in the age groups that represent the next several years of her life. I’d just want to have a brief conversation about robot decapitations with her first.



Are you in the mood for something hopeful? Will you go see Tomorrowland?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.