Tomorrowland? Or Tomorrow-bland?

tomorrowland_ver6_xlgIs anything more dispiriting than a failed attempt at inspiration?”

That first line of Steven Greydanus’s latest film review reminds me of some of the reviews I read for Andrew Stanton’s first non-Pixar feature film — the unfortunately named, and more unfortunately reviewed, John Carter. 

That movie and its critical reception (rejection?) were hard pills to swallow for this faithful Pixar fan. Stanton’s a great storyteller, and I had been excited about his labor of Edgar Rice Burroughs love. The film was wildly imaginative and a lot of fun — I actually liked it quite a bit — but it got terrible reviews (unfairly, in my opinion), and bombed at the box office due to one of the worst marketing campaigns a potential blockbuster’s ever seen.

I hoped that Brad Bird would experience a much more positive response to his own passion project — the long-anticipated Tomorrowland.

Bird, like Stanton, became a moviegoing-household name for his work at Pixar. And his first non-Pixar feature — Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — was the best installment in that franchise by far, and barrels of fun. Still, Tomorrowland was kept so secret that I didn’t want to set myself up for a disappointment.

But then came the teasers and the trailer… and they looked awesome.

I told myself to quit worrying.

And now, here it is.

And now… well, there it goes.

One by one, the reviewers I trust most — even those who have been positively evangelical for Brad Bird’s work in the past — are lining up to exchange condolences. They’re shuffling their feet, hanging their heads, and wringing their hands. They look like fans of the Seattle Mariners who were assured that this year’s team was going to be World Series material, and who, even though they have the hottest hitter in Major League Baseball, are closing in on 40 games into the season with more losses than wins.

So, yeah, back to Greydanus’s review. He, a longtime superfan of Brad Bird for The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Ghost Protocol, writes

Tomorrowland argues that the future is as dark or as bright as we choose to make it; that artists, scientists and dreamers can save the world; that the dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmares dominating popular culture are killing us, and are no more inevitable or realistic than the Space-Age techno-optimism of Disney’s Tomorrowland and EPCOT, Roddenberry-era Star Trek and even The Jetsons. I’m all in favor of these ideas, but if Bird of all people can’t make them more compelling, there’s no reason George Miller should ever retire Mad Max.

Uh-oh.

There’s more.

Bird is a master of action set pieces, as The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol amply attest, and he makes this stuff diverting enough.

But it’s all just diversion — just the plot spinning wheels until it’s time for the third act. None of this has anything to do with Tomorrowland, or with the threatened dystopian alternative. It doesn’t even all fit. Take the scary robots: Once we learn who’s behind them and what his motivations are, does their casual disregard for human life (more than once they vaporize inconvenient police officers or guards) make sense?

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in a would-be inspirational film about a bright and shining future is that Tomorrowland itself is all promise, no delivery: a Shangri-La that dissolves like a mirage.

In Tomorrowland, there’s talk about saving the world, but all we actually see onscreen is a solidarity of artists, scientists and dreamers called to live apart from common folk in utopian creative freedom. For years some have raised questions about an Ayn Randian Objectivist vibe in Bird’s movies: a preoccupation with special people and an indifference to ordinary ones. That never struck me as a plausible critique of any of his films — until this one.

Looks like I won’t be paying full-price for this.

Or, maybe I should seek out some other reviews from Brad Bird fans.

Another one — Drew McWeeny at HitFix — writes:

I’m a little stunned by the entire enterprise. For the first time in his career, I am almost entirely baffled by one of his films. “Tomorrowland” may be well-made, but whether you’re talking about it thematically or dramatically, this is a profoundly mixed bag, and I suspect family audiences are going to hit this thing like a brick wall when it opens next Friday. . .

Part of what drove me craziest about “Tomorrowland” as an experience is that it seems to be the first act of a movie for about 2/3 of its running time, all road trip with no real payoff. By the time we finally make it to Tomorrowland, it’s time to wrap things up, and we spend just enough time in the titular location to get the entire theme of the film delivered to us in perhaps the most pedantic fashion possible. Because make no mistake… this is a message movie, science-fiction as statement in the way that films like “The Day The Earth Stood Still” or “Soylent Green” are, and everything is in service of that message. It’s the point of the film, and Bird makes sure there’s no way you can miss it.

The problem is that everything else in the movie feels like busywork, noise and motion designed to keep you distracted until we reach the moment where Bird can drop his theme-bomb on us. . . .

And by far, the biggest disappointment is Tomorrowland itself.

Meanwhile, Bird’s co-writer Damon Lindelof is already writing off critical responses as being the work of people who are just cynical and who think it’s unfashionable to hope.

Yeah. Cynical. Like, oh… Steven Greydanus, who loves a well-crafted movie about hope more than anybody I know.

I’m not going to completely write off Tomorrowland. I’ll probably go see it when it hits the discount theater in my neighborhood. But during a season when I have very little time for movies, I need to do my research and choose carefully. And my reliable jury have just cross this one off of the High Priority list.

Do you agree with these reviews? Or are these guys just… you know… fashionably cynical?

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Don't you hate these ugly click-bait ads? Visit LookingCloser.org for a bigger, better, ad-free version of Jeffrey Overstreet's blog. Jeffrey Overstreet is the senior film critic for Christianity Today, the author of Through a Screen Darkly and Auralia's Colors, and he teaches writing and film at Seattle Pacific University, Houston Baptist University, and Northwest University.

  • http://www.shelleycollins.com Shelley Collins

    My family watched it last weekend. Afterwords, our overall feeling was, “Wow, that could have been a really good movie.” Instead, it was a crazy quilt of Jetsons + Inception-esque special effects + Big Hero 6’s portal + steampunk in Paris + dystopia + whoknowswhat.

    The special effects were fun. The beginning was enjoyable. Raffey Cassidy was delightful. But this is a 130 minute movie, and we got restless. We wished that it had been shorter by about 45 minutes (lots of repetitive dialog + the trope of the misanthropic old guy who eventually comes around + special effects for the sake of special effects). The theme of optimism/feeding the good wolf was hard for the kiddo to understand–and it came too late in the film.

    Would I see it again? Sure, I’ll stream it someday if the kiddo requests it. But I wouldn’t drive to a theater for it.

  • Jimmy Nelson

    Well, this puts Epcot (the sequel) in jeopardy…

  • Emilyn

    The beginning was the most enjoyable, developed, promising, and inspiring part of the movie and didn’t feel like the rest of it. I enjoyed the movie up to the middle when I realized something was missing and that the movie would have to be longer if they wanted to develop the story better. Or they’d have to make a sequel.
    The villain’s monologue near the end was good and I was shocked that they’d put the truth in a movie so bluntly.
    A surprising young actress stole the show so well – she’s not in the trailers and I kinda wished the story was about her.

    Tomorrowland felt like a bunch of great ideas were thrown together too quickly hoping that the end result would be amazing just because the writer was excited about it. I feel if they had scrapped the last half of the movie and kept the beginning and tried again with better story structure, they could have made a more impacting movie.

    I disagree with the first review though. That’s not exactly what the movie was saying. It’s about optimism vs. being cynical and that’s very important and a refreshing theme for a movie this year. “Which wolf do you feed? The darkness or the light?” I only wish they’d told the story better.
    While watching it, I was so excited though because the idea of Tomorrowland reminded me so much of a group of writers I’m in called OYAN (One Year Adventure Novel) and the workshop we go to in the Summer where anything seems possible and wonder is often talked about.

  • Andrew

    Well, I saw it and throughout the film and after upon reflection I found that I wanted to like the movie much more than I actually liked the movie. I think Greydanus and McWeeny review’s are spot on – although I enjoyed the first 2/3, the last 1/3 was killer and the ending was the opposite of what I was hoping for. Well directed, but ultimately it was doomed by it’s poor story.

  • SWM

    did I think that this movie is going to win an Oscar? No. but I do think it had some very interesting things and made you think. as a Christian I found it very intriguing because I see this thing playing out within some corners of the Christian community. they have so embraced the fact that the end is near that they are now working towards self-fulfilling prophecies through pollution and wasting of natural resources, while saying it doesn’t matter because Jesus is coming back soon. and it wasn’t about the artists living in Utopia, it was about giving space to the dreamers from all aspects of life. because many times dreamers are drowned out in this world. it’s a solid two star movie on a four-star scale. but the movie has one more thing going for it, you can take your family and enjoy it together.