If I were to boil down Tomorrowland to a single phrase, it would be “Meet the Robinsons’ dumb younger cousin”. I’ve long found Meet the Robinsons to be a solid movie, and an underrated entry in the Disney canon, but it took Tomorrowland for me to appreciate how the former does the concept of “optimism-powered, look how awesome the future is!” right. Spoilers ahead, although I’ll specifically mark big ones.
I think the biggest problem is that Tomorrowland is very self-assured that what it’s saying is intelligent without being able to back it up, instead offering up references to smarter things or pining for better times or attacking strawmen or just straight up not doing anything to cover up its problems. For instance, there’s a character named Hugo Gernsback (played by the extremely underutilized Keegan-Michael Key*). Like many things in Tomorrowland, I at first smiled when I discovered that the owner of the science fiction memorabilia store was named “Hugo”; it’s a cute little throwaway gag. Then it goes deeper and reveals that his last name is Gernsback, immediately becoming straight-up cheesy (and as if daring the audience to pick up on its reference-“are you one of the smart ones who will catch this?”). And then, it reveals that it really doesn’t have anything for Hugo to do, and he becomes a plot device before exiting the movie for good, no real impact on the story so to speak of.
*Also underutilized is his partner Ursula, played by Kathryn Hahn. Based on the rest of the movie, I'm assuming they just didn't have the space to drop that her character's last name was "Le Guin".
I suppose that makes him another good metaphor for the rest of the film, because the film spends a lot of its run time just wasting time. The film has a ten minute prologue sequence where it focuses on George Clooney’s mentor character Frank and his history. After that, it takes something like forty minutes before we see him again actually meeting Britt Robertson’s Casey in order to progress the plot. It takes the movie nearly 80 minutes before it formally introduces the conflict at its heart (although it had been pretty obviously alluding to what the issue was before then, protagonist Casey is in the dark about it all until that point). How are those first 80 minutes spent? Introducing Casey, showing her Tomorrowland, locking her out temporarily to set her on her quest, then puttering around for 20 minutes to draw things out and add the odd brief action scene.
That’s the other main issue, the movie seems to go out of its way to introduce things (like the conflict) in order to hide how little it has to say. So we get a brief detour to “Houston” (which for some reason looks closer to the show Heroes’ Podunk Odessa, Texas than it does the city that I lived in) that adds nothing to the film that couldn’t have been introduced much quicker. That’s actually where the other main character Athena (Raffey Cassidy) meets up with Casey, which is the other main issue with the writing-the characters make no sense. Athena desperately needed to meet up with Casey after her first token ran out, apparently…so she waited a day to go find her, at which point Casey’s already left for Houston. [spoilers now] And not only that, we find out that more or less everyone Casey could have talked to about the token was working for the bad guy, meaning that there was no real reason to leave her alone at all, given that her entire job was hunting Casey down and talking to her without the bad guys finding her. After the rescue-that-didn’t-need-to-be, Athena then refuses to answer any of Casey’s questions about anything for no real reason other than to keep her in the dark. She then drops her off without warning with Frank (finally!), who she knows will also refuse to take Casey in and answer any questions. That leads us to another pair of brief action-y chase scenes, after which our heroes finally reach Tomorrowland.
This is where Tomorrowland could have made up for things, with an interesting problem, or a fascinating moral question at its heart, or another breathtaking visual scene exploring the titular city, or memorable villain, or even an exciting fight or chase scene at its close. Instead, we find Tomorrowland, the city we’ve been waiting to see again for the entire movie, more or less in ruin (
visuals of city), under the control
of villain David Nix (Hugh Laurie), a governor whose defining traits are being
mean and a love of monologuing ( villain), who confirms that the world
will end at the time Frank's mysterious clock was counting down to in some
unspecified apocalypse ( interesting problem) all because people are just
too darn pessimistic ( moral problem), and he's decided not to let other
people into Tomorrowland's dimension because they'll probably just much this
one up, too. Also, there's not really any interesting action, so scratch that
one off, too.
Actually, I'd like to focus more on the "pessimism" issue. The movie sure loves to do so, so I might as well, too. It turns out that Frank's doomsday predictor has been beaming negative thoughts to people, making the said apocalypse come more quickly. That may sound silly, but it's not the problem; science fiction has a long history of strange machines. The problem comes when they confront Nix with this design bug; he reveals (via monologue) that Tomorrowland has been doing this intentionally to scare the world straight. Instead, though, they instead embraced the apocalypse.
Yes, Tomorrowland viewer, you were the problem all along! You chose to be pessimistic! You chose to focus on the world's problems and not fix them! You chose to consume dystopian media. I'm not kidding about any of that, by the way. He mentions all of it. Curse you, Hunger Games, and your decision to use post-apocalyptic society as a metaphor for teenagers' anxieties! (That's not even to mention the straw man before that; are there really that many people concerned with all the world's ills who also don't care at all to fix them?)
And so, the heroes overcome Governor Nix and destroy the machine. And then try decide to return Tomorrowland to its intended purpose: a place where the great minds could come together to better society. And during the ending recruitment montage, it suddenly hits you: this has solved very little. They've bought some extra time, but the doomsday clock is still ticking. They've chosen to remove the special people, who we just established in-film are key to saving the world, from the world they are supposed to save. Nor are they saving everyone by taking them to Tonorrowland, something they just chastised Nox for doing. They could have addressed any of these points, but they didn't. I guess the tangent in Houston was more important.
In the end, I feel like it's interesting to compare Tomorrowland to Jupiter Ascending. Both were promising original science fiction concepts with big budgets at talent at the helms attached, and both disappointed in some way, but the end result is strikingly different. Jupiter felt packed with ideas and interesting decisions that just didn't work out, and was fun to watch in spite of everything else because of that. Tomorrowland just doesn’t have as much to say, and doesn’t do anything terribly interesting en route to telling it story other than try and distract you from how little it has to say.