Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’ Should Have Been Great — So What Went Wrong?

It seems safe to bet that deep inside every filmmaker, there lurks a burning desire to make a movie in the exact style of his or her favorite director. It’s the best way to explain the scores of filmmakers doing mini-Scorsese movies in the ‘90s; young filmmakers of the late ‘90s and early ’00s gave us plenty of junior Woody Allen pictures. And when a certain kind of filmmaker (most likely one who was a kid in the 1980s) gets access to a big budget and a summer berth, they apparently want to make a Spielberg movie. J.J. Abrams did it a few years back with Super 8; Colin Trevorrow is reportedly making his Jurassic World, due next month, less a sequel than a Spielberg homage. And then we have Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, with enough nostalgic golden glow, characters gazing off in a wonder, and John Williams-esque music cues to seem, in spots, like a Spielberg cosplay. Yet Bird seems to have learned the hard way what Abrams did in Super 8: the aesthetics are easy to ape, but one should never underestimate the value Spielberg places on tight, clear, logical storytelling.

That such narrative efficiency did not flow from the pen of co-writer Damon Lindelof probably shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point; Bird directed and wrote with him, but the picture is infected by the Lost and Prometheus scribe’s tendency towards lots of talk, lots of ides, and very little payoff. The story concerns teenage Casey (the very charismatic Britt Robertson), who mysteriously receives a pin for “Tommorowland,” a shiny future world/alternate dimension; she finds herself transported there when she touches the pin, but alas, that trick wears off quickly. (This is also, of course, the name of a segment of the Disney parks; this film, like Saving Mr. Banks, is a studio’s cinematic testimonial to its own magic.) She discovers, in trying to track down the source of the pin, that she’s been “recruited” by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who pairs her off with an earlier, exiled recruit (George Clooney, all grizzled, growly gravitas). He can transport them to Tomorrowland, where, Casey discovers, she’s been chosen to “fix the world.”

Britt Robertson in "Tomorrowland"

Them’s some mighty big stakes, and the main problem with Tomorrowland is that Bird and Lindelof want to put that puzzle on the table and then squirm out of actually putting it together. Oh, they’ll hash it out — Hugh Laurie has a mouthful of villainous exposition that’s like something out of a Bond movie — but when it comes time to deliver, the fix is (swear to God, direct quote), “I guess we have to make it work.” Hew-kay. Earlier in the film, Clooney snaps at his young charge, “Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” That line feels like the key to their storytelling strategy; the flaw in the logic is how often the movie tries to explain everything anyway.

I realize I’m writing in circles here, which tends to come with the territory in movies like this. And let it be noted, there’s quite a bit here that is legitimately amazing: a wildly nonsensical but awfully cool Eiffel Tower sequence, an intricate and ingenious scene with Clooney basically destroying his house, the gee-whiz wonder of Casey’s first trip to Tomorrowland, the way that Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key take over the movie for a couple of glorious minutes.

George Clooney and Britt Robertson in "Tomorrowland"

But Bird traffics in so many clichés (behold, in 2015, a movie that still has the nerve to do the gag where the cool cat on a motorcycle takes off his helmet… and it’s a girl) that I can only guess (hope?) he was trying to recapture even the worst elements of the Spielberg and Disney works that amazed him as a kid. And sure, the themes of Randian exceptionalism that have already drawn some flack are present — though frankly, I was more bothered by the disingenuous checklist diversity parade of the final montage, coming as it does at the end of a film with exactly one important speaking role for a person of color. But what’s more worrisome is the way the picture’s overwhelming sense of homage prevents it from ever becoming its own thing.

It’s not so much that Tomorrowland is a bad movie, but that it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in a picture so clearly and calculatedly assembled from recycled parts. Bird places one of his big set pieces in a sci-fi collectibles shop, which is torn to pieces in a big shoot-out/fight scene. As his characters spar and blast among the Star Wars props and Planet of the Apes board games, the film’s fundamental incongruity becomes clear: there’s something downright bizarre about a movie about the future being so cripplingly preoccupied with the past.

Tomorrowland is out Friday.