Tomorrowland

I feel like a broken record this year: An original science fiction movie comes out, critics pan it, audiences are indifferent, I see it anyway, because I want to support non-sequels and because I like the director, and in the end it's... not as bad as they say, but frustrating in its unfulfilled promise. To wit: Jupiter Ascending, Chappie, and now Tomorrowland.

The first few minutes of Tomorrowland do not bode well: a cloying prologue, with stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson arguing over who should deliver exposition into the camera, is frankly awful. Its clumsiness throws the whole rest of the film into question.

The first act, pure kid's stuff, isn't much of an improvement. First we are forced to sit through a flashback in which Clooney's character, as a little boy, comes to the 1964 World's Fair, meets a cute young British girl (Raffey Cassidy), and is whisked away to the mystery land of the title. We then see teenager(?) Robertson's rockin' pre-Tomorrowland adventures, decades later. The entire act is overlong, achingly Spielbergian, and you wonder if a plot is ever going to kick in.

The film finally lurches into life in its second act, which takes a cue from Terminator 2 as the British girl – Athena – turns out to be a robot, one who saves Robertson multiple times from various android assassins and introduces her to a grumpy, embittered Clooney. Here director Brad Bird is finally in his element, with some nifty action sequences and wry humor.

The advertising for Tomorrowland was very murky about the story. Turns out it's not the ads' fault. The script, which Bird wrote with Damon Lindelof, is all over the place. In a nutshell, Tomorrowland exists in some sort of parallel universe and was constructed by famous scientists, inventors and artists as a refuge from the real world. With said real world just two months away from an unexplained Armageddon, the folks in Tomorrowland have washed their hands of us poor dummies, so it's up to Robertson to save the planet in a manner that is never really defined. Got all that?

It's hard to hate Tomorrowland. I appreciate its earnest stance against the dystopias regularly depicted in pop culture, and its genuine longing for the optimistic, gee-whiz future that was predicted in the 1960s, when the Disneyland zone of the same name came of age. (Tomorrowland itself has had an identity crisis ever since its inception, its attractions finally having half-heartedly settled on "outer space" as the unifying theme.) But story-wise, it's a mess.

I'll blame Damon Lindelof here. He's one of those bad Hollywood screenwriters, like Roberto Orci and David Koepp, who work all the freakin' time even though they have a tin ear for dialogue and show no aptitude for dramatic structure. But I'm not letting Brad Bird off the hook. While his direction is solid – Tomorrowland looks great and has some cool set pieces – his talents for storytelling and character development, so evident in his animated classics The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, have gone completely AWOL.

I do like Tomorrowland more than I dislike it. I admire its message, Raffey Cassidy is a standout performer, and the finale is truly lovely. But consider this a very soft recommendation. If Bird's animated films were marketed towards kids but really for adults, then here's one marketed towards adults but really for kids.