It’s overwritten, overcomplicated and overlong.
But if you can get past its narrative muddle, really irritating dialogue and a plethora of unanswered questions, “Tomorrowland” offers a potent metaphor about the triumph of human hope and ingenuity.
Wish it were enough. But this time the winning run of writer/director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) has hit a major speed bump.
It’s not all bad news. George Clooney heads a fine (if not particularly well-used) cast, the state-of-the-art effects are terrific, and the film (co-written by Damon Lindelof of “Prometheus,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and TV’s “Lost”) cleverly taps into a deep well of baby boomer nostalgia.
Nevertheless, the film is an emotionally muted mess that can’t decide whether it’s for kids or grown-ups.
It starts out promisingly enough. At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) proudly submits his homemade jet pack to an invention contest.
His creation is rejected, but Athena (Raffrey Cassidy), a mysterious young girl with a British accent, introduces the boy to Tomorrowland, a futuristic city in another dimension. Tomorrowland is accessed by a secret portal in Walt Disney’s major fair attraction, the “It’s a Small World” ride. (Bird, a big Disney buff, rarely misses an opportunity to tap into the shared childhood memories of his generation. And the Disney studio gets a plug for its theme park ride.)
In the present we are introduced to Casey (Britt Robertson), a brainy teen whose engineer dad is working his way to unemployment by dismantling NASA’s launch pads in Florida. (Haven’t you heard? The good old USA is pretty much out of the space business.)
Casey finds herself in possession of a mysterious lapel pin. When she touches it, she is instantly transported to Tomorrowland, a bustling city of sleek towering buildings, zipping monorails and buzzing hovercraft where whatever you dream up can be made reality.
She begins investigating the origins of her pin, hooks up with Athena (who hasn’t aged a day in 50 years) and eventually finds herself with the now-adult Frank (Clooney), a hermit holed up in a farmhouse crammed with sophisticated electronics. Frank — who has a bank of TV screens monitoring environmental disasters, wars, water and food shortages, nuclear threats and social upheavals — is glumly awaiting the end of the world.
Literally. He even has an electronic clock counting down to the day a few weeks hence when it all goes to hell.
Except that Casey’s idealism and faith in the future suggest an alternative to Frank’s doomsday scenario. Now if they can only outrun an army of black-suited, fiendishly grinning agents (leftovers from “The Matrix”?), make their way to Tomorrowland (now a crumbling ruin) and somehow turn mankind away from its self-destructive path.
Bird and Lindelof have done something extremely clever here. They’ve taken the once-popular belief that the future is a wonderful place (as embodied in the NASA program and the Tomorrowland area of the Disney theme parks) and contrasted that with today’s prevalent notion that our best is now behind us.
Taken in that light, “Tomorrowland” is an earnest (even inspiring) call for us to shake off the end-of-time blues, rev up our imaginations, place a little faith in science and build a better future.
If only more of the film worked. This is a runaround movie — first the players run over here, then they run over there. Why they’re running is never adequately explained.
Nor do we get Tomorrowland’s backstory. Who created the place? Does it really exist or is it imaginary?
Robertson (who played a 20-something in the romance “The Longest Ride”) has an appealing screen presence — even if she’s required to spend much of her time looking amazed. Clooney is always watchable, even in grumpy-old-man mode. Young Cassidy is terrific as the hard-to-figure Athena. Hugh Laurie does what he can with the role of the dyspeptic heavy, Tomorrowland’s overlord.
And some of the scenes — like Frank and Casey’s escape from the bad guys in a souped-up bathtub, or a space journey that slyly references Disneyland’s original “Rocket to the Moon” attraction — are good giddy fun.
But all too often “Tomorrowland” bogs down in talky exchanges heavy on bickering and light on revelation. And Bird, whose films are invariably a little too long, sacrifices desperately needed background information to spend more time on the thrills.
Sometimes the best special effect is an effective bit of dialogue.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG | Time: 2:10
Filmmakers used several sources of inspiration for their city of the future, says The New York Times:
▪ Some of it is real, shot in the gleaming white City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia, Spain, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava.
▪ Filmmakers looked at the work of midcentury modernists like John Lautner (that’s his 1960 Los Angeles sky-home Chemosphere in the end credits) and Eero Saarinen (there are echoes of his Gateway Arch in St. Louis in Tomorrowland’s curvy skyline).
▪ Also in the skyline: glimpses of Space Mountain (the Disneyland ride was conceived in 1964) and echoes of the modernist Trylon and Perisphere structures from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
▪ Filmmakers watched Disney shorts like “Man in Space” (1955) and “Mars and Beyond” (1957), created to excite young viewers about the wonders of space travel.
▪ They also looked at Walt Disney’s concept drawings for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, aka Epcot — not the theme park it eventually became, but the planned city he envisioned before his passing in 1966.