For months, the details of Disney’s big summer movie “Tomorrowland” have been shrouded in mystery. All anyone could tell was that it was about George Clooney and a shining jetpack city of the future — Disneyland on steroids — in some dimension next to ours.
Now that “Tomorrowland” is here, the reasons for the cloak of secrecy become apparent: The thing barely makes a lick of sense. Rapturous on a scene-by-scene basis and nearly incoherent when taken as a whole, the movie is idealistic and deranged, inspirational and very, very conflicted. It soars with moments of visual wonder only to face-plant over issues of motivation, revelation, and plot. Most sketchily, it provides a plausible fantasy-movie explanation for what, on the face of it, is a love story between a 54-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl.
Should you take the kids? Well, actually, yes. But I’d be curious to hear the conversations you have afterward.
The 54-year-old, Frank Walker (Clooney), wasn’t always 54, but the girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), has always been 12. Why she doesn’t age is one of the jack-in-the-box surprises of “Tomorrowland” that I won’t spoil. The two met when Frank was a boy inventor (played by the appealingly resourceful Thomas Robinson) at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and the movie lyrically re-creates the whiz-bang magnanimity of that event’s vision of the future (complete with a facsimile of Disney’s own “It’s a Small World” exhibition). It was a Kennedy Era future, shiny progress and flying cars for everyone, and one of the underlying themes of “Tomorrowland” is that everything went to hell afterward, especially our common utopias.
The movie jarringly cuts between this nostalgic Popular Mechanics past, a more recent past in which the main story plays out, and a nebulous present from which the grown Frank and the film’s other primary character, an optimistic high school brainiac named Casey (Britt Robertson), narrate the tale. Or is that present really a new future? The structural uncertainties of “Tomorrowland” keep the audience off balance; the movie really takes place in the imperfect tense.
Casey is a born troublemaker, tired of hearing from her teachers how messed up the world is and who just wants to know “Can we fix it?” Through mysterious means, she’s given a magic World’s Fair pin that whisks her to Tomorrowland, an alternate-universe combination Oz/research lab created some time ago by Earth’s best and brightest. The early scenes of her discovery are miracles of moviemaking, Casey shuttling between our grimy planet and this sunny otherworld in the blink of a CGI second.
And yet Tomorrowland is not so easy to get to, what with the smiling, black-suited “auto-animatronics” — you’d call them robots — chasing her with ray-guns. Casey winds up at the clutterhouse mansion of Frank, now older, unshaven, and bitter over being kicked out of paradise, and for a solid chunk of its midsection, “Tomorrowland” turns into a wham-bam chase film, with Frank, Casey, and the reappeared Athena running from the bad guys. It’s excitingly filmed and there are some nifty surprises, including Frank’s knack for booby traps, an appearance by Keegan-Michael Key of “Key and Peele,” and a surprising use for one of Earth’s more popular civic monuments. But where it’s all heading is anyone’s guess.
Turns out it’s heading for a lecture on our sins of cynicism — on how we’ve traded our New Frontier idealism for bleakness and manufactured destruction. Without giving too much away, I can say that our gang discovers that Tomorrowland has become corrupted because we’ve become corrupted, giving up on creating the future and accepting war, chaos, and environmental doom as our lot.
“Tomorrowland,” in other words, wants to inspire us — or our children — to start believing again and get down to work, which is both highly welcome and somewhat problematic for a summer blockbuster, especially one that rails against other summer blockbusters yet ends by blowing stuff up to a ticking time-bomb countdown. The movie has multiple-personality disorder, sometimes entertainingly, often not, and its dissonances may rise from its creators or between them.
Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) wrote the story, and Lindelof and director Brad Bird wrote the screenplay; the key personality on “Tomorrowland” — its big, bifurcated brain — belongs to Bird. He made this critic’s secret favorite Pixar film, “The Incredibles,” and he directed “Ratatouille” and the aching 1999 animation “The Iron Giant.” His work generally has more heart, wit, and soul than mainstream movies know what to do with.
Here that heart is on his sleeve but the sleeve is embroidered beyond all sense. In its climactic scenes, “Tomorrowland” juggles uplift, ideas, plot, characters, special effects, planetary Armageddon — and half the balls land on the floor. Hugh Laurie shows up as Tomorrowland’s fascistic Governor Nix, even more sour than the actor’s Dr. Gregory House, but only because the movie needs a villain. Casey solves the problem of Earth’s demise in a nanosecond of preposterous insight only because we’re nearing the two-hour mark. And the relationship between Clooney’s Frank and Cassidy’s Athena gets really, really sticky, coming to a halt on the very edge of icky.
It’ll probably sail over your kids’ heads, though — unlike us adults, who’ve fallen and can’t get up. Cassidy is quite the performer, freckled and inhumanly self-assured and very British, and she locates an interesting point between the charming and the intensely annoying. Eternally young and eternally pure, Athena represents the weird moralism of “Tomorrowland,” in which growing up only means the loss of hope and presumably an addiction to violent dystopian movies and video games.
That flatters the movie’s intended audience and may even inspire them to dream big, but it also turns the fetishization of pre-adolescence that is Disney’s (and popular culture’s) way of doing business into something perilously close to scripture. There’s a reason Tomorrowland looks like a bigger version of the theme park ride it’s based on — and also why it looks like the best, most beautiful shopping center in this or any other universe. It’s a mall world, after all.