If you’re tired of watching the world end, you’re not alone. In its darkest and most compelling scene, the dystopian-future drama “Tomorrowland” lashes out against its genre, delivering a “Network”-esque what-the-hell-are-we-all-doing rant about being passively entertained, rather than driven to action by depictions of our own doom.
Unfortunately, the rest of this willfully optimistic film is nowhere near as smart, despite centering on two science prodigies, played by George Clooney and Britt Robertson (“The Longest Ride”). Named after one of Disneyland’s least interesting themed areas, “Tomorrowland” is a globe-trotting, time-traveling caper whose giddy visual whimsies and exuberant cartoon violence are undermined by a coy mystery that stretches as long as the line for “Space Mountain” on a hot summer day.
Directed by Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) and written by Bird and “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof, “Tomorrowland” feels — perhaps appropriately for a movie based on an amusement park — like a narrative version of those videos that play above roller coasters today. Clooney and Robertson spend as much time ducking and dodging flying gizmos as they do moving the plot along. The film begins with a boy inventor (Thomas Robinson) zooming literally through a cornfield on his defective jet pack, stalks slapping his screaming face as he hurtles toward a bruising crash — and only gets busier, bouncier, and more aerodynamically improbable from there.
That boy grows up to be the reclusive Frank (Clooney), who was once invited to join the enigmatic Tomorrowland by two of its recruiters (Raffey Cassidy and Hugh Laurie) at the 1964 World’s Fair, but has since returned home an ornery, middle-aged man. A thousand miles away, Casey (Robertson) — an athletic, cheerful, mildly rebellious STEM nerd imagineered for parental approval – is given a pin that transports her, at least perceptually, to the outskirts of Tomorrowland. Her body is still stuck in 2015, though, leading to several runs into walls and tumbles down stairs until she problem solves a way into the gleaming and bustling metropolis of the future.
The pin’s powers don’t last, but she’s seen enough and can’t get enough. With the help of a Tomorrowland ambassador in the guise of an acrobatic, combat-ready little girl named Athena (Cassidy) – who had earlier brought Frank to her hometown – Casey eventually makes her way to Frank’s house. He greets her with an artificial gust of wind that knocks her on her back three feet away, but that’s nothing compared to the face-smooshing and head twisting he offers the android assassins who come after him and Casey.
Still, it takes awhile for cranky Frank to be drawn into Tomorrowland’s problems again. His cynicism is countered by Casey, for whom the futuristic city represents the opposite of everything she’s learning in school: dystopias in English, nuclear annihilation in history, environmental collapse in science. The pair plummet down a tub, fly up a rocket ship (hidden inside the Eiffel Tower, natch), and make their way back to Tomorrowland, which now looks eerily empty like, well, an amusement park at midnight.
It’s all goofy, exhilarating fun until the film is weighed down by its own delaying tactics: What is Tomorrowland, and why is it no longer thriving? Who created those robots, and why are they after Frank and Casey? Clooney supplies non-stop exposition throughout, and yet never enough by design, of course. For all of Tomorrowland’s infrastructural marvels – tiered swimming pools, astro-commutes, and beautiful tangles of airborne boulevards — the world-building is thin and unsatisfying.
Blame the plot structure: the would-be emotional payoff arrives long after we’re worn out and no longer interested in the mystery, like an overcooked steak that reaches the table after we’ve filled up on bread.
Bird’s nostalgia for ’50s-era optimism — a simplistic version of the war-born futurism that led Walt Disney to create Tomorrowland at his landmark theme park — is too gee-whiz to be convincing. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” says one character, to which a thousand parents would rejoin, “Not in this economy!” More persuasive is Bird’s plea to examine what exactly we get out of looking at our world turn into the one in “Wall-E.” Nero at least did something while Rome burned. We’re just sitting around watching it happen.