Silver Screen: Tomorrowland ****
A pair of early summer blockbusters offer wildly divergent takes on the shape of things to come. In Tomorrowland, the future is so bright you gotta wear shades. You’ll need those sunglasses for the dystopian demolition orgy of Mad Max: Fury Road as well, but in this case it’s because the sun-blasted hellscape will sear your retinas black.
Judging from the deluge of apocalyptic fiction in the first decade and a half of the new millennium, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the current century will be defined by scarcity, catastrophe, and struggle. But there was a time when the coming decades promised innovation and prosperity. Brad Bird’s glimmering, nostalgic Tomorrowland reaches back into the past for its vision of the future.
Tomorrowland opens at the 1964 World’s Fair, where boy-genius inventor Frank (played as a child by Thomas Robinson) sojourns alone to show off his nifty new invention: a functioning jetpack. Or rather, a jetpack that sort of functions. The event’s gatekeepers, represented by the skeptical Nix (Hugh Laurie), deem Frank unworthy, but Nix’s preteen charge Athena (Raffey Cassidy) pilfers him the Fair’s golden ticket: a mysterious pin that grants him access to Tomorrowland, an entire new world of possibilities dreamed up by the world’s most creative minds.
Decades later, something has gone wrong. The gleaming world of flying cars, unlimited resources, peace, and prosperity promised at the Fair have given way to our own current predicament. Plucky science geek Casey (Britt Robertson), daughter of an out-of-work NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), still sees possibilities among the prophesies of doom. She doesn’t want to hear about how the world is broken, she wants to find out how to fix it.
An encounter with a still-preteen Athena leads Casey to an older, curmudgeonly Frank (George Clooney). The boy genius was exiled from the bright new society and now spends his days holed up in a ramshackle house filled with his own fantastic inventions. His newest machine predicts a dire outcome not just for Tomorrowland, but all of our tomorrows. With the help of Athena, he must lead Casey through a gauntlet of robot soldiers to find his way back to Tomorrowland to fix the future.
Especially in the earlygoing, Tomorrowland is awfully unsubtle in its Panglossian sermonizing about the potential for hope to transform this into the best of all possible worlds. Still, its positivity is refreshing— rebellious, even, given cinema’s current obsession with the End. And with his bright, relentlessly inventive visuals, director Brad Bird makes it all seem possible.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one could pay Bird here is to say that Tomorrowland rarely feels like a movie based on a Disney theme-park ride— which in fact it is. The willfully obtuse nostalgia and Pollyannaish sense of impending prosperity that defines Disney suffuses the film, but Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof have constructed a credible storyline around it, one that’s much more than an excuse to incite a few thrilled oohs and aahs. It certainly helps that the brilliant Bird has a lifelong passion for such material, stretching all the way back to his phenomenal Cold War-era cartoon fantasy The Iron Giant.
One key scene serves as a kind of glossary for the ideas and images that make up Bird’s pop-culture vernacular. A series of clues lead Casey to a small novelty shop operated by a kooky pair of proprietors played wonderfully by Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key. The store is jam-packed with toys, models, and arcana celebrating the cartoon characters and sci-fi originals that inspired Tomorrowland. There are robots galore— Forbidden Planet’s Robby, Lost in Space’s B-9, and Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still— as well as phasers and lasers from both Stars (Wars and Trek). Bird sneaks in allusions to his own career, including an Iron Giant model kit and a Bart Simpson Bartman doll. But the best-represented filmmaker in the store is Steven Spielberg, whose influence on Bird has never been stronger than in Tomorrowland. Bird’s dedication to Spielberg is better processed and more thoroughly integrated into his singular style, though, as opposed to J.J. Abrams’s slavish devotion.
When Bird does evoke the feeling of an immersive theme-park ride, he does it in the best way possible. Casey’s first interaction with Tomorrowland takes place in one long, unbroken shot that’s a dazzling cornucopia of visual delights; there are flying trains that shimmy like silver snakes, multileveled gravity-defying swimming pools, and an interstellar mass-transit system. It’s unlikely any other movie this year will offer up a spectacle so invigorating and awe-inspiring.
Like the fictional world it mythologizes, Tomorrowland can’t quite live up to its promise, however. The trio of lead actors do their best to keep the human element present in a movie so rooted in images and ideas. Clooney is as reliably compelling a movie star as America has to offer. The movie reserves its deepest affections, however, for its female leads. Cassidy has the fascinating otherworldliness of a young Tilda Swinton, and while twenty-five-year-old Robertson is too old to play a high-schooler, she’s equal measures lovely, feisty, and ebullient.
That Tomorrowland loses its way during the final act and fails to tie up the threads of its central mystery should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of screenwriter Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus). An unsatisfying conclusion does surprisingly little to dampen Bird’s lively ode to invention and imagination, with its infectious positivity. You could have a lot worse time at the movies than rewatching that one long introductory shot of Casey wandering through a retro-future paradise on a loop for an hour and half. Maybe it’s enough to get a little glimpse of a better tomorrow.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.