THE QUESTION POSED by “Tomorrowland” is bigger and more interesting than this moderately pleasant, occasionally charming and instantly forgettable George Clooney movie. Back then, in 1964, when New York hosted the World’s Fair, and when the movie begins, there was a boundless excitement about discovery. From the moment the Russians launched Sputnik, the race for space was on. It’s as though our collective desires to put the World War and Korea behind us, turned our eyes upward toward the stars.
We saw the growth of NASA, the emergence of the Apollo program, even the Concorde… and the need to boldly go where no one had gone before. Tomorrow would be a place of infinite possibilities. Tomorrowland, Walt Disney’s visionary concept back then channeled the zeitgeist of an expansionist, optimistic humanity.
So what happened?
What turned governments insular, xenophobic and small-minded? When did we stop dreaming? Why did yesterday’s Tomorrowland become today’s dystopia? When did we cynically accept that it was OK to destroy the world so that the big corporations could keep on making more money? “Tomorrowland” offers some fuzzy explanations about the corrupting influence of non-stop broadcasts of disaster news (by The all-powerful Nix – Hugh Laurie) leading to a death of hope. Or something.
Clooney is Frank Walker who we first meet as a grumpy, cynical man (in a performance that’s an awkward mishmash of the curmudgeonly Harrison Ford and the kooky Clooney of “Men Who Stare at Goats”). He’s the embodiment of hope’s death.
But it wasn’t always thus. Once he was an eager kid (Thomas Robertson) with a bright idea for a human jet pack. His eagerness and spirit of adventure attracted the attention of an android from the future, Athena (Raffey Cassidy from “Mr. Selfridge” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” and whose cool, unnerving presence absolutely steals the show).
She (it?), using the magic of a special pin, transported him there. This is the same type of pin that’s planted by Athena and used, once again, to transport another bright-eyed kid with a spirit of adventure and undaunted optimism, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson as a wannabe Jennifer Lawrence).
Yup. Optimism. That’s all you need.
The up-beat Casey meets the down-beat Frank and, as they seek to escape pessimism and some evil grinning androids from the future, an OK adventure ensues. Brad Bird, the director tries to deliver a brisk, efficient movie that still feels longer than it is; and is bedeviled by a confusion of tone. At times, “Tomorrowland” has the jaunty tongue in cheek fun of “Men in Black”; at times it’s a dreary “All Ages”, Disney approved kids film; at times it headlines A VERY SERIOUS MESSAGE; on no occasion do the high jinks adventure pose any sense of real threat or danger.
The actors themselves seem trapped by these tonal fluctuations. Clooney here is at his worst, with an exaggerated, strained performance that reminds you of the old warning to never act with either kids or dogs. He should mandate this in all his future contracts. Hugh Laurie is simply House without the limp and the kids veer from cute (Thomas Robertson) to cloying (Pierce Gagnon, the cute android from “Extant”).
The production design from Scott Chambliss (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, Mission Impossible III” ) is strong; the world of the future is nicely realised. It’s the writing, from a story by the talented Damon Lindelof (“World War Z” + 161 episodes of “Lost”) that, unlike the story idea, never quite lifts off.
“Tomorrowland” opened the week after “Mad Max, Fury Road”. And based on these two versions of the future, it’s Mayhem and Disaster 1: Happy Endings: 0