Tomorrowland (2015) / Sci Fi-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Thomas Robinson, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key
Director: Brad Bird
Screenplay: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird

Review published May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland is a Disney film based on its own theme park attraction, something they've reaped great rewards doing in the past with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  The Haunted Mansion was a failed attempt to continue that formula, but with enough time and spit-and-polish to come up with a better game plan, they've returned back to the well of getting ideas from the things they've already invented, knowing that the millions of visitors they get to their parks around the world give their property lots of readymade name recognition as if their film has been promoted for decades prior to its release.

Britt Robertson (Cake, Delivery Man) plays Casey Newton, an optimistic lover of science and believer in a positive future.  When she's taken to jail for trespassing NASA, where her father (McGraw, The Kingdom) is about to lose his job due to funding cuts, to stop the removal of the space shuttle platform, she makes bail, and among her returned items is something new - a pin with a red 'T' upon it she's never seen before.  When touched, she sees another dimension, a futuristic one with an amazing city of light and technology, where everything is as positive as she could ever hope to dream. Her investigation of the pin's origin leads her to Athena (Cassidy, Snow White and the Huntsman) , a robotic entity with a mystery to relate, as well as elder cynic Frank Walker (Clooney, The Monuments Men), who was once like Casey in his optimism, but saw a vision of life on Earth's untimely, inevitable demise that has him disregard science and technology as the solution rather than the problem.

Space exploration and science seem to be the hot topics worth promoting in family films in 2014 alone, from Big Hero 6, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Earth to Echo, and even such films for more mature viewers as Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, and Guardians of the Galaxy to a certain extent.  I'm not sure if there isn't some secret government fund to try to promote the allure of science and technology to kids in Hollywood films, but there are many more green-lit in the last year or so than I can recall at any time in the past.  Not that I mind necessarily, because I'd rather see films that inspire a child to want to make the Earth a better place than to hock the latest toys to them.  Tomorrowland shows its hand more than most in its message-minded intentions, perhaps heavy-handedly over-explaining its theme in some regard, but it is, nevertheless, like its subject matter, intelligently conceived and presented in a way that stimulates the mind, even if it is only on a broad level.

Director and co-writer Brad Bird is certainly no stranger to making futuristic family entertainment that is smart, funny and thought-provoking.  His previous efforts include modern-day genre classics like The Iron Giant and Pixar's The Incredibles, after all.  There's a Spielbergian feel to his approach to Tomorrowland that will remind viewers of the vibe of some of the films he executive produced in the 1980s, especially Back to the Future, with its mix of family dynamics, crazy inventions, CGI landscapes, and sense of wonder beyond the mundane world around us. It's a marvelously designed film by Bird, perhaps a little too insistent at putting action beats sporadically, introducing superfluous characters and props like smiling humanoid entities sporting deadly laser guns and such.

The interesting thing about Tomorrowland is the not-too-subtle theme that all of this entertainment churned out by Hollywood of a future dystopia for humankind meant to warn us about our bleak fate in our current trajectory has actually backfired.  Instead of changing our habits to avoid doomsday, we openly embrace it, thoroughly pleased at seeing visions of death, destruction, zombies, and apocalypse as fun, escapists romps, rather than horrors to contemplate to make us want to make the world a better place.  This film tries a different approach, though it does also succumb to showing a nightmarish vision of Earth's future to emphasize its point: back in the day, we inspired young children to dream about all of the wonderful possibilities of a futuristic world where science and technology knew no bounds, and we don't do that anymore. 

The film also suggests that "feeding the wolf' of light and optimism is the way to go if we want to get these future leaders of industry back again, rather than scaring them off by making them as cynical, depressed, and resolved to inevitability that the world is going to Hell in a hand basket, and probably within their lifetimes.  Perhaps being released the week before the critically lauded Mad Max: Fury Road, which paints about as bleak a vision of an Earth's future as it gets, would have gotten its point across in a time when people weren't starry-eyed over that very same dystopia entertainment this movie is commenting upon.

While some of the emotional elements to the film get muted underneath all of the whiz-bang production elements of the movie, and some might find the story less fun than they had anticipated from the marketing, there is an inventiveness in its story, and a cleverness in its construction that ultimately makes Tomorrowland a worthwhile experience.  It may be a bit on the long side, but it is paced well, and with enough story developments to keep the elements that have sunk many a bloated film that couldn't escape the weight of its own ambitions. 

Like many innovations in the history of technology, this ambitious effort is a little clunky, and doesn't always work the way you want or expect, but it's still ingenious enough in its design and concept to make for a fascinating science fiction diversion with a surprisingly robust and profound philosophical theme to mull over in between all of the blockbusters that spell out doom, gloom, and the futility of science to stop it.  As Casey asks her teachers, who are all instilling apathy in their students with the depressingly disillusioned visions of a world gone bankrupt,  "What are we doing about it?"  Even if the only solution provided by the film is to dare kids to dream of how our future could be, it's a question even adults as old and jaded as Frank Walker should find well worth pondering.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo