Always-cool George Clooney can’t lift meandering ‘Tomorrowland’

22 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Always-cool George Clooney can’t lift meandering ‘Tomorrowland’.

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. Swimming pools are uncontained blocks of water suspended in the air — a whole group of them, one above another, so that swimmers can dive into one then pop out the bottom and somersault into the next.

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. George Clooney stars as Frank Walker, a jaded, reclusive inventor who is tracked down by a driven teen named Casey after she experiences some truly weird space-time events. 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.

It’s almost enough to distract from the shapeless story surrounding all the very special effects. “Tomorrowland” is based on a Disney theme park area, and despite that inauspicious source material, the family-friendly movie has seemed poised to be one of the most exciting entries in the blockbuster season. Case in point: She breaks into a NASA facility that, soon to be shuttered, will leave her beloved engineer father (Tim McGraw) without his space-program job.

Bird and his small country of visual-effects whizzes have great slapstick fun as Casey touches, lets go, touches and lets go of the pin. “Tomorrowland” is a story of pessimism (his) and optimism (hers), of humankind’s end or triumph. But the director at the helm, Brad Bird, brought us “The Incredibles” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” and “Lost” writer Damon Lindelof helped with the script.

The story follows two modern-day scientific geniuses on a quest to get to the vibrant metropolis of Tomorrowland, a secret world filled with big thinkers and grand ideas. 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. 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. There, Frank meets scientist David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and a brilliant girl named Athena (an engagingly crisp Raffey Cassidy), who figures mightily in Frank’s introduction to the clandestine mecca of possibility envisioned by a quartet of pragmatic dreamers: Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison and his rival Nikola Tesla. 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. 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.

Bird directed two of Pixar’s most inventive and emotionally challenging features: “Up” and Oscar winner “Ratatouille.” It makes sense he’d be the one to take on a story that straddles anxiety and hope in a family-friendly movie. 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. Athena, still a little girl after all these years, turns up to bestow a pin on Casey, which also whisks her away, but only for a few minutes — just enough to give her a taste for more.

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. In its climactic scenes, “Tomorrowland” juggles uplift, ideas, plot, characters, special effects, planetary Armageddon — and half the balls land on the floor. With her clear, penetrating eyes, she occupies the precocious kid role without being overbearingly twee: Sure, she says cute things, but she’s also a tiny assassin. 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. Bad guys materialize (though it’s never entirely clear why), including a hilarious robot played by Matthew MacCaull, whose bright, mechanical smile makes him look like a life-size Ken doll.

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. And we don’t fully understand the great importance of the journey until the last chapter of the movie, at which point a minor character suddenly becomes a villain. The narrative is messy and meandering, putting more emphasis on emotional payoffs than driving the plot forward. (It also leads to a somewhat problematic minor thread, as Frank acts like a man scorned whenever Athena is around.) Maybe the ultimate goal of “Tomorrowland” remains obscure because once you know where the story is headed, you realize it’s a familiar tale.

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