Coming on the heels of the brutally dystopian vision of what’s to come glimpsed in Mad Max: Fury Road, the jet packs and Jetsons gleam of the charming if preachy Tomorrowland comes as a huge sigh of relief. Now, this is what we were promised, a world’s fair cornucopia of rocket ships that take you high into the heavens and mid-century modern futurism run riot.
In fact, Tomorrowland starts as a reminiscence from inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) about his visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York where his much younger self (Thomas Robinson) has taken his homemade jetpack. But, as it doesn’t really work, Frank is shown the door by one of the scientists, Nix (Hugh Laurie).
Yet there’s a strange, wide-eyed girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) in the room who senses something about Frank and slips him a pin with the letter “T” on it. Now, it’s not just any pin but one that allows the holder to actually visit that glorious future that the fair was envisioning.
Cut to the present and budding, 20-something scientist Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), whose dad, Eddie (Tim McGraw) is a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer, also finds the mysterious pin among her belongings. When she touches it — bam — she’s decades ahead.
Turns out the place is a secret, alternative universe created by four great thinkers — Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, Nicholas Tesla and Gustave Eiffel — who were supposedly part of a hush-hush group called Plus Ultra, an organization of scientists who wanted to design a future full of technological wonder and free from ignorance and want.
But there are forces that don’t want that visionary world to come to pass and it’s up to Frank and Casey to save the day.
As envisioned by director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles), working from a script co-written by Damon Lindelof (Lost, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Leftovers), Tomorrowland is a feast of visual eye candy (added plus: it’s not in 3D) and its bright optimism is a bracing tonic against the gloom and gray so often conjured up in movies about the future.
Clooney and Robertson (Under the Dome, The Longest Ride) work well together, showing off some comedic mentor-mentee chemistry while McGraw, in his first film since Country Strong five years ago, shows he just might have a career that doesn’t involve wearing a cowboy hat.
Yet there are shifts in tone that are a bit jarring — though much of the violence turns out to be robot on robot, it might still be too much for some of the youngest viewers. At more than two hours, it feels long and, again, for very young kids, it might be a chore.
Worse, Tomorrowland ultimately dispenses with subtlety altogether and clubs viewers over the head with its It’s a Small World After All message (yes, this is a Disney film).
Still, there’s much to admire in Tomorrowland. In a summer where science fiction is full of fear and dread — in addition to Mad Max, there will be Terminator: Genesys and Jurassic World — Tomorrowland offers something just a little different: hope and promise.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571
Director: Brad Bird
Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie
Rated: PG (sequences of sci-fi action and peril, thematic elements, mild language)
Running time: 130 min.