“Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed?” George Clooney’s brilliant but grizzled Frank Walker asks in “Tomorrowland.” Clooney, of course, is addressing the audience as much as he’s addressing Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a tenacious and similarly brilliant young woman who may be able to save the world from impending doom.
Casey, like modern moviegoers, asks a lot of questions. Unlike modern moviegoers, however, Casey is a self-proclaimed optimist, and Brad Bird’s stellar new spectacle, as literally bright as it is figuratively and far more forward-thinking than anything Disney’s done since “Wall-E,” has the bleeding heart and rapt gaze of an optimist trying to make the world a better place. That it also happens to be a $190 million blockbuster from the company that gave us the glittery claptrap of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise only makes the movie more wonderful.
Warning: “Tomorrowland” is filled with surprises, and viewers are best served going in curious and cold. Beware of spoilers herein.
Casey, the daughter of a NASA engineer (played, inexplicably, by Tim McGraw), gets arrested for trying to save her father’s job, as well as a NASA structure that apparently means a lot to her. Upon being released, she acquires a pin from the 1964 World’s Fair, given to her by a mysterious young girl (Raffey Cassidy in what should be a star-making performance). When Casey touches the pin, she’s transported to a utopian city…sort of. The futuristic city, all sky-scarping structures and gleaming glass and majestic monuments, seems to exist in one realm while Casey still physically remains in this one.
So Casey, a curious young woman with a stubborn streak to match her fervid intellect, embarks on a journey to find out what it all means. Soon, robots are trying to disintegrate her. Enter grumpy George Clooney and his cadre of fancy gizmos and gadgets. He knows something about Tomorrowland and could help Casey if only he’d stop being so grumpy.
Above all else, Bird has crafted a gorgeous world rife with creativity and inventive images. A Spielbergian sense of candid awe and wonder permeates each scene with a nostalgic edge. (Michael Giacchino channels John Williams for his rousing score, though he goes more for mood than themes.) A master craftsman, the ever-playful Bird approaches his influences with childlike relish, but doesn’t dwell on any of his clever nods or insert them cumbersomely just to satiate discerning trivia fans; he integrates sights and sounds from Spielberg, classic Disney movies, Uncle Walt’s unfulfilled utopian vision, the Disney theme parks, old sci-fi flicks, Jules Verne, Cold War paranoia, and modern anxieties with the skill of an A-list director and the innocent glee of a child at a Saturday matinee.
The first — and perhaps most obvious — Spielberg allusion comes early in the film, when young Frank struggles to buckle his jetpack’s seatbelt, and instead quickly ties the two ends together, recalling a similar moment in “Jurassic Park.” There’s also a fun, fleeting little quip at the expense of Edison, for the Tesla fans.
The action hits harder than most PG movies, but it’s mostly bloodless (though occasionally upsetting — seriously, there’s at least one tear-inducing death). Whereas most recent CGI-addled blockbusters overuse color-grading and throw oodles of fancy effects in our collective faces, essentially saturating every image in digitized bedlam, Bird (assisted immeasurably by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda) keeps things visually clean and rooted in reality.
The action is tense but carefully-choreographed and easy to follow. Bird delivers awe-inspired moments in waves, submerging us in his imagination without drowning the drama in spectacle. People zip by on jetpacks and swimming pools hover magnanimously in the balmy blue skies, but characters still adhere to the laws of physics — and coherent plots. The whole film moves with a fluid moment. In an inspired move, Bird tapped legendary editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Conversation”) to weave these lively pieces together. Now in his seventies, Murch still has the keenest eye in the editing room.
Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn land a standout scene as two geeky shop owners, whose store is replete with so much Star Wars memorabilia (not self-promotion on Disney’s part as much as it is a clever, playful punch to the shoulder of geekdom; someone tries to use R2D2 as a bludgeon). The shop and the scene are emblematic of Bird’s approach to moviemaking: as Key’s geek shop owner opines (after muffing up his “Star Wars”-themed entrance), showmanship is important. And yet there’s still something unseen percolating beneath the surface — of the shop, of the film, of the whole idea of “Tomorrowland.”
The follies and failures of technology has been a motif present in all of Bird’s work, from the Iron Giant getting bumped on the noggin to Syndrome’s remote control bracelet in “The Incredibles” (which appears again in “Tomorrowland”) to the blue is glue, red dead gloves malfunctioning on Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.” With “Tomorrowland,” Bird’s most explosive effort so far, technology again afflicts people with pain, albeit on a more massive scale; however, this time, humans are the cause, and eventual solution, to all of life’s problems. Technology just enables them.
But the great irony of “Tomorrowland,” one of which Bird is clearly cognizant, is that — despite its proclamations to the contrary — it offers up substantial ideas. Penned by Bird and Damon Lindelof, “Tomorrowland” harbors some strongly progressive ideals, a surprising and very welcome change from the hollow-headed summer action films that descend perennially upon theaters in droves. (It would actually make a fantastic double-feature with the relentlessly awesome “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)
In typical Lindelof fashion, the dialog is mostly pragmatic, not particularly quotable or funny, but the movie does fine without such quips. Bird and Lindelof depict a beautiful, enlightened future that’s mercifully diverse. The film’s version of an ideal future doesn’t just include people from various countries and ethnicities — it depends on them.
The idea of pessimism vs. optimism pervades the movie from the first shot of Clooney’s handsome mug while Casey berates his cynicism from offscreen. Everyone in this story — Clooney, Hugh Laurie as a stern World’s Fair administrator, Casey’s Morrissey lookalike English teacher — waxes misanthropic, while Casey prevails with persistence and buoyancy.
Bird has simultaneously expunged the ubiquitous grit and grime of the post-“Dark Knight” blockbuster and created the first theme-park-derived movie that actually uses its origins to say something worth hearing. And a movie ticket is cheaper than taking the family to Disney World.
“Tomorrowland” opens nationwide on Friday.