With George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Keegan-Michael Key. Written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language. 130 minutes.
To say that TOMORROWLAND is a disappointment isn’t really fair. If this reviewer was eight years old, it would seem like one of the best movies ever. It’s the difference between someone able to appreciate all the “gee whiz” elements and someone able to ask all sorts of inconvenient questions about the plot. So take the kids and check your cynicism at the door.
The film begins with Frank Walker (George Clooney) seeming to address us. Off screen is Casey (Britt Robertson), whom we’ll meet after a while. They’re arguing about how to best tell their story, and right away it’s clear that maybe writer/director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof might have solved that problem before they started making the film.
As a young boy, Frank (Thomas Robinson) goes to the 1964 World’s Fair to show off his invention. There he meets Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a special badge, which allows him to go to a futuristic city where Athena and Nix (Hugh Laurie) actually live. Meanwhile, in our present, teenage Casey has been breaking into a NASA facility to prevent them from taking down equipment. (That she does it with relative ease is one of the film’s many narrative problems.) When she gets caught, she finds that one of those special badges seems to have turned up in her belongings, and she, too, gets to visit the future city.
Things get strange when two shopkeepers (Keegan-Michael Key, Kathryn Hahn) turn violent and demand to know about the “girl” who gave her the badge. She knows nothing about any girl, which is when Athena–looking the same as she did in 1964–shows up to rescue her. Athena gets her together with the adult Frank, who isn’t interested in Casey or her story… until robot men show up and start attacking.
For a long while, “Tomorrowland” is wacky and inventive, but when the robot men start vaporizing police officers who get in their way you begin to wonder if this is really a family film. By the time the main characters are all together in the future city–which apparently is in another dimension–the shagginess of the story is all too obvious.
Clooney is not known for this sort of film, but he plays the gruff but ultimately warm-hearted adult well, playing off his younger co-stars without overpowering them (or being upstaged by them either). Robertson is the film’s feisty heroine, quickly adapting to the increasingly strange occurrences. As for Cassidy, she offers a suitably serious presence for a character presumably much older than her actual age of 12, with her pleasant British accent adding the necessary gravitas. Laurie, alas, is sorely under-utilized and gets saddled with the big “exposition speech” to boot.
Given Brad Bird’s track record (including “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol”), it’s not surprising that expectations would be high for “Tomorrowland.” If it falls short, it’s because he’s done so much more.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.