When Disney sets out to retrofit a movie franchise against an existing, storyless section of it theme parks, you’d have to assume the worst — notwithstanding the vein of gold it struck with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Now we get “Tomorrowland,” which despite having such reliable hands on deck as George Clooney and Hugh Laurie starring and Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “The Iron Giant”) directing, has the hollowed-out feel of a corporatist future-pimping industry expo, without any of the hands-on delights.
After trudging through two hours of aimless, preachy whiz-bang, I’m still not sure what any of it meant. The future is upon us, and it is a mess.
The premise holds that, in another dimension, sometime in the future, there’s a city that looks a bit like the Emerald City, except with monorails and reflection pools and spaceports and all the other trappings of a tech utopia. George Clooney’s character, Frank, manages to wangle his way there as a tyke, following the lead of a prim girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) via a portal in the Small World ride at Disneyland in the ’60s.
Then the story jumps to present-day, as a teenager at Cape Canaveral keeps sneaking onto a launchpad to disable its demolition. This girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), sees this sabotage as optimism in action, helping her NASA engineer father keep his job and prolonging a dream of space travel — a vision of progress that fits nicely with the retro sensibilities.
The dim realities of the real world still creep into Casey’s life, as they do for anyone with basic cable. War, climate change and civil unrest all get cursory nods in “Tomorrowland,” regarded as a bass beat of pessimism that we can overcome perhaps through innovation and almost certainly with positive thinking.
Casey gets a glimpse of Tomorrowland, gets to wander amid the gliding trams and the jetpacks and the helper robots, and spends the rest of the movie trying to claw her way back there — not explicitly to, like, accomplish anything, or to inform the present, but mainly to bask, as one does, in the dregs of a dream while waking.
Soon Casey falls into a mess of killer robots giving chase, and the movie absolutely flies off the rails. We’ve become so accustomed to violence on-screen that we don’t often ask why it’s happening, why a particular dispute would require resolution via laser cannons that vaporize human beings. It’s not at all clear, though, why the powers that be in Tomorrowland would regard her, Frank and Athena as mortal threats — or, really, why they’re pursuing them at all. This is the sign of a movie that’s not doing its own thinking, which is bad enough in your typical Saturday matinee but downright confounding for Disney and Bird when the film is about the future, and genius, and innovation.
Good science fiction builds plausible societies from the bottom up: What are the ideas that drive these people, and how does that define them? Instead, we got the future, reverse-engineered.
“Tomorrowland” give us a future full of jetpacks and shiny towers, but demonstrates none of the real imagination that’s going to get us there.