Tomorrowland: The future's so bright you might miss the shade

The optimism's welcome, but this vision of the future is just a bit too Disney-fied.

If recent movies are any indication, the future is not going to be pretty. Apocalyptic, dystopian cinema has actually been with us for decades, but in the last couple of decades it has achieved an unprecedented prominence. In the future we'll be forced to sacrifice our young, devastated by zombie attacks, or destroyed by killer robots – and that just scratches the surface. The outcome does not look promising.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. At least that’s the message of the new Disney puff pastry Tomorrowland (which opened in Bay area theatres on May 22). According to T-land, all you have to do is gather together the most creative minds in the world (props to the film for also including artists and musicians in that bunch, and not just scientists and doctors) and, with their help, avoid the long slow slog toward an ugly end. The result is the doomsday equivalent of E.T. — just as not all aliens are angry, not all prophecies for the world have to be bleak — but without that classic’s emotional resonance.

The film begins in 1964, when a young boy goes to the NY World's Fair to enter his invention in a competition. Skip ahead 50 years, and inquisitive teen Casey (Britt Robertson) comes into possession of a special pin that reveals another dimension. Eventually, she meets young-boy-turned-grizzled Frank Walter (George Clooney, who looks better grizzled than most people look all cleaned up) who reluctantly (of course) agrees to help her find this other dimension, and city, which have fallen into disrepair because everyone has given up and accepted the doomsday scenario being force-fed the masses for the past however many years.

Got that? Because I’m not totally sure I did, even after thinking about it for days afterwards. T-land is obviously skewed toward a younger audience, though I’m afraid the plot is so convoluted that the target demographic may soon check out and wait for the next action sequence. Said sequences are frequent, though they also feel like blueprints for future theme-park attractions from the mouse house.

Not that the movie is totally without its virtues. An early sequence in a sci-fi memorabilia store run by Keegan-Michael Key is a delightfully zany homage to all those film classics that have come before. Hugh Laurie, doing his cantankerous House routine (again), has a very effective monologue about how “the whole world sprinted towards the apocalypse and embraced it with gleeful abandon” because “that future doesn’t ask anything of you today.” And of course there is that ending —very Disney-esque, but hopeful nonetheless – which has a distinctly utopian feel to it.

Poor Clooney, who could probably use a hit these days, is saddled with lines like “Well, zip-a-dee-do to you, kid.” We could have used a lot more of the henchmen who come to collect him (like the men in black suits in The Matrix, but with killer, Jim Carrey-like smiles), as well as the hints of edgy, adult violence that pop up every once in a while. One episode, involving vaporizing policemen, might have been in borderline bad taste if there had been the suggestion of blood – instead, they seem to disintegrate into a mist.

Director Brad Bird never quite conceals his animated film background with this live-action feature, and one can’t help but wonder what it would have been like had he gone The Incredibles route ( a highlight of his career) with this one. His message —that there is darkness and despair or lightness and hope, and whichever one you feed is the one that wins — is certainly a worthwhile one. But he hits us over the head with that message over and over again, rather than simply showing us.

Refining both message and plot would have gone a long way toward giving us a movie that would resonate for a long time to come. But thanks for the optimism – one can certainly use more of that in this world of dark, futuristic scenarios.

Tomorrowland. Now playing. Rated PG. Directed by Brad Bird. Three Stars. Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Keegan-Michael Key, and Hugh Laurie.

CL Rating: Three Stars.

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