TOMORROWLAND

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TOMORROWLAND  * * *

Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw and Hugh Laurie. Screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Directed by Brad Bird.

As you’ve probably already heard, Tomorrowland is a mess.

Structurally it’s a movie with three first acts, missing a second and then it speeds along right into the third whether you’re ready or not. Director Brad Bird has a lot that he wants to say about pessimism and the state of the world today, and whenever he and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof can’t come up with an elegant way to dramatize it (which is more than once) they’re fully content to let the characters do what Bird’s earlier film The Incredibles memorably derided as “monologuing.” This is a sermon, and they’re preaching.

Yet I liked it all the same, maybe not just in spite of these flaws but also because of them. Tomorrowland is a deeply personal blockbuster – it’s a $190 million summer tentpole named after a Disney theme park attraction, but it comes from someplace real. The whiz-bang effects and Kennedy Era awe this movie means to inspire are hardly trendy in our snarky, nihilistic age. (Bright colors and steady camerawork alone make the film an aesthetic relic.) It feels like actual human beings made it instead of some anonymous, corporate focus-group Marvel committee.

So where to begin with this all-over-the-place plot? Plucky young teenager Casey Newton (a slightly annoying Britt Robertson) has had it up to here with the Chicken Little sky-is-falling attitude of her contemporaries, and thus makes a hobby out of sabotaging our federal government’s attempts to disassemble the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral. These extracurricular activities earn the admiration of a diminutive android named Athena (the befreckled, brilliant Raffey Cassidy), who offers a glimpse of an extra-dimensional think-tank where the best and brightest have been sequestered for decades trying to solve the world’s problems.

Thing is, the future ain’t what it used to be. Everybody’s pretty much given up, and that goes double for cranky old engineering genius Frank Walker (George Clooney). He’s been holed up as a hermit doing his best Walter Matthau impersonation ever since discovering (a) that the world is about to end soon and (b) that his schoolboy crush was a robot. But maybe not in that order.

So with the zip of a 1960’s Disney boys’ adventure – this time pointedly starring a girl – Casey, Athena and Frank wind up on a retro, eye-popping road trip punctuated by killer robots, ray-guns and rocket-ships. This is director Brad Bird’s second live-action feature, but he’s never stopped making cartoons. As in his deliriously entertaining Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (a slapstick comedy that somehow made sense of the franchise by re-framing Tom Cruise as a Nietzschean Superman exasperatedly performing astounding physical feats just because everything else around him was fucking broken) the extensive action sequences in Tomorrowland have a clean, Rube Goldberg cause-and-effect logic and are simply a delight to watch.

In fact, I’d argue these aforementioned action scenes are actually a good deal more rooted in character and visual sophistication than all the “monologuing” done at odd intervals to slam us over the head reminding us what Tomorrowland is supposed to be about. The movie stops dead every once in awhile for speeches that serve to remind you a soapbox is often times most efficiently used for the transportation of soap.

But I could tolerate all that because of where it was coming from. Beginning (well, one of the beginnings) at the 1964 World’s Fair, Tomorrowland wants to instill a gee-whiz sense of wonder and rails every chance it gets against easy cynicism and too-cool cop-outs. Ever since The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s appreciation of exceptionalism has been cheap-shot conflated with Ayn Rand, which strikes me as buzzword-trolling by lazy critics who don’t read books and have no idea what they’re talking about.

I think Bird is sick of hearing this dumb shit too, because Tomorrowland appears constructed as a riposte to Atlas Shrugged. John Galt’s Gulch has gone dry and collapsed into elitist, incestuous negativity so now the only hope for letting the light in is new ideas via people from all races and stations in life. It’s democratic and values sacrifice for the sake of others, which is pretty much the opposite of Randian. (But thanks for all your hard work, Wikipedia geniuses.)

Clooney is pretty great here too, somehow negotiating the role of a fifty-something curmudgeon who was jilted as a kid by a robot who will forever be twelve-years-old, and he and wears that hurt on his sleeve during every interaction without once drifting into creepy Woody Allen territory. (It helps that Raffey Cassidy might be the acting find of our time; she’s every bit his equal.) Their symbolically freighted farewell is visually breathtaking, both mawkish and sarcastic, and altogether unlike anything in any movie you will see in theatres this summer.

So yes, Tomorrowland might be a mess. But it’s a mess well worth your time.

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