The Future That Never Was

When Disneyland originally opened, attractions like the Nautilus submarines and the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse were based on the studio’s movie hits. Later on, the studio tried to make movies based on the Disneyland attractions. It worked out financially with Pirates of the Caribbean, and was a bust with 2003’s The Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy. Now comes Tomorrowland, a slightly strange hybrid that not only is an area of the park but is also part of Uncle Walt’s original vision. The Tomorrowland attractions at the park were supposed to give visitors a vision of the future, but that required constant updating, so in the 1990s Disney changed Tomorrowland to be the vision of Sci-fi writers from the 1920s and ‘30s, sort of looking back to look forward to a future that never was.

In a way that’s carried over into the movie. It postulates a sort of Illuminati conspiracy by the greatest minds of the world, beginning in the 19th Century, to create an alternate world where science is given free reign – the best world imaginable. At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, a young dreamer named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) receives an invitation from a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to enter that world in the form of a pin. The portal is hidden inside the “It’s A Small World” ride, which was created for the fair before being moved to Disneyland. You knew there had to be a nefarious reason to inflict that ride on the public. But in the end the future isn’t so bright for Walker.

Fast-forward to perhaps a few minutes beyond the present day. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a teenaged science geek who’s response to all the problems of the world is, “Can’t we make it better?” She lives in Cape Canaveral where her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) was once a NASA scientist but is now involved with dismantling the launch systems. Casey has carried out a sabotage campaign to stop the destruction, but it ends up landing her in jail. When she’s bailed out, she finds a pin mixed in with her belongings that, when she touches it, gives her a vision of Tomorrowland.

As she searches for answers about the pin, she discovers that a team of killer robots has been tasked with stopping her. She’s saved in one encounter by the arrival of the still young Athena. Athena tells Casey that there’s only one man who can help her: Frank Walker (George Clooney), now an old recluse on a farm in upstate New York after he was exiled from Tomorrowland.

The movie was directed by Brad Bird, who made The Incredibles for Pixar and then reanimated Tom Cruise with the excellent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But before that he made The Iron Giant, one of the last and best movies in the classic animation format. (Watch the scene of Casey in the memorabilia store and you’ll see a shelf over the sales lady’s shoulder dedicated to that movie.) The script was written by Bird along with Damon Lindehof who wrote and executive produced “Lost” and also did the two movies of the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek.

The movie wants to deliver a message as well as an entertaining story, and because of that it’s uneven, with several holes in the plot. The robot hit squad isn’t as threatening as it should be, and some of the metaphysics get too meta and forget about the physics. But in contrast to most movies these days, it at least does have a message, and it’s one that should be heard.

Robertson is effective in the main role, with Clooney and Raffey Cassidy providing good support. Hugh Laurie plays the leader of Tomorrowland, and it’s fun to hear his real British accent rather than the American one he used for so many years on “House.”

Despite the unevenness and the plot holes, I’d recommend seeing this movie. It grapples with large questions, and while it isn’t a complete success, it’s better than many movies made these day that retread what’s been done before. It manages to pluck at your heart strings and stimulate your mind, rather than just being another roller-coaster ride, and that goes a long way toward a passing grade.

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