Disney’s Tomorrowland opens with the pleasant visage of George Clooney, recording an explanatory video for purposes unknown. “Am I on?” he wonders aloud. “Hey, I’m Frank. How’re you doing? ... This is a story about the future, and the future can be scary.” A young woman interrupts from off-camera: “Try to be a little more upbeat.”
It’s hard to imagine a more accurate advertisement for the movie to come—a perfect proxy for the essential question posed by the blockbusters residing at the multiplex this weekend: How do you like your apocalypse? If your tastes run to the arid and spiky, to desolate, post-nuclear landscapes populated by automotive marauders clashing over dwindling supplies of oil, water, blood, breast milk, and viable fetuses—then get yourself to Mad Max: Fury Road immediately. (Or, if you’ve already seen it, get yourself back to it again.) But if you prefer your End of the World to be a little shinier, more optimistic, more Disney—it may be that Tomorrowland is just the ticket.
That is not, incidentally, intended as an insult. Or at least, not entirely as one. At its best, Tomorrowland, is a clever, good-natured, PG adventure featuring robots and ray guns, jetpacks and Jules Verne. At its worst ... Well, we’ll get to that. Suffice it to say that Tomorrowland is considerably better than you might expect given that it is named after a region—not even a ride, a region—within Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and its associated theme parks around the globe. Does that conical dome in the distance bear a striking resemblance to Space Mountain? Why yes, it does. (Remarkably, this is not the first time Disney has offered up the same gag: In the 2007 animated movie Meet the Robinsons, a segment taking place decades in the future featured a Space-Mountain-y ride at a theme park called “Todayland.”)
That the movie succeeds at all is a testament to the gifts of director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol), who keeps things rolling along amiably, from a script he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof. Following Frank’s half-hearted self-introduction, we get his backstory: a boyhood visit to the 1964 World’s Fair, where he presents his homemade jetpack; an encounter with a peculiar young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who tells him “I’m the future”; and a trip on the “It’s a Small World” ride, which debuted at that World’s Fair and in which—I promise I am not making this up—young Frank discovers an inter-dimensional portal to a futuristic metropolis in the middle of a wheat field, featuring flying “hover-rails” and the aforementioned building that looks just like Space Mountain.
The movie soon switches gears, however, as the young woman we initially heard off-screen takes over narration duty from grownup Frank to tell her own backstory, which is essentially the main plot. Her name is Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), and like the young Frank, she’s a precocious tech wiz. Her principal hobby, however, is sabotaging efforts to tear down the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral, which for her offers a ray of hope for the future—reach for the stars!—in a sea of contemporary pessimism. (Her high-school curriculum seems to consist exclusively of dismal warnings about global warming and nuclear Armageddon; even her English class teaches only Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451.) When Casey is picked up by police following another episode of vandalizing federal property, she finds a vintage pin among her returned belongings—a pin that, when she touches it, transports her to the selfsame Tomorrowland where Frank traveled as a boy.
Casey’s journey is fleeting, however, and soon enough she’s dumped back in our grubby, compromised world, desperate to return to her shiny utopia. Cue up the smilingly murderous robots, the rendezvous with Frank—now grown into full Clooneyhood as a reclusive inventor—a visit to the Eiffel Tower (which is Not At All What You Think It Is), and so on. For much of its running time, Tomorrowland plays as a lighthearted techno-conspiracy thriller, Men in Black by way of Nancy Drew with the occasional whiff of Philip K. Dick paranoia and Pixarian high concept. And if the movie now and then bears a niggling resemblance to a theme park ride—well, therein lies its genesis and, quite possibly, its future.
Finally though, Casey and Frank make their way back to Tomorrowland, and the movie’s heady, gee-whiz velocity largely gives way to a series of sententious sermons about hope and despair, the abiding importance of imagination, etc., etc. Is the Earth—our Earth—truly doomed to destruction? Why was Frank expelled from Tomorrowland long ago? What was that video he and Casey were making at the beginning of the movie? If you’re like me, you might feel that some of these mysteries might have been better left unsolved.
In an unintentionally telling moment, Frank, exasperated by Casey’s constant inquiries, asks her, “Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” If only Tomorrowland had heeded his sage advice.