Film review: ‘Tomorrowland’ is an amusement-park ride to nowhere

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Two and a half stars

Tomorrowland Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG. Opens Friday.

At amusement parks like Disneyland, from which Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland takes its name, visitors who spend hours waiting in line for rides are often entertained by supplemental material exploring the (generally superfluous) backstory behind the ride. Tomorrowland is like one of those explanatory videos expanded to feature length, building up to a ride that never comes. The 130-minute film is almost all setup for a disappointing payoff, with a handful of exhilarating set pieces that aren’t enough to counterbalance the slow pacing, the exposition-heavy plotting and the oddly preachy message that shows up in the final act.

Director and co-writer Bird has brought a lively sense of adventure and wonder to his previous films, both animated (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and live-action (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and he works hard to give Tomorrowland that same wide-eyed tone. Teenage heroine Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a science prodigy and an inveterate optimist who sees the ills of the world and wants only to fix them. When she discovers a mysterious pin with a “T” logo, she experiences glimpses of a gleaming world of the future, one where technological advancements have helped bring about peace and prosperity.

With the help of a cheerful robot girl named Athena (excellent newcomer Raffey Cassidy), Casey tracks down grumpy ex-inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) and learns the truth about Tomorrowland, which turns out to be a sort of whiz-bang version of Galt’s Gulch from Atlas Shrugged, an alternate-dimension enclave where the world’s best and brightest seclude themselves to develop innovations the world isn’t ready for. Like The Incredibles, Tomorrowland is a story of exceptionalism, with Casey positioned as the genius who can save the world from itself.

When the movie finally gets down to saving the world, though, it’s not all that exciting, and Bird stops the story in its tracks for a long, heavy-handed diatribe about apathy and pessimism that exemplifies the movie’s thematic clumsiness. Instead of an actual adventure story, Tomorrowland is more of a presentation about the concept of adventure stories, and while the design of the futuristic city is impressive, it’s also a bit sterile. Only once, when Casey and Frank are attempting to escape robot assassins in Frank’s booby-trap-filled house, does the movie capture the same sense of fun that Bird has brought to his previous films.

Otherwise, it’s more interested in telling the audience about the importance of fun than in actually having any. In the vision Casey gets from the pin, a fresh-faced astronaut promises that they’ve saved her a place on a rocket ship headed to space. By the end of the movie, we’re still waiting for her to take that ride.

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