"Would you stop being so amazed?" an exasperated George Clooney barks at co-star Britt Robertson in the middle of "Tomorrowland," and you can't say he doesn't have a point: Even the actress has to admit that her character travels through the movie's fantastical future-world in a state of "constant awe."
But who wouldn't?
When the much-anticipated film, directed by Brad Bird ("The Incredibles"), opens May 22, it will introduce audiences to a civilization that seems half-inspired by H.G. Wells, half by "The Jetsons," a slippery mix of the visionary and the nostalgic -- and the technological and the philosophical.
Like the movie, the original Tomorrowland was created by Disney, a plug for its live attractions. On the 1950s "Mickey Mouse Club," for instance, there were segments set in Tomorrowland (and Frontierland, Adventureland and Fantasyland) which corresponded to the "lands" of Disneyland and its theme-park offspring to come. And there's a strong longing for the past running through "Tomorrowland," from times and places to the pronounced '50s-'60s sentiment that the future held nothing but promise.
Fittingly, the story starts at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, an event that loudly touted the world-to-be as a nonstop technological marvel. In '64, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) shows up from somewhere in the Midwest with a jet-propulsion pack he hasn't quite perfected, but which he hopes will win him a prize at a junior inventors competition. The mysterious man in charge (Hugh Laurie) wants to send him on his way, but the young and equally mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy) sees something she likes. Frank is subsequently given a vision of a world that haunts him to adulthood, and turns him into what Clooney calls a "disenchanted grump."
"Frank goes to a place he thinks is the greatest in the universe and he believes the world is going to be a much better place because of it," Clooney says. "He finds out that those things were untrue and becomes probably the most cynical person one could be." Frank isolates himself on his family farm, the actor continues, but "is forced to deal with his past because of situations that happen in the film."
The past arrives on his doorstep courtesy of Casey Newton (Robertson), who's also seen Tomorrowland and wants to go back (or is it forth?). There are forces that want to stop her, and forces -- like Athena -- that want to help. The principal conflict is the one that exists in the minds of earthlings: Is there any future to hope for? Or is the world in as dire shape as it's made out to be?
"I think the message of the film is a lot of things," Robertson said, "but what it boils down to is that, as individuals, we can only take responsibility for ourselves and not be overly influenced by the outside world -- movies and books are presenting a pretty grim picture, that the future is not something to look forward to."
"'Tomorrowland,' " she said, "is making a point you don't have to accept the future that's being presented. We can make our own choices and dream of a better tomorrow, come up with new ideas."
"The future," said the 13-year-old Cassidy, "is not a place we should be afraid of."
To create their utopian vision, Bird and company used a lot of digital effects, but based the imagery on some real locations -- the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, for instance, and the real-life launchpad at NASA, where Casey's father (Tim McGraw) has been laid off, because the spirit of national exploration has been throttled. It was a theme that was discussed during filming.
"We'd do a scene and talk about the different things he [Bird] wanted to accomplish, his general idea of the movie," Robertson said. "He's trying to present optimism and positivity and send the message that people should be proactive and not accept the idea that the planet is doomed, and that we don't have a chance."
"Tomorrowland," with its specially gifted and talented characters thwarted by an unjust world, seems unlikely to squash the connections that have been drawn between Bird and an Ayn Randian philosophy (most notably in "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles"). Bird has denied any such influences and probably will again, but the underlying viewpoint in "Tomorrowland" is that most people are all too willing to embrace a fatalistic view of the future -- one which, in the movie, is the product of a rather grandiose media campaign.
"So far," said Robertson, "I've been surprised by how much people who've seen the film think about it after the fact -- not just plot but there are a lot of ideas that get the brain going. It's thought-provoking."
This writer said he'd been thinking about it for at least a couple of days.
"That," Robertson said, "is good enough for me."
Looking beyond a grim future
"Tomorrowland" director Brad Bird is right about at least one thing: The future, as delivered by most mass media, is a pretty grim prospect. And it pretty much always has been, especially at the movies. Charles Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936) presented a system where automation was turning humans into mindless drones; Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) envisioned the world as a slave state; "Replicants" roamed the storied landscape of Ridley's Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982); and Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" (2002) imagined retinal scans and pre-emptive arrests. (Go back to H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine," and the ultimate Earth-to-come was a dying orb on which all life was vanishing.) Is there any hope? Here are a few straws upon which to grasp -- although, the demands of drama being what they are, utopias don't tend to remain utopian:
LOST HORIZON (1937) Frank Capra's celebrated fantasy about a land of Shangri-La, hidden in the Himalayas and stumbled upon by air-crash survivors, wasn't in the future exactly, but the fact that it took place at a time when the rest of the world was on the precipice of war offered a vision of what that world might be, cut off from the feverish politics of its time. Ronald Colman plays the character deprived of his Shangri-La and will do anything to get it back.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) The Star Child is an enigma and lord only know where Stanley Kubrick finally delivers us, but both technology and evolution go into high gear in one of the more influential sci-fi stories and futuristic visions ever committed to film.
BRAZIL (1985) There are moments in Terry Gilliam's celebrated, censored and sensationally satirical vision of a dystopic society when everything seems like it might just turn out all right. And depending on what version you've seen, it either does or doesn't.
THE JETSONS (1990) Based on the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, the "Jetsons" movie didn't pretend that people wouldn't always be people, but it did presume a universe in which technology would always progress in ways that advanced human efficiency, economy and comfort.
DEMOLITION MAN (1993) Until Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes show up as, respectively, a police officer and escaped convict from the past, the world of the future is a pretty pleasant and civilized place.