When I was a young man (yes, I really was one once) in the '50s and '60s, I was the public relations guy for a wide-screen film process called Cinerama. We began making these sweeping travelogue films using a bulky three-camera system, later switching to a one-camera 140 degree system to better do fictional features. So yes, I was in at the birth of the big-screen revolution, which is still going on. Our crowning Cinerama feature in the original process was a five-part all-star Western, "How the West Was Won." I was reminded of that experience yesterday when I went to se the new Disney film, TOMORROWLAND, at the IMAX Theatre in Century City. If you have never experienced Imax, you should go at least once to see the enormous screen with its super-clarity Dolby projection and remarkable surround sound. It's almost 3-D in quality without the glasses.
The opening prelude shot shows a grizzled George Clooney as Frank Walker saying, "When I was a kid, the future was different." He's being heckled by an of-screen girl's voice. The proper opening of the picture is a young boy (later to grow up to be George Clooney) getting off a bus at Astoria, Queens, New York in 1964 to attend the opening of the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow Park. I got the shivers when I saw on screen off in the distance the symbols of the Fair, the Trylon and Periscope, a high thin triangular structure and a round obelisk. A mysterious young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) entices the youngster onto a watery rode through dark tunnels, and I remember the shock value of taking that same scary ride in a crowded boat. My younger brother Stan reminded me last night that he had joined my father and me in that journey.. I do remember a ride called "It's a Small World" which transported us to a world of soaring buildings and flying transports.
The young Frank/George (Thomas Robinson) is carrying a back pack containing a "jetpack" he had made out of Electrolux vacuum tubes and odd pieces., which he confidentally places in front of one of the judges in the "New Inventions Contest. "Does it work?" ask the stern-faced judge, David Nix, the formidable Hugh Laurie, the limping addicted Dr. Gregory House of your TV dreams (or nightmares), a show which I never missed. The jet pack does not yet work but it will, he insists. Nix's daughter is the aforementioned Athena, a mysterious female character who befriends the inventive boy and leads him into the journey which occupies the rest of the astonishing film.
Meawhile, jumping 40 years from then, we meet Florida-bred Casey Newton, the real star of he film (an actress named Britt Robertson; she costarred with Scott Eastwood in last month's The Longest Ride) ......who looks and acts like a young Jennifer Lawrence and probably has as blossoming a career....a true winsome winner. Casey is the daughter of a NASA engineer (played by Tim McGraw) and she is is rebelling in her own youthful way against the shutting down of he NASA facility on Cape Canavarel. Bailed out of jail by the mysterious Hugh Laurie daughter, she finds herself with a strange "T" pin whch with one touch can transform her into a distant place, a future cornfield (shot in Alberta, Canada) outside of the city of tomorrow. (I believe, I believe,)
This is where things got a little convoluted, and I partially lost my way....but the young audience behind me was with them a hundred percent and kept me on an even keel. Casey is transported by the coin to the city of the future, a place of all my childish scifi dreams...whizzing airships and tall futuristic buildings with busy happy people. It was actually filmed in part at the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain. I must note here that I am a huge fan of this filmmaking director fellow named Brad Bird, who won my heart forever with his animated food love story, Ratatouille, about a mouse who loves to cook in a Parisian kitchen. I loved his animated The Incredibles and sat through (impatiently) his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I read somewhere tha Brad was havg lunch with Sean Bailey, the production head of Disney, and mentioned that he would love to see a movie called "Tomorrowland," taking this name from the futuristic section of Disneyland. Sean told him to go ahead and write it (which he did, with Lost's Damon Kindelof and Jeff Jensen). It's not the usual summer tentpole franchise (thank god) but it is a risky venture because it is more intelligent than most such works. I kind of think that ol' Uncle Walt would take great pride in this one. The talk is intelligent and incessant, the action is spectacular (imagine Paris and the Eiffel Tower) but can be handled, and I was so impressd by the cinematography of Claudio Miranda and production design of Scott Chambliss, while the music of Michael Giacchino adds to the effect.
As I write this, it's 24 hours since I saw the film and now the little irritants are coming to the fore. So much was incomprehensible to my adult mind. Never mind, it was such a visual and emotional experience that I can handle the nagging questions. All of the critics of the movie (and there are some) note that Bird is launching an attack on the nihilism, despair and apocalyptic thinking of today's media and mood. There's a sign which spells out a slogan from Einstein: IMAGINATION IS MORE IMORTANT THAN KNOWLEDGE, and you know that it is Bird's creed. Casey's dad, the NASA scientist (played by Tim McGraw) , poses a theoretical supposition to her: "You have two wolves, one representing darkness and despair, the other light and hope. Which one lives?" And wise young Casey answers: "The one you feed."
There are evil forces here (portrayed by robotic guys in black suits with sunglasses and laser guns- probably from another movie) chasing the kids for.....what? I think they are the forces which herald the dangers of climate change and nuclear power...their pessimism wreaking havoc on those 'thinkers' who could solve the world's problems. Bird hammers his message agajn and again, especially at the very end...but hey, you're talking to an incurable optimist, so I could handle the message.
Tomorrowland is at the end an optimistic view of 'what can be.' I have such respect for a family movie which wants to save the world. The threats which it elicits are real ones....and while the solutions it offers are rather simplistic, they are better than none at all.
Clooney's role is kind of generic; it could have been handled by many actors, but he brings a charm to it which is uniquely his .....and it's obvious that he really likes and respects the two young actresses with whom he shares the film. Robertson's Casey is incandescent, and she made the movie zing for me. As I walked out of the theatre, I kept thinking of my favorite British actor, Hugh Laurie, and how much I miss Dr. Gregory House in my life.
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