It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Early in Brad Bird's science fiction adventure "Tomorrowland," there's a flashback to one of the film's heroes visiting the 1964 World's Fair as a child and sampling Walt Disney's "It's a Small World" ride, with its invasively cheerful music and shimmying puppets; suddenly it whisks the park visitor, a boy who came there with a homemade jet pack hoping to win an inventor's contest, into a utopian future full of Art Deco skyscrapers and monorails, and watches him fall and rise through soupy clouds, courtesy of his flame-spitting invention.
Thus does an actual theme park ride become a high-tech cinematic version of a theme park ride. The first ride is gentle, nostalgic and charming. The second is dazzling and intense—a masterpiece of choreography, editing, design, sound effects and music, plus a bit of chill-inducing dream logic: at one point, the boy falls while his jet pack plummets a few meters to his left, and to reach it, he kicks his arms and legs like a swimmer chasing a life preserver. "Tomorrowland" has many uncanny dream-logic moments like that one. They make the film worth seeing, even though it's better as an experience than as a story or a message, yet wants to be all three at once.
There's a plot of sorts, something about a teenage girl (Britt Robertson's Casey) seeking out a greying scientist (George Clooney's Frank Walker) who knows how to access the aforementioned future, where brilliant scientists and other special individuals have created a pristine new world in advance of this one's death. The boy in the World's Fair sequence, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), is befriended by a freckle-faced young English girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who has a secret that I won't reveal here, except to say that it helps the others wriggle free of seemingly inescapable jams.
There are fuzzy or stilted warnings, courtesy of co-writers Bird and Damon Lindelof ("Star Trek Into Darkness"), about the plight of extraordinary individuals in an ordinary world, and the price we'll eventually pay for despoiling the environment and demonizing science. Bird has been criticized for infusing "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" with simplistic and sometimes elitist-sounding statements about the privileges that should accrue to gifted people. He'll get raked over the coals again here, thanks to the future's "Atlas Shrugged"-style origin story: the world's great scientific minds decided they'd had enough of ignorance and apathy and made their own world that's part Shangri-La and part Emerald City of Oz, but functionally Noah's Ark.