San Andreas (PG-13)
The Rock. One ginormous earthquake. Need anyone say any more? And to the credit of director Brad Peyton and the other minds, as they are, behind San Andreas, they really do generally keep things at the most bare minimum to give Dwayne Johnson an excuse to venture in and around all manner of a decidedly unnatural, CGI-lab-created disaster and all the rumbling fallout that entails. Unlike the Irwin Allen disaster pics of yore or even the Roland Emmerich FX-extravaganzas or recent years, Peyton and writers generally pare down the excess fat, doing away with the wide multi-character and -star canvas and narrowing the focus to three distinct points, two of which are closely related: fire and rescue officer Johnson and estranged wife Carla Gugino racing to make it from quake-ravaged Los Angeles to San Francisco, where their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) tagged along with Gugino's new love interest (Ioan Gruffudd) on a business trip, before the flare-up of the titular fault line does its major damage up there. The other center of focus is the seismology team at Caltech, headed by an ever-harried Paul Giamatti, who spreads his words of warning to Californians via a TV news reporter (Archie Panjabi) and makes the film fulfill its obligatory quota of pseudoscientific jargon spoken.
I say "pseudoscientific," of course, for while the San Andreas does exist, and earthquakes of all sizes do indeed occur with regularity in California, this isn't a film to look to for any semblance of real world accuracy when it comes to temblors and the extent of the destruction they can cause. But this is Hollywood, and in the summertime no less, and anyone buying a ticket wants to see Johnson look badass while the world literally crumbles all around him in the most excessive and loud manner possible, and there are few who would claim The Rock and Peyton don't do just that. But as relatively streamlined as the movie is as far as the genre is concerned, it still has its major share of clunkiness, and not in an amusing way. Gruffudd's character is an ubersuccessful architect, which should instantly clue one in on his true colors; that he disappears from the major action fairly quickly makes one wonder why the filmmakers even bothered with his inclusion--especially when Johnson, Gugino, and Daddario already have a more effective (if no less contrived) unifying source of dramatic tension with a buried family trauma. Without going for that all-star Irwin Allen approach, recognizable cameo roles such as Kylie Minogue's come off all the more random and forced, as does the closing note of sappy, unearned, pandering patriotism. One can't exactly hate a film that delivers all the empty sound-and-fury stimuli it promises, but no matter the expense and excess, it still all adds up to just a glut of expensive... emptiness.
Of all the things kept under wraps by Disney's willfully obscure promotional campaign for Tomorrowland, the most surprising is the one thing that would really close the sale with its intended family audience: its very playful, young- and young-at-heart-appealing sense of humor. With CG-laden adventures now being commonplace in cinemas all twelve months of the year, relying on fantasy-driven awe and wonder or effects-heavy action as the main selling points isn't enough of a hook to the general moviegoing populace. The hurdles are even greater for a would-be blockbuster that is both an original, unknown property and one bearing the safe, not exactly edgy or cool, Disney imprint.
But director/co-writer Brad Bird does have a reputation for being cool and creative, not to mention comedic, so given his involvement, the unexpected, irreverent touches of humor that come almost immediately after the tricked-out version of the familiar Disney logo are hardly shocking. What is a bit so, however, considering this is a kid-friendly flick, is how the murkiness extends from the marketing to about the first half of the entire run time. Various concepts and questions are thrown around as the film jumps from time and place, first from the 1964 World's Fair, where precocious young tween Frank Walker follows a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to a futuristic, utopian parallel dimension accessed via a mysterious pin and a secret portal hidden deep within the bowels of... the It's a Small World attraction. That's just the beginning of the scattered references to the Disneyland theme park as the film moves into the present day, where bright but rebellious teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) happens upon one of those pins and experiences visions of the same advanced society, only to then find herself on the run from some shady, smiley audioanimatronic pursuers. When Casey is rescued by the still-pre-teen Athena, who then leads her to the bitter, reclusive adult Frank (George Clooney), one would expect some explanations to come in short order. The questions only continue to pile up, though, well into the trio's (not a spoiler) climactic journey to the actual Tomorrowland.
Such is the standard operating procedure of Bird's writing collaborator Damon Lindelof, whose most famous credits of Prometheus and TV's Lost were infamous in their steadfast avoidance of satisfying resolutions to their myriad mysteries. Unlike those works, though, big answers do indeed come once the three reach the realm, but they are dropped in large chunks of expository dialogue that are clunky and altogether rushed. The explanations that are ultimately given are satisfactory, but they are less earth-shattering plot twists so much as culminations and confirmations of suspicions and suggestions from ideas that arise earlier in the film, proving that it all could have been more effectively delivered in a more measured and spread out manner.
But if what he and Lindelof come up with on the page only just serviceably passes muster, Bird compensates with the other main foundation of the piece, the casting. Clooney, in a smaller role than one would be led to believe, adds both the necessary veteran gravitas to convincingly sell all of the fanciful mumbo jumbo while still lending a touch of cheeky, self-aware lightness. As she has proven in both her television work and in films such as the recent White Rabbit and The Longest Ride, Robertson is an engaging young talent with the potential to be a bona fide star. But stealing the show handily from both of them is a secret weapon that has remained largely hidden in the marketing: Cassidy, who arguably has the most difficult role in terms of both dramatic and physical demands and slaying both with the same ease that Athena dispatches evil robots in the well-staged action sequences.
And that latter point is part of where Bird reliably excels in Tomorrowland: style and general imagination. While rooted in various concepts from the titular area of the Disneyland theme park--and thus making for some amusing visual references, such as Space Mountain-shaped building prominently figuring in the Tomorrowland cityscape--Bird goes the extra mile in realizing an otherworldly vision at once distinctly futuristic yet decidedly, appropriately retro. The world and its technology cleverly reflect the sleek, shiny "space age" design era of the Happiest Place on Earth's 1955 opening, which while recognizably yesteryear still are still believably futuristic 60 years later. If the current world is one of advanced digital technology, then Tomorrowland is one of advanced analog technology--which nicely sums up the ultimately simple charms of the film, which are more impressive and memorable than its more state-of-the-art trappings.