George Clooney

It never was, but is always near, can never be seen, but will always show up—although it disappears the moment it arrives…

The solution to this old riddle is simple: Tomorrow. But for those awaiting a glimpse of Disney’s upcoming sci-fi/fantasy adventure Tomorrowland, the answer is not so elusive. Here’s an exclusive preview of what’s-to-come from the deeply shrouded new Brad Bird film.

“We begin our movie asking what did [the future] used to be?” Bird says. “What’s good about the future and what’s scary about it? And we wrestle with those things in a slightly mythical way.”

A Florida girl who dreams of the future while watching the launchpads of Cape Canaveral being disassembled goes exploring one day and, after landing in a bit of trouble, finds herself in possession of a mysterious pin. Touching it reveals a vision of a place that may not be a different world but simply a better one. (You can see the concept art above.) Then it’s gone—out, out, brief candle!—and the quest to discover the real Tomorrowland begins.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

This is the setup for Disney’s new sci-fi/fantasy film (out May 22) from Bird (the maker of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol) and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, HBO’s The Leftovers). It takes its title from Disneyland’s “futurist attraction,” but suggests old Walt may have stolen it first when he caught sight of this otherworldly place.

“What Hogwarts is to magic, Tomorrowland is to science: They are both easy to find if you are a wizard and very difficult to find if you’re a Muggle,” says Lindelof. “Walt Disney is not a character in our movie, but he is referenced as having some involvement in this mysterious place called Tomorrowland, as a huge futurist and aficionado of space travel, rocketry, cities of the future, and space travel.”

Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, came up with this tale in collaboration with EW TV critic Jeff “Doc” Jensen, who co-wrote the story and serves as an executive producer.

The hero is Casey Newton (Under the Dome’s Britt Robertson), a teenager in the here and now, where it’s very hard to be an optimist. “You would think the younger you are the easier it is to be an optimist, but you are being fed a steady diet of dystopia,” Lindelof says. As mentioned already, she has seen NASA withering from her own backyard as the shuttle program is mothballed, exploration ceases, and the launchpads are taken apart. “It’s closed for business. There are no launches anymore. But she still holds a candle, she still believes in this amazing future, that things can be better,” Lindelof says.

That’s when the pin mysteriously turns up in her possession. “There is a piece of technology in this pin, it’s the kind of old-school pin you would wear on your lapel, and when you make physical contact with it, you have the illusion of being physically transported to another world, and that’s how Casey gets her first glimpse of Tomorrowland,” Lindelof says. “She is a Muggle who accidentally wanders across Platform 9 ¾ and sees something she probably shouldn’t have.”

As Bird puts it: “At first when she experiences this thing, she’s not sure if it’s real or not. It’s kind of like being hit by a dream and not sure whether the dream was a dream or real.”

Her discovery of the pin, and the vision of this futuristic land it reveals, leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a hermit and failed inventor who knows more about Tomorrowland than he wants to tell.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

“He’s at this farmhouse, and it’s probably the house he’s grown up in,” Bird says, noting that the old homestead is falling back into the past. “He hasn’t done anything to it. He’s done tech stuff inside it, but it’s not a super cool bachelor pad. It’s more like a guy who is retreating when something didn’t go well.”

Once a boy genius, he has aged into a bitter and jaded man, and part of the journey to find Tomorrowland requires Casey to uncover the part of him that’s still optimistic. “There’s something about George,” Bird says. “You can see the wheels turning in his eyes, and he reads as somebody who is very principled. He seems like a very pragmatic guy who also dreams, but he’s not flighty. There’s an integrity to him that you feel.”

Although there is a heavy-duty dose of nostalgia in Tomorrowland, that sentiment is aimed mainly at the sense of hope and yearning for exploration that seems to have faded from modern life. The design will strive for true modernism, rather than the kind of retro-futurism some may be expecting. “I’m a huge fan of Bradbury, Heinlein, Sagan and the great genre writers,” Lindelof said. “I do think that The Martian Chronicles are part of a bygone age, but the best sci-fi is also evergreen and just as potent today as it was when it was written.”

Lindelof said he and Jensen, who got to know each other when the EW writer was covering (and obsessively trying to solve the riddles of) Lost, drew upon a much more recent sci-fi tale—if 1977 counts as recent.

“Another big influence for Jeff Jensen and I when we first started talking about this story was Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Lindelof says. “Somehow it was able to do what no modern movies are able to do, which is tell a story that doesn’t have a bad guy who is trying to blow up the planet, or giant robots fighting, or lots of karate—though who doesn’t love karate? It was so not plot driven. It was just a pure discovery movie. It was pure what-if. Just that idea of what’s going on here? What does this mean? That was a real jumping off place for a movie like this.”

There’s more to tell, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Tomorrowland won’t be revealed in just one either.

Keep your eyes on the future …

For more film news:

Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.
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