• Clooney (right) in Tomorrowland

This post contains spoilers.

If George Clooney is our Cary Grant, then Tomorrowland might be Clooney’s Monkey Business, the movie in which he acknowledges the schoolboy fantasies underlying his star persona and mines them for both humor and pathos. Clooney’s character in Tomorrowland is a prodigal inventor who found perfect happiness in preadolescence and whose emotional development seems to have more or less ended then. He’s touchy, overly sure of himself, and liable to mope when things don’t go his way. In fact, when the character’s first properly introduced he’s in the middle of a years-long sulk, holed up in a secret, gear-bedecked lair as if hiding in a very expensive treehouse. Later in the film, when Clooney starts acting again like the Clooney we know and love—intrepid, charming, quick-witted—it becomes clear that this character is essentially an 11-year-old boy’s idealized version of an adult, one informed by movies, cartoons, and stories of historical figures heard in school.

Clooney has poked fun at his star appeal before (most effectively in his work for Joel and Ethan Coen), but seldom so poignantly. Tomorrowland is writer-director Brad Bird’s lament for America’s lost idealism, with Clooney standing in for the archetypal American dreamer. Inspired as a boy by the promises of postwar America—the technological revolution facilitated by the space race in particular—Clooney’s character finds himself figuratively paralyzed by the looming crises of the 21st century. His despair is so great that he can be shaken out of it only by the intercession of an indestructible humanoid robot, who takes him back to the gadget-heavy wonderland—a refuge where the world’s creative geniuses can invent to their hearts’ content—where he spent his young adulthood. Tomorrowland posits that this fantasy world represents the solution not only to Clooney’s problems, but all of humanity’s. If we renewed our collective faith in creative thinking, Bird suggests, then we might have a shot at combatting climate change and whatever other problems the future throws our way. This being a Disney production, faith in innovation plays out like so much boyish awe for theme-park attractions, yet it’s a credit to Clooney’s performance that one recognizes a latent sense of communal responsibility beneath his character’s preadolescent sense of wonder.

It’s not uncommon for movie stars to represent different things to different people, and the self-reflexive Clooney, serving as Tomorrowland‘s anchor, shows little difficulty embodying the film’s contradictory ideas. Bird’s politics here are an improbable fusion of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and John Kennedy’s vision of the New Frontier—I’m kind of astonished that the movie holds together at all on an ideological level, but I guess that’s Disney magic for you. Shrugged informs Bird’s basic concept of Tomorrowland itself. People get recruited to go there because they’re smarter and more progressive than others, though it isn’t clear as to how their creativity is measured nor how these sequestered geniuses benefit from working in isolation from all us normal folk (questions that stem back to Rand’s novel). Another Randian touch is that Tomorrowland has no visible poor or working-class denizens, which made me wonder who takes out the garbage and keeps the buildings looking so spotless. Perhaps someone there has devised a way for people to live without producing waste?

I suppose such practical questions don’t really matter when you’re dealing with a giant metaphor. In any case, Clooney’s star power helps to keep one from thinking about them too hard, as does the movie’s inherent goodwill. The final twist of Tomorrowland is that Clooney and a new legion of geniuses use their time in the utopian city (which exists in another dimension than ours) to create solutions to problems in our world. That this legion is international and multiracial in makeup suggests that Tomorrowland exists for the benefit of all people, not just the lucky few who get branded as special. I was so heartened by this idea that it wasn’t until a few days after seeing the movie that I started to wonder what those geniuses actually did to save civilization from the brink of collapse. It’s a wonderful act of smoke and mirrors that Bird and company have pulled off, presenting humanity’s salvation as a fait accompli as soon as people pledge to start working for a better future. Given Clooney’s record of supporting humanitarian campaigns, I’m sure this fantasy holds special appeal for him.