130 minutes/Now showing/3 stars
The story: Frank (Thomas Robinson) is a boy genius with big dreams. At the 1964 World's Fair, he meets an enigmatic girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who will lead him down a path of wonderment, and also disappointment. In the present day, space-travel geek Casey (Britt Robertson) finds a medal with strange powers, one that leads her to the older Frank (George Clooney).
What is being sold as a sci-fi adventure has at its heart a love story and one of the odder ones you will see during this summer blockbuster season.
And while Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, 2011; The Incredibles, 2004) is the director, the signature touch here belongs to writer Damon Lindelof, of the television series Lost (2004-2010) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).
Lindelof is the king of the intriguing first act, of the stuff that builds a viral movie trailer. Here, it is the sight of Casey (Robertson) flashing across dimensions every time she touches a pin.
The story banks heavily on this sort of otherworldly suspense for its narrative thrust. In the third act, all of the weirdness is explained in a torrent, mid-fight, as if to hide its flaws.
For all its lumpy pacing, Bird and Lindelof manage to create a work that works fairly well as an all-ages, non-comic book-based, 1980s-style sci-fi adventure of the type that Steven Spielberg (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982) used to make, of the type that J.J. Abrams paid tribute to in Super 8 (2011).
Here, two children (Cassidy and Robinson) and a teen (Robertson) are the heroes, facing off sceptical adults (Clooney and others).
There are a few too many beats devoted to cute-kid moments in the first act. However, director Bird is an expert at building in the innocence and uplift that make these movies tick. The sweetness is a great help in selling that unconventional love story.
Another welcome retro touch is the use of violence.
Human bodies pop like balloons when shot by ray guns; humanoid robots are decapitated, brained with a baseball bat and sliced into cubes.
Contrast this with the bloodlessness of current superhero sci-fi, when entire cities are levelled but not a drop of blood is shed on camera.
Most striking is the way the child characters are put in real danger, of getting zapped, falling from the sky or being struck in fight scenes.
Clooney's face is on the poster, but the relatively unknown child actors more than hold their own against the Oscar-winning actor.
Stuffed to its sci-fi gills with plot, jetpack chases, utopian cityscapes of glistening spires and an array of steampunk gadgets, all wrapped with a message about mankind pulling together to revive a dying planet, this movie feels an awful lot like the futuristic locale named in the title: over-engineered and not as smart as its makers wish it to be, but interesting enough for a visit.