Tommorrowland: How A Film About The Future Rockets Us Back To Where We Should Not Go

First, a bit on what I expected, followed by a whole lot on what I got.

tumblr_nd7g4aFeRy1rf73xqo1_500Beyond seeing the first teaser trailer probably a year ago, I avoided all “Tomorrowland: A World Byeond” content before seeing it tonight. I had very high hopes, and wanted to walk in with nothing but wonder.

And for the first seven minutes or so, the film took me where I hoped it would—to a creative re-engagement with early 1960s’ imagined version of what “tomorrow” would be. I assumed (and hoped) the film would be a kind of pre-reboot/resurrection of the Disney Parks’ Tomorrowlands, which, since the dawn of the computer age, have ceased to play a World’s Fair looking-to-the-future role, and have instead been at best, quaintly nostalgic, or worse, a confusing and outdated bricolage of anything in the Disney cannon/shareholdings that is vaguely ‘space’y. That and Autopia.

So I figured building a film narrative around a fictional “Tomorrowland” was a great opportunity to mine what is dynamic about the retro-future look of the parks’ Tomorrowlands while introducing new story and imagery that would begin to manifest in those parks and unify what has come to be the least-cohesive of the parks’ lands. Frontierland and Adventureland have both managed to survive and adapt to political correctness, post-colonialism, and most of the other ‘post’s we’ve got.

tomorrowland-viral-marketing-campaign-map-1959But Disney parks’ Tomorrowland ceased to have a world or story to invite guests into long ago. That is, until Disneyland Paris took Tomorrowland in an ingeniously different direction. Built in the early 90s, when home computers were drawing nigh, and the internet was about to take its first baby steps, designers did something intuitively brilliant. Instead of re-imagining a future, they took Tomorrowland’s retro-future even farther back—to the 19th century. Inspired and infused with incarnations from Jules Verne’s literary imagination, Discoveryland, as opposed to Tomorrowland, offers what is essentially a steam punk guide to travel: space and elsewhere. Discoveryland’s version of Space Mountain shoots out of a giant bronze rifle raised above a lagoon where the Nautilus from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” floats in view of a food court styled as a hot air balloon-ship launching depot. And though its clear that budget cuts streamlined a bit too much of what was intended for Discoveryland, it still a tells a story and invites guests to imagine the past’s version of the future, on purpose.

So I hoped the “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond” would launch a new era for the American Tomorrowlands, while also just being an exciting and imaginatively engaging film experience.

So here’s why it wasn’t. SPOILERS from here onward.

There are so many problems with “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond” that its difficult to know where to start, or even what to include, as this post is already longer than internet reading merits. So before moving on to the main ideological issues of the film, here’s what I won’t discuss in detail:

The smaller problems:

tomorrowland-newton-front1a. Some of the worst American child/young actors I’ve seen since, well, the Disney Channel. We’re talking worse acting than what’s required from an episode of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.”

b. For a film that is supposed to inspire the youth of the world, the amount and types of violence in the film seemed both flippant and celebratory. Perhaps because the perpetrators and most of the victims are robots, this seemed okay to the filmmakers. But the shocking amount of wounding, beating, and casual killing that take place actually made me gasp. And I just saw “Mad Max: Fury Road” on Wednesday.

c. Most of the digital effects, particularly anything to do with flight, were worthy of the first “Harry Potter “film and 2002’s “Spiderman.” Rubbery flubbery nonsense.

d. There are clues and artifacts throughout of what were clearly various versions of script and storyline. Whether it’s the THREE different opening scenes, the unnecessary reveal shot of a character we’d already met twice, or the fact that Judy Greer only appears for 2 seconds, it’s obvious that the final edit is a compendium of more than one intended narrative. “Maleficent” suffered similar issues, but managed to find a consistent story with its leftover parts. “Tomorrowland”, not so much.

e. The above problem led to the fact that the film’s dramatic question was not introduced until an HOUR AND A HALF into the film. I checked my phone when it finally came out. The first hour and a half is a rolling snowball of accumulating exposition that is simultaneously imploding on itself as it rolls.

f. And point d. also leads to character problems, to the extent that anything we know about a character is based on someone telling us, not us seeing it for ourselves. And most problematically, we never learn how old the main female protagonist is or how the hell she’s able to get from Cape Canaveral, FL to Houston, TX by bus in less than a day. In all the ways the film asks us to stretch our imagination, some of the basic things are the biggest stretches.

g. The expected, but still disappointing way the film felt like a two-hour promotion for Disney pin trading. And Coca-Cola.

The good stuff I won’t discuss in depth:

a. The large amount of non-traditional casting in gender, age and ethnicity. The main protagonists are still all white, but at least the rest of the people populating the screen world are representative of reality.

b. The actual design of Tomorrowland as 1960’s Space Age/World’s Fair/Disneyland extrapolated into a habitable world. Or at least, the bit we get to see. Which isn’t as much as it should be, given the title of the film.

c. The first 7 minutes and the final minute of the film plus the closing credits. They were something new, good, and what I hoped the whole film would be.

d. I’m ambivalent about how they nodded to/incorporated Paris’ Discoveryland. Not pleased about the execution or the fact that it ultimately just feels cross-promotional, but I at least appreciate that they addressed my unasked question about whether or not the film would account for Discoveryland being different than Tomorrowland.

e. Introducing kids to the loss that is the discontinuation of NASA’s space shuttle program.


The real problem with the film:

Now, anyone who goes to see this film is not going to deny that it is preachy and heavy-handed—as in actual speeches from characters about what is wrong with the world. But any film can make the mistake of not trusting its audience to understand without being given a PowerPoint of the film’s message. (Disney’s “Maleficent” succeeded at this; Disney’s 2015 “Cinderella” did not). But the real problem here is the message that Disney chose to brand (double meaning intended) us with.

Within moments of young protagonist Casey’s transportation to Tomorrowland, we see a wall in the background that reads, “Imagination is More Important than Knowledge.” Our viewing of this message follows short on a comic portrayal of Casey being bombarded at school with doom-filled messages about wars, global warming, and dystopian literature. To which she asks a teacher “so how do we fix the problem?,” indicating that none of the people talking about these negative things were interested in solutions.

“Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge”

But the film does not stop at what is actually a wise observation, that imagination plays a significant role in countering destructive patterns and hopelessness. Instead, the film focuses on optimism as a requisite category of being a “dreamer” who wants to make things better. And by not just naming optimism as a virtue, but raising it to a salvific status, the film seeks to negate the role of informed criticism and critical thinking in the process of bringing about transformation.

Tomorrowland-0485And this is where the most disturbing aspect of 1960s era Disney attempts to thaw its frozen head; escapist optimism is portrayed as the needed countermeasure to society’s addiction to depressing news. Furthermore, the escapist optimism advertised by Tomorrowland (both the film and world within the film) is not apolitical, but anti-political. We are told that Tomorrowland was created by/for (its never made clear) dreamers who could be free to work unencumbered by laws, governments and other similar “distractions.” The highly technologized futuristic playland of Tomorrowland is offered as a utopia of dreams made real, without any responsibility to or accountability from anyone but the dreamers themselves.

Which takes us right back to Walt Disney’s own view of human progress as salvation through climate controlled, entirely contained, technologically-advanced community living (See E.P.C.O.T.). Which makes sense in the context of the 1960s, but even then there were problematic issues with equating technological progress as a good in and of itself, ignoring the question of whether gadgets for the sake of gadgets are really the epitome of human creative potential.

Yet that is precisely what the realm of Tomorrowland is defined as. It’s where you have (apparently) limitless resources to make whatever you want without having to consider the impact of your creation, or more specifically, having to consider the problems of the other ‘real’ world at all.

imagesThe film fails to give any substantial origin story for Tomorrowland, or explain if or how what its people create is returned to Earth (or past Earth? The temporal location of Tomorrowland is never actually explained) to help “make the world a better place.” Tomorrowland’s main advertising point to the people of Earth is that it’s a place where anything is possible. But anything is possible because all the realities and complexities of human existance have been removed (or abandoned).

And the final point of the movie, that the world can only be saved by empowering dreamers to imagine the impossible, shows all those diverse dreamers literally exiting the world they are meant to change, escaping instead to a fertile, clean, technologized utopia where their imaginations can serve…their imaginations? It’s not clear.

Nor is it clear what it was that made Tomorrowland a barren land before it is somehow magically saved again by the end of the film (which we don’t see happen exactly). The significant Manhattan-project-esque issue is raised that the people of Tomorrowland “built something they shouldn’t have,” which resulted in some people being banished. But whether the banished people were the problematic creators or those who objected to what was being created, is not explained. Nor do I recall finding out what it was that was made that shouldn’t have been made. Or if it was the Monitor thing they end up destroying, I don’t understand at what point it was deemed ‘bad’ as that point seemed only to come out when our protagonists showed up 25 years after the bannishings.

So though there are traces of questioning unregulated technological advancement without ethical consideration, it doesn’t get fleshed out, and ultimately gets zapped away by the conclusion, which whisks away a new think-tank of dreamers to Tomorrowland.

At the heart of this film’s message is the most problematic of all Disney messages (and not all Disney messages are problematic): an anti-intellectualism that praises escapism for being optimistic and denigrates any criticism as pessimistic. But optimism at the cost of knowledge or engagement with reality is empty and potentially dangerous. After all, choosing to ignore criticism is the favorite pastime of dictators, fascists, and authoritarians of all kinds.

What the film decries as a contemporary obsession with and apathy about our own destruction as exemplified by the rise in dystopian and apocalyptic (mass destruction) stories is, as any literary critic or film writer could tell you, a creative response to perceived cultural and ecological dangers, not acceptance of them. As Caesar Montevecchio, among others, has noted about dystopias,“in a similar way to how apocalyptic imagination gave early Christians a context for seeing what the salvation of the cross was salvation from, dystopian film helps accentuate specific patterns of contemporary experience from which salvation is needed.”* Dystopias are one of the primary ways that dangerous contemporary trajectories are imaginatively portrayed in order to reveal what must be repented of and transformed: dystopias show us what we need to save ourselves from doing to each other.

tomorrowland-d23-logo-title-treatment-walt-disney-appSo when one of the most powerful and influential voices in mass culture brings back a message from half a century ago, that imagination and optimism will save us from all this unproductive negative thinking, the real danger is that we might believe it, choosing to escape our problems by pretending they don’t exist. By telling us explicitly to stop looking at the bad things we’ve created and their resultant problems, “Tomorrowland” doesn’t just say “Don’t worry, be imaginative”; it says that your negative perspectives on life’s realities are THE CAUSE of the world’s problems. Ecological disasters, terrorism, starvation, inequity: those weren’t caused by people making bad choices—it was caused by people’s bad feelings. Bad feelings are dangerous, so escape them and stop thinking about what’s wrong with the world. Make something fun. Help people believe that anything is possible, and refugee camps and melting ice caps will cease to be a problem.

But optimism and hope are not the same thing. Neither are pessimism and criticism. Hope does not avoid the darkness; it bears its precarious light through the darkness. Optimism can be good. But optimism that will not listen to anything but itself is the opposite of hopeful. If anything it resembles stubbornness born out of fear.

Imagination is not a tool of escapism. Imagination is how we deeply engage possibility and employ wonder. And it is engaging reality with imagination that has helped fuel the most important revolutions and resistances in history. Acknowledging the darkness is not pessimism. It is part of recognizing the light.

By cheapening imagination to an optimism that is oppositional to knowledge and criticism, “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond” fails to revise the narrative landscape of its location in Disneyland and Disney World, and instead, advocates a utopian Disneyed-World for us to make manifest, wherein escapism is the best and only salvation from the negative feelings destroying the world.

Time to go see “Mad Max” a second time.

* Montevecchio, Caesar A. 2012. “Framing Salvation: Biblical Apocalyptic, Cinematic Dystopia, and Contextualizing the Narrative of Salvation.” Journal Of Religion & Film 16, no. 2, article 7.

Posted on Sat, May 23rd, 2015 at 12:35 am
Filed under Cultural Shifts, Film, History, intertextuality, Pop Culture.

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