I saw two movies this past weekend. One was about a terrifying futuristic dystopia filled with endless betrayal and a complete lack of hope. The other one was Mad Max: Fury Road.
There’s plenty to dissect in Disney’s new film Tomorrowland — from the misguided romanticization of the 1960s as a techno-utopian’s paradise, to the confused ideology of lamenting NASA’s demise while simultaneously claiming that politics is always a barrier to innovation. (NASA is and always has been a product of political maneuvering, not an adversary to it.) But the biggest problem with Tomorrowland is that it simply doesn’t take its own advice. Spoilers ahead.
To be clear, I actually enjoyed Tomorrowland overall. But that really wasn’t a surprise, given my obsessions. The film was basically tailor made for me. History, futurism, and Disney? That’s the Holy Trinity of paleofuturism as far as I’m concerned. And I will happily spend hours in a dark theater watching any combination of those three things, even if it’s served up imperfectly. My issue with the film is that fundamentally it doesn’t deliver on its own promise.
The central idea floated by the movie is that humans are too fixated on the awfulness of the world. Our popular media is filled with nothing but endless stories of death, destruction, and the apocalypse. And they’re not wrong! But Tomorrowland arguably spends just as much time on the apocalypse as any of Hollywood’s recent dystopian blockbusters. The only difference is that this movie lectures you about enjoying these tales of the end times.
The school teachers in the film drone on and on about how terrible the future will be. The environment is being destroyed; dystopian fiction of the 20th century like Brave New World and 1984 are now our reality. But our young protagonist, Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson, isn’t buying it.
The film focuses on Casey Newton, a young and brilliant optimist whose father is losing his job at NASA, presumably thanks to budget cuts. Casey gets into a bit of trouble while trying to sabotage the demolition of a NASA launch facility, and after being released from a very brief stint in jail she finds a magical pin that seems to be a portal to another futuristic dimension. After the pin’s magic transporting abilities wear off after just a few minutes, she meets a robot from the future in the form of a young girl. That young robot is our link to George Clooney’s character, a disgruntled inventor who found his own portal to the futuristic world of Tomorrowland back at the 1964 World’s Fair.
The dreamers and makers don’t fixate on or become overwhelmed by negative things, we’re told. They simply fix the problems. We need more dreamers ready to roll up their sleeves and make things. And that’s precisely what Casey is setting out to do, with the help of a former dreamer named Frank Walker, played by George Clooney.
While that’s a fine premise for a Disney-fied version of reality, those dreamers don’t fix much of anything. At least not on screen. Instead the movie becomes an ouroboros of retro-futurism — a jetpack eating itself. We hear again and again that nobody dreams about the shiny, fantastic futures anymore. But instead of showing viewers those futures, they spend the better part of two hours complaining that nobody dreams of those shiny, fantastic futures anymore.
All the while we have to put aside the question of whether flying cars and jetpacks are even the future we really want here in the early 21st century. Whose future are we pining for when we complain that we don’t yet have the technologies dreamt up at midcentury. Are the dreams of Arthur Radebaugh and The Jetsons the best we can do? That’s up to you. But even if those are precisely what you want, Tomorrowland still seems to fail you.
I wanted to spend some more time in the amazing techno-utopian world of tomorrow, retro-inspired or not. Instead I got a lecture about how too few people want to spend more time in the amazing techno-utopian world of tomorrow. As imperfect and as silly as those dreams can be, they’re fun. Escapist fantasy is fun; futuristic technology is fun. But Tomorrowland tells you that you should be having fun, while only partially delivering on any fun at all.
Even our glimpses of the futuristic alt-world of Tomorrowland are shown to be retro. Our best and most exciting glimpse is merely an advertisement produced decades ago. The future has died in both our world and theirs.
Ultimately, the entire film feels like Part One of a trilogy, and that’s no doubt by design. Disney has had a rough go of it when it comes to building franchises lately. John Carter [of Mars] was a flop and The Lone Ranger fizzled into oblivion. None of these films blossomed into the trilogies (or perhaps more importantly merchandising opportunities) that they were clearly intended to be.
Marvel and Star Wars are now a part of the Disney family, and anything under those banners are pretty much guaranteed hits. But with Tomorrowland, Disney wanted to build something new. Which seems to have been the problem, if you believe Hollywood. Tomorrowland barely beat Pitch Perfect 2 for the number one spot this weekend, bringing in just $41.7 million domestically. That’s a problem for a movie that reportedly cost $180 million to make, not including its presumably hefty marketing budget.
Analysts are chalking up Tomorrowland’s relative failure at the box office this past weekend to Hollywood’s originality problem. Everybody says they want original movies, but nobody wants to pay to go see them. Those $20 movie tickets aren’t going to be spent on a gamble like Tomorrowland, an unknown entity shrouded in mystery since the first teaser trailers were released. And there might be some truth to that. The marketing for the film was intentionally ambiguous. But once the dust settles and some adventurous souls finally see the movie, will they decide to recommend it to friends? We don’t know just yet.
There are plenty of other things to critique in the film. Why are they tearing down the NASA platform that Casey’s father works at? Because “ideas are hard and giving up is easy.” Except that that’s not why NASA funding is weak at the moment. In fact, most people of the 1960s thought space travel was a waste of time and money. Baby Boomers who were kids in the 1960s remember support for the space program as universal because they were kids at the time. And they weren’t polling 10 year olds about the space program in 1964. But that’s a discussion for another post. The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t live up to its own standards.
Tomorrowland is a mere shadow of the future we wanted to see. It could’ve been a film about a fantastic, futuristic world come to life. Instead it was a 2-hour lecture about our lack of optimism, only hinting briefly at the fun and excitement we’re supposed to be dreaming of.