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May 24, 2015

I should really, really be on board with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Built around the central hook of a hopeful vision of a future where human ingenuity can and does work to make the world a better place, this should not be a hard sell. And so it’s surprising and a bit sad to find out that the execution is lurching and didactic, especially given Bird’s track record.

The thing is, I’m far from the only critic to have basically the same reaction. Since going into detail about the film’s failure to launch or finding some way to pin them on co-writer Damon Lindelof would amount to plagiarism, I started to think more deeply about what exactly about the idea resonates with my progressive spirit, and why the resulting story rings hollow. There may be spoilers.

As Frank Walker (George Clooney) tells us, the future ain’t what it used to be. As a young teenager (Thomas Robinson) he cobbled together a jetpack from an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which earned him entry into a fantastical secret city where the world’s greatest minds came together with no goal but technological and artistic progress. And it’s true that back in the ’50s and ’60s the future looked very bright and hopeful; a post-war technological boom was promising ease and comfort, and we were on our way to the moon and beyond.

But now we’re mired in bitterness, divisiveness, and squabble. NASA is cited as an expensive boondoggle by small-minded politicians, which seems like a great symbol of how small our dreams have become. Bird and Lindelof push just slightly forward to a future where Cape Canaveral itself is being dismantled, though not if Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) has anything to say about it. Her efforts to sabotage the deconstruction site catch the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a Tomorrowland recruiter still out in the world looking for “dreamers”.

In the film, our current fascination with the apocalypse we’re all hurtling towards — Casey’s teachers drone on about global political, economic, and ecological strife, and regard as a nuisance her earnest questions, “can we fix it?” “what can we do?” — is the result of a Tomorrowland invention gone awry. Intended to monitor things back on on Earth, it also projects visions of the world’s eventual decline and failure. And as Tomorrowland’s governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) points out, instead of struggling with every fiber of our being to stop it, humanity at large wallows in our immanentized eschaton. We commodify it into just more mindless entertainment, like the upcoming movie Toxi-Chaos 3, billboards for which litter the pre-apocalyptic landscape.

But this is where Bird and Lindelof’s starry-eyed, gee-whiz visions of the future come up dreadfully short. It’s all well and good to invoke Eris and tell us to stop before turning into an aspirin commercial, but the truth is we don’t need a technomagical Monitor to project these biased visions of despair into everyone’s minds; we’ve built our own, and called it T.V. News. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler engaged much more effectively with this real-world problem last year, and it understands the kernel of truth that Bird and Lindelof actually get right: on some level we as a society eat this stuff up and scream for more. But the news doesn’t feed us an endless diet of blood and lust and hate because it’s directed by a well-meaning utopian trying to make us turn back and we’re all too stupid to realize what’s good for us; this is just the candy everybody wants, and the news responds to the same market forces as everything else under capitalism.

Unfortunately, we can’t just blow up the news. Attempting to regulate or control its output not only leads us back to the sort of bureaucratic inhibitions that Tomorrowland was supposedly founded to escape — during one of the deeper lulls in regulatory controls in American history, but this is the least of the movie’s historical failures — it’s also, as the kids say, Intensely Problematic to dictate what ideas are Good and Bad. The choice must be individual, but Bird and Lindelof are onto something when they appropriate the Cherokee folktale about the fighting wolves of hope and despair: the one that wins is the one we feed.

And here’s the even bigger failure of the film’s vision: the entire premise is based on feeding only hope in the past and only despair in the present. In order to see the world on its way out, Bird and Lindelof have to ignore all the ways in which — as William Gibson pointed out — the future is already here, just not very evenly distributed.

Yes, NASA’s budget is shrinking and it’s a tragedy that manned spaceflight is in jeopardy, but private endeavors like Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are picking up the slack and innovating in exactly the ways the Tomorrowland founders might hope. And meanwhile, in the real world, NASA itself is still running unmanned scientific missions that are more wonderful than anything we could have hoped for five decades ago. We designed an aerial robotic crane that could parachute down from Martian orbit and set an SUV gently down on the surface before flying away, all on its own over the course of 10 minutes. And we’re now getting close-up pictures of one of the farthest solid bodies within our solar system from the New Horizons spacecraft.

Jetpacks and flying cars are perennial features of retro-futurism, but honest consideration shows that they’re a solution in search of a problem. Meanwhile, in the real world, we’re getting that much closer to cars that pilot themselves around our existing road system, and that already parallel park better than most human drivers. Flying around in person would be really cool, sure, but right now anyone can buy a quadcopter with a high-definition camera that effortlessly syncs up with the computer in her pocket that can tap into the sum total of all human knowledge in an instant. Nobody at the ’64 World’s Fair conceived of the Internet.

In fact, nobody at the fair really questioned the fact that a lot of these amazing ideas depended on an inexhaustible supply of cheap fossil-fuel power. That vision was among the first to be shown up as short-sighted, and our continuing failure to capture the negative externalities of those choices is a direct contributor to the ecological disasters the film bemoans even as it wants to reap the benefits of those same choices. Meanwhile, in the real world, breakthroughs in electrical storage technology may make decentralized solar power economically feasible even without accounting for the full cost of burning oil and coal and gas.

And, incidentally, the batteries that can efficiently store that power come out of research into electric — and eventually self-driving — cars by Tesla Motors, founded by the same Elon Musk who is behind SpaceX. Not to denigrate the importance of culture and narrative in effecting social change, but while Brad Bird frets about not getting the future the Boomers were promised, Musk is busy putting his money into getting things done.

Even when we turn from technological “failures” to societal woes, things are not as bleak as they seem. Yes, there is strife in the world both at home and abroad. But the most significant conflicts are the death pangs of regressive worldviews like DAESH or KGB hardliners. Domestically, the biggest “threats” to our peace and security are the birth pangs of a more inclusive society where people from all different colors, creeds, genders, and sexualities start to demand their own seat at the table, and equal respect with the rest of us. And this struggle goes back to, yes, the same ’60s era that painted its future so lily-white.

It’s easy to look back and say that the future ain’t what it used to be, and that the present is headed downhill. But it means closing your eyes both to the huge problems built into the foundation of the old future, and to the wonders that are all around us in the new present. Walt Disney may not have built his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but I grew up in the version real estate developer Jim Rouse actually built, and it wasn’t radically better for having been planned.

When the young Frank arrived at the World’s Fair in 1964 he showed Nix the jetpack he built, claiming that it could inspire people and make the future a better place, except for the small matter that it didn’t work. Once in Tomorrowland, though, a helpful robot rushes up and gets it working, with no real explanation of what was wrong and how it was fixed. The vision of the future we beheld in the ’60s was inspiring too, and it promised a better world, except that it also just didn’t work. Bird and Lindelof’s Tomorrowland is a place where we don’t have to worry about the details, and everything from jetpacks to the future itself will magically turn out the way we expect. Tomorrowland thinks of this as a selling point, but it’s actually the downfall of the entire concept; the real future is all about the details.

Getting to the future looks amazing on paper, but it’s a long, slow, grinding process in the real world, and it sometimes hurts along the way. We have to be honest in re-assessing our vision as we move forward, and be ready to leave retro-futurism behind if we’re going to truly engage in real futurism. For all the flaws in its execution, Tomorrowland is great at getting us to think about what might be possible, even as it fails to put any real thought into how we can get there or why we aren’t already.

Worth It: yes, if only as a catalyst for discussion.
Bechdel Test: pass.
Updated 2015-05-27 to improve the conclusion before the final graf.

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