Monday, May 25, 2015


"When I was younger, the future was... different."  So says Frank Walker (George Clooney), one of the heroes of Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, in the opening narration that acts as a frame for the film's story.  It probably says everything you need to know about this movie that Frank--and the film itself--seem entirely unaware of the irony and self-contradiction inherent in a statement like this, and in case you were still in any doubt, the movie immediately flashes back to the 1964 World's Fair, where an 11-year-old Frank (Thomas Robinson) has arrived to submit his entry in a young inventors' competition--a jetpack.  When questioned about the utility of such a creation, Frank thinks for a moment, and then explains that if he were walking down the street and saw someone flying above him with a jetpack, he'd be inspired to believe that anything was possible: "Doesn't that make the world a better place?"

Bird is probably best known for directing Pixar's The Incredibles, still the best superhero film ever made despite--or perhaps even because--of its deeply uncomfortable political subtext.  Tomorrowland shares The Incredibles's retro-futuristic aesthetic (which, to be honest, probably looks better in animation than in live action--there's a rather pronounced uncanny valley effect that speaks very loudly to the problems with how people in the 60s imagined the cities of the future), and its overt politics, but it does not manage the earlier film's flawless amalgam of message and story.  The Incredibles is a troubling work because its story is so compelling and so well-constructed that it all but forces you to buy into its quasi-fascist worldview, without ever truly coming out and stating it.  Tomorrowland is a clunkier piece of storytelling, at points so loaded with infodumps, and so fond of the genre trope in which the protagonist is launched (quite literally) into a new world, that I found myself thinking of it more like a two-hour pilot for a TV series than a feature film--the whole thing feels more like setup for a story than the story itself.  It's also a lot more blatant about its message, which is delivered in canned speeches at several points throughout the movie.  If, like myself, you find that message questionable (or at least founded on questionable assumptions) then the film's baldness can be taken as a point in its favor, since it makes it easier to argue with.  But it's hard not to regret The Incredibles-level work that we might have had with a more canny writer (Tomorrowland's script is credited to Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen) at the helm.

After a rather protracted opening segment in 1964, in which young Frank is given a pass to the titular Tomorrowland--a place of technological wonders and flawless urban planning--by a mysterious little girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), the action flashes forward to the present, where our heroine is the effervescent, scientifically-minded teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson).  The daughter of a NASA engineer who still dreams of going into space, Casey spends her nights trying to sabotage the deconstruction of a local launch platform, and her days frustrated by the litany of hopelessness--political, environmental, and cultural--fed to her at school.  "How can we fix it?" she demands of her flustered teachers.  When she's given a glimpse of Tomorrowland, she becomes obsessed with reaching it, which puts her in the path of the grown-up Frank and of Athena, who turns out to be childlike robot (this means, among other things, that the main romantic plotline in the film is between Clooney and a ten-year-old girl; in fairness to Tomorrowland, the handling of this is less weird than it might have been--largely because Cassidy is great and consistently steals the show out from under her two co-stars--but still pretty weird).

To actually describe the progress of the plot from the moment our three heroes are brought together--which involves being pursued by homicidal androids and lots of bouncing from one point on the globe to another--is to draw attention to how inessential most of it is.  The point seems to be mainly to provide excuses for kinetic action setpieces (which are well done but eventually a little repetitive--there are only so many times Frank can bundle Casey up into something that isn't supposed to function as a vehicle only to reveal that that's what it is), and for the cynical Frank to bounce off the optimistic Casey.  At some point, the end of the world comes into play--the people of Tomorrowland built a machine that shows the future, which revealed that the Earth is doomed.  When they tried to warn humanity, they instead discovered that the subliminal images of apocalypse they transmitted were being embraced, used as fodder for pop culture and an excuse to do nothing about the world's problems.  In disgust, they shut themselves away from the world, but Frank insists that there is still hope--that people like Casey, with their boundless capacity for optimism, are capable of changing the future, and that it is in fact the narrative of hopelessness being fed to the world that is creating that hopeless outcome.  If Tomorrowland provides the world with an image of hope and a better tomorrow, Frank and Casey insist, it will inspire people to create it.

There's a certain class of science fiction fan who will eat up Tomorrowland and its message with a spoon, and it should be said that there's a lot worth celebrating in the film.  Simplistic as it is, the message that it's important to believe in the possibility of change is a worthwhile one, and the fact that it's placed in the mouth of a girl, and a technically-minded one at that, is refreshing and laudable.  But if you're like me, you'll probably also find Tomorrowland unbearably hectoring, and it's worth examining why.  To me, it all comes down to Frank's thoughtless assertion about how he had a better class of future back in 1964.  You need to be pretty damn arrogant to expect that fifty years on, people should still desire the same future you dreamed of as a child, and pretty damn ignorant too--jetpacks are actually a really bad idea, and people in 1964 could not have imagined the microchip and telecommunications revolutions that have made such incredible changes in the world (allowing, for example, a woman in Israel to speak to people all over the planet at the speed of light).   

Tomorrowland's argument is that the future that we in the present imagine is inherently worse than the one that golden age SF imagined.  To my mind this is stretching the point quite a bit--I refuse to believe that no one was writing post-apocalypse in the 1960s, and as popular as the genre is today it doesn't hold a candle to the popularity of the inherently hopeful superhero genre.  But even if we accept the film's premise, to argue that this shift comes down to nothing but a personal failure of the present generation is to ignore some very important political realities.  Frank is a baby boomer, a member of a generation who enjoyed unprecedented government protection of their rights and safety, a social safety net, and huge public works projects, and who then turned around and pulled the ladder up after them; there's a reason why young people today, facing a future of debt, inequality, and environmental collapse, don't feel like imagining a rosy tomorrow.  Setting the film's backstory in 1964 also puts it just on the cusp of immense social upheaval that would, quite reasonably, have changed the way that we imagine our future in ways that the movie for the most part doesn't acknowledge--though the final scene shows Frank and Casey recruiting people of many different ethnicities from all over the world, in the body of the movie the cast is entirely white (with the exception of an evil robot played--impeccably, of course--by Keegan-Michael Key).  Most importantly, Tomorrowland seems to take it as a given that the imagined future of 1964--that secret world of jetpacks, monorails, and shining concrete-and-glass skyscrapers--is inherently good, and I don't think the film earns that assumption.

At their worst, dystopia and utopia have exactly the same problem.  They are both stories about an elite.  When Frank arrives in Tomorrowland, he's told that it's a place where the bright and energetic can build a better tomorrow without "politics and bureaucracy" getting in the way.  This is, of course, exactly what you get when half a dozen bright people who can't imagine that there's anything they don't understand get together and decide that no one in the history of humanity has had the idea they're having right now (as usual, XKCD already has this dynamic pinned down).  When you actually get out in the real world, however, with its seven billion inhabitants, politics and bureaucracy become, not impediments, but necessary tools for getting anything done.  Often, the ideas that seemed so brilliant on paper turn out to be unworkable when you have to apply them to actual human beings, who aren't willing to let you overturn their lives for the sake of an experiment.  There's a certain type of science fiction writer who seems to find this terribly depressing, and who instead of trying to write about human society in its full, dizzying complexity, decides that they can tell their readers something meaningful about the world by removing all but a tiny fraction of a percent of the people who live on it, whether by positing an apocalypse, or, as Tomorrowland does, by whisking its heroes off to a magic world where only the smart, special people get to go.

When you actually put that world on screen, however, it becomes clear just how unreal this vision is.  The Tomorrowland that Frank and Casey see never looks like a real city.  It's too designed, too homogenous, too clean.  Real cities grow in patchwork.  They develop in response to the needs of their inhabitants (if we're lucky, that is).  It's completely unsurprising when Casey arrives at the real Tomorrowland and finds it abandoned, unmaintained, full of broken glass and crumbling concrete.  This is what happened to the grandiose urban planning projects of the 60s, the ones that thought they could design new humans to live in them--all that's missing is the graffiti.  So it's more than a little unbelievable that the movie ends with Frank and Casey restarting the Tomorrowland project, planning to bring people to that city of the future that now looks like a forgotten, overgrown past.

I found myself comparing Tomorrowland to another recent kids' film, Big Hero 6.  Though technically a superhero movie, it shares many qualities and preoccupations with Tomorrowland.  Like it, it's a story about the struggle between despair and hopefulness (albeit on a personal level, with the hero struggling to find a way to overcome his grief over the death of his brother, and the villain having succumbed to despair after losing his daughter), and also like Tomorrowland, it is a story about inventors, about young people who believe they can change the world through the force of their intelligence and ingenuity.  But where Tomorrowland imagines that the only way to achieve this is to whisk its dreamers away from the mundane, troublesome world that is holding back their brilliance, Big Hero 6 is determined to stay connected to it.  Its imaginary setting of San Fransokyo is everything that Tomorrowland wants to be but isn't--a vibrant, multicultural, livable city where people of all classes and backgrounds meet.  Its inventor characters aren't cut off from the world, but working in the middle of it and responding to it, creating things that people around them might find helpful and useful.

Of course, San Fransokyo is a fantasy (and a particularly saddening one, given that in our world San Francisco is increasingly becoming a city for the rich) but it's important to note what kind of fantasy it is.  Big Hero 6's protagonist, Hiro, can become a hero because he has the infrastructure around him that allows him to--a city where he can live and move around and experience many different walks of life, a university where he can be challenged and given tools to develop his skills, a legal system that doesn't criminalize him when he acts out after experiencing terrible loss, and which prioritizes his rights over those of corporations.  If you want an optimistic vision of the future that I'd like to sign on to, this would be it, far more than Tomorrowland's sterile playground of the elite.


Paul Weimer said...

I refuse to believe that no one was writing post-apocalypse in the 1960s

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ comes immediately to mind. And I wasn't trying that hard. Plenty of others.

Michael Hoskin said...

On TV, Rod Serling's Twilight Zone more than infrequently depicted the future as a hostile place, where either luddites would destroy the machines which were trying to save them, or the machines would take away humanity's jobs! Worlds where the compulsion to conform would eliminate all individuality and worlds where the human population would be driven down to two people locked in combat. Oh, and he did the film of Planet of the Apes in the 60s too.

The kind of utopian science fiction associated with the "Camelot Age" of JFK isn't unique to that time - look back to 1930's sci-fi musical extravaganza Just Imagine, or the celebrated 1939 World's Fair. But at the same time science fiction was producing varities of dystopic portraits: Brave New World, 1984, Earth Abides, The Long Tomorrow, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Pebble in the Sky, Day of the Triffids, The Death of Grass and so forth. Our culture didn't suddenly start imagining the future during the JFK presidency because he promised the moon. Heck, all the way back in H.G. Wells' Time Machine we had both utopias & dystopias trotted out!

The bulk of reviews I'm seeing for Tomorrowland online are suggesting Bird is becoming Ayn Rand. If that is the worst case scenario, perhaps the best case scenario might be that he's simply becoming Abe Simpson: "I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was and now what I'm with isn't it and what's it seems weird and scary to me."

Brett said...

I'll have to disagree on that point, that Tomorrowland is about whisking its dreamers away from the mundane. As you pointed out, the present-day Tomorrowland is a dismal place where discovery and exploration withered - separating itself from the greater world, it simply turned itself into a symbolic gated community guarded by murderous androids. At the end, they're using visions of Tomorrowland to inspire people, but (at least to me) it seemed like they were pretty clearly hoping to interweave it more with the regular world, and eventually unveil it as originally planned.

Or at least that's the interpretation I took. It still looks like the 1964 vision because they never bothered to keep advancing, and all the elite selected people already there plus the super-technology couldn't stop that stagnation once they lost the vision for it. It's like an anti-Galt's Gulch.

gareth-wilson said...

Frank may have had the privileges of a Baby Boomer, but wouldn't he have also had the fears? Like the fear of a fusion bomb being launched at your city, or the fear of being robbed and killed for crack money. Even environmental fears like freezing to death from the Energy Crisis or choking to death on air pollution. As a Gen-Xer, I was never bothered by any of that. So I have a bit more respect for Boomer optimism. As for mid-century SF, a common pattern is to have a backstory with horrible events, then the actually story being more optimistic. The obvious example is Star Trek.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


The very last scene in the movie shows various people touching the pins and seeing the same vision of the city on the hill that Casey saw. I think we are meant to believe that it's Tomorrowland itself that is being rebuilt and that people are being brought to it. Certainly Casey's response to the vision she saw indicates that the movie still sees that outdated vision of the future as inspiring and appealing.


Every generation has its fears. Young people today worry about drought and peak oil and rising sea levels. But they also worry about not having work, or government protection in the workplace, or any certainty of being able to retire comfortably when they get old. These are not things Frank had to worry about.

Chris said...

Much as I'm tired of being lectured by Baby Boomers about How Things Were back When They Were My Age, I don't think it's exactly wrong to say that utopian or at least optimistic visions of the future were more the norm or at least more mainstream fifty years ago. It's certainly true that "Star Trek" wasn't the only thing to come out of the sixties, but is there even an equivalent today?

And I quibble with the idea that superhero movies are equivalent. Superhero stories usually end up being about how the world *doesn't* change, it just now has people in capes flying around in it. Tony Stark doesn't end world hunger or solve the energy crises, Superman doesn't stop genocides or wars, and even Bruce Wayne doesn't put much of his Koch-level fortune into improving Gotham except by using it to help him punch criminals in the face. The movies have, mostly, stuck to that model. The stories in Star Trek might have been similarly focused on one elite group, but they also made it clear that the entire Earth had benefited immensely from the future.

I suppose the cynical view is that all of today's post-apocalyptic shows ARE the modern version of optimism; the optimism that maybe something will finally crash the whole mess of a system, and that when it does, the viewer will be one of those who survive.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


You're right that there isn't anything like Star Trek being made today, and on that level I think the film's premise is correct - the fashion in futures today isn't what it was in the 60s, and there's been a definite shift in tone. But Star Trek emerged from a particular time and culture, and it's worth examining why it's no longer a relatable future for a lot of people instead of just assuming that young people are cynical and disaffected (or, for that matter, that if you just wave Star Trek in their face for long enough they'll learn to love it).

I suppose the cynical view is that all of today's post-apocalyptic shows ARE the modern version of optimism

I think that, looked at from a certain perspective, stories like The Hunger Games are optimistic. They're saying "things may be bad and you may feel powerless, but you actually have the power to start a revolution." It's more complicated than that, of course, and less straightforwardly optimistic than something like Star Trek, but it is a hopeful message.

(On Superheroes as optimistic stories: there's a whole discussion to be had about salvation-through-heroes vs. salvation-through-systems that's not really relevant here but which I've been mulling over a lot in light of what's been going on in works like the MCU. Superheroes don't, for the most part, change unjust systems but they do make the world a better place - within the restrictions of the stories they're given. That's a very imperfect sort of optimism - and arguably even worse than what Tomorrowland is selling - but it's definitely a counterpoint to the litany of apocalypse we're supposedly addicted to.)

Gordon B said...

It sounds like there is a conflation of cynicism/pessimism and fatalism that is occurring. Fatalism, to utilize Herbert's turn-of-phrase, is indeed the mind-killer (and by extension, the future-killer), but pessimism is a necessary characteristic that has its role in imagining the sorts of outcomes we want to avoid as a society. Apocalyptic/dystopian fiction is intrinsically pessimistic, but most of it is very non-fatalistic in my experience--either in text or subtext. The protagonists might fight and succeed in winning some small victory, or if they fail, there is often at least the authorial intent that similar tragedies can be avoided by the appropriate actions in the reader's present time/world.

As you pointed out, I think the realities of the present are causing people (especially the younger generations) to have more modest expectations of the future, but this is certainly a lot different than fatalism.

Frederik Sisa said...

One aspect of the film that particularly troubled me was the cavalier use of violence, it's casual brutality. The Robots in Black had no compunction against vaporizing any human who got in their way, an ironic counterpoint to Nix's condemnation of the world's savagery when he points out that inviting the masses into Tomorrowland would also invite the same problems plaguing the world. (The casual killing is also ironic in that Nix tries to exile Frank instead of simply executing him. Maybe special people have a rule about not killing special people, and the common people are of no concern otherwise?) No thought is given to these victims, not even by the heroes.

And the violence is staged in a way that reminded me of horror films: if these weren't machines, the decapitations, stabbings, and beatings would be highly disturbing given the context. But because we are given plastic and wires, the film sanitizes questions about the film that, in my view, would be harder to avoid if we were given flesh-and-blood gore.

On a broader level, it's notable that the film never achieves an ideological victory, even on its own (problematic) terms. Nix's perspective on the world, which seemed rather on-point, isn't refuted by the values the film tries to espouse, namely imagination and curiosity. Rather, he is deposed by violence. (That his crushing death wasn't purposefully engineered by Frank doesn't alter the fact that they didn't try to help him from under the panel, and it was Frank's destruction of the Monitor that resulted in Nix's death.) So the message underlying Tomorrowland is the same-old, same-old declaration that victory is determined by brute force. For a film that celebrates the wonders of science, it seems like a monumental failure that the narrative conflict couldn't be resolved by reason and imagination. (I can't help but think of Paranorman as a point of comparison, in which Norman succeeds in persuading Agatha to abandon her vengeance, thus mitigating the zombie threat and helping her find the peace she craved. It almost seems subversive for a film to end, not in a boss fight, but in a dramatic reconciliation between hero and villain.)

I haven't seen Big Hero 6, but on the basis of your praise I'll make a point of watching it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Pesimism vs. fatalism is a good way of putting it, and it certainly speaks to the film's core problem that it perceives any rejection of the shiny optimism of its 60s future as soul-destroying fatalism. And as dangerous as fatalism can be, starry-eyed optimism is equally problematic. One of my problems with the call for more optimistic SF is that often that optimism is rooted in the assumption that we'll invent a new machine that'll fix all our problems, or find a new planet where we can "start anew" (read: make the same mistakes on a blank slate that gives us a few more centuries of runway). A healthy distrust of our current cultural touchstones feels like the more rational, more productive approach.


I read a review somewhere that described the film as too childish for adults and too mature for children, and I think the problems with the violence you identify are a big part of that. The complete indifference to the robots vaporizing people bothered me as well, and though you might excuse that by saying that Nix knows the earth is doomed anyway, that doesn't explain why he chooses banishment instead of death again for Frank and Casey.

You make a good point about the film's ending betraying its message. I can understanding wanting to have a big action set piece at the end, but there are ways of doing that and still preserving the values that you supposedly stand for (again, Big Hero 6 manages this quite well).

jeffro said...

Andre Norton published STAR MAN'S SON in 1952. Post-holocaust mutant adventure fiction goes way back.

baeraad said...

I am thinking about adopting the following theory: "when complaining about a tendency has become common, that tendency has already ended except in a few holdouts that the complainers use as evidence that nothing has changed."

Only considering it, because I'm not sure it's always true. But it does seem to fit a lot of things, and I think complaints against "pessimism" is one of them. I mean, I understand completely where those complaints come from, because I grew up in the nineties. I remember, quite vividly, being told from every corner that it was all hopeless and we were all going to die. And I got thoroughly sick of that in the end, enough so that I probably would have loved to make a movie like this if I'd had the ability.

But these days, while I hear more and more complaints about negativity, I don't see much of the negativity itself. Oh, we haven't suddenly gone starry-eyed and enthusiastic about the future, no - we still seem to think, by and large, that those doomsayers were right. But we also seem to have gotten used to the idea to a point where it isn't scary to us anymore. We don't think the future will be clean and bright, but we do seem to have good hope that it will be, for lack of a better term, interesting.

All those post-apocalyptic stories, even all those damn zombie stories, seem to be pretty sure that one way or another, life will go on. Things will change. Some of the nice stuff we have today will be lost. But at the end, we'll still be around, we'll still have loved ones and a few moments of fun and enjoyment here and there, and while technology might take a hit from the loss of industrial infrastructure, we're not just going to turn back into cavemen over night - there'll still be some cool high-tech toys around, just not as many.

It seems to me that if science fiction is no longer filled with optimism, it has also moved on from reveling in pessimism and has arrived, more or less, at a point of stoicism. Which I can't say I think is a bad thing, as far as it goes.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think to me the point about "pessimism" already being an outdated concern is most strongly expressed in the film's conviction that dystopia is what the kids are into these days. It feels like an outsized reaction to The Hunger Games and all its imitators. Except that if you're actually paying attention to what kids are reading, you'll know that Hunger Games's moment of zeitgeist was 2-3 years ago. I'm pretty sure I've heard YA agents and publishers complaining that they keep getting pitched dystopias that they can no longer sell because nobody wants that sort of thing anymore.

Which doesn't mean that the future SF imagines these days isn't qualitatively different, and less sunny, than the one it imagined in the 60s. But it's deinitely one of the ways in which the film seems to be tilting at windmills.

Post a Comment