SPOILERS FOR TOMORROWLAND
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland presents its audience with a choice. On the one hand there is pessimism – our world is wracked by wars, climate change and rapid overpopulation that could combined bring a drastic end to civilization in the near future.
On the other, there is the optimistic view that these are all problems that can be fixed. That there is still hope and humanity’s capacity for invention and imagination will lead to a solution.
This is a fascinating premise for a modern-day blockbuster. Think a popcorn Koyaanisqatsi for the Michael Bay generation.
These two perspectives on the crises facing humankind are represented by George Clooney’s Frank, an embittered former-child prodigy who has lost the capacity for hope; and Britt Robertson’s Casey, a highschooler with the potential to be an even greater genius than Frank ever was.
The film, co-written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, takes the position that the fate of the planet is dependent on these two savants – the kinds of speculative fiction we enjoy.
And there you were feeling guilty about not recycling.
Tomorrowland is interested in how the science fiction stories we consume influence our engagement with the world. The titular retreat for artists, scientists and engineers who desired to escape interference from bureaucrats and politicians is a futuristic utopia that sits in an adjacent dimension to our own.
It is nerd nirvana, descended from the combined genius of Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, Gustave Eiffel and Thomas Edison. By the time young Frank discovered it in 1964, Tomorrowland is a fully formed Orbit City from the Jetsons.
But, an older Frank tells us, it all went wrong. It turns out we started to read and view stories that critiqued the idea of a perfect future. The genre of sci-fi became more critical – Huxley and Orwell are namedropped by a strawman character at one point – and cost humanity the capacity to dream big.
Casey spots a billboard for a movie release titled ToxiCosmos: 3 (the use of a colon is admittedly quite apt), implied to be exactly the kind of film that is killing humanity’s capacity to hope. Dystopian fiction lost us our jetpacks!
Has Vox Day reviewed this film yet?
There is a fascinating film in here somewhere, but it is hobbled by a surprisingly thin-skinned take on the challenges faced by ‘dreamers’. The antagonist Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, is literally a science fiction gatekeeper!
How is it that a summer blockbuster can be so overtly hostile to critical thinking?
Simon Pegg, in an interview with the Radio Times magazine, briefly touched on the cultural impact of blockbuster cinema’s embrace of geekdom.
He presents a stripped back summary of Peter Biskind’s argument in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that the commercial success of Jaws put an end to the artistic broadening of American cinema in the wake of the French New Wave. Luke Skywalker and E.T. chased Scorsese and Coppola, with their European sensibilities, off the lot.
The Conversation was a parable for paranoia and surveillance culture that still holds true today, but Star Wars shifted a lot of toys, so it is George Lucas’ vision that grown adults rewatch over and over.
Geek cinema – and the ‘mainstreamed’ culture it is a part of – is just as much a bubble as Tomorrowland, insulated from the struggles of the real world and lacking in astute social or political commentary.
Pegg questions this development as follows “It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt.”
You may have seen the io9 editorial that followed, but the gist of it was how dare you call us children.
There is again something tragic about an appeal for cinema to be more challenging being regarded as a threatening statement.
Pegg has further expanded on his initial remarks with a blogpost that I would highly recommend reading. Essentially where he falls down on the debate surrounding geek culture is that you can love something and criticise it without the one precluding the other. Sentiments shared by the likes of Anita Sarkesian and Alan Moore – and we all know what happens when they speak critically about their respective mediums of interest.
Indeed Pegg, Sarkesian, and Moore are being pilloried for asking more from their culture.
It is obscene that discussion and debate surrounded commercially saturated geek culture should be seen as a personal attack. That Pegg’s initially offhand remarks should trigger such a response, speaks to an essential insecurity about the ability of movies, or books, games and comics, to withstand any criticism. His fame rests on the many thoughtful projects he has been a part of that are knowing and, yes, critical of geekdom from Spaced to Paul.
Which to Pegg’s credit, he addresses in his own blogpost (seriously, read it).
Tomorrowland treats futurism as little more than an escape to Narnia, instead of an extrapolation from our world. In one scene Frank snarls at Casey that her vision of the pristine metropolis was nothing more than a virtual reality advertisement. It was intended to trick her. The loaded meaning of that exchange is never explored. It is treated simply another example of his cynicism. Yet science fiction is littered with racial and political propaganda, ‘advertisements’ for a white race manifest destiny. Something the Caseys of this world would do well to be wary of.
Frank is the geek who has turned on the stories that nurtured him as a boy and suddenly discovered they speak to power structures and prejudices he is no longer comfortable with. He is presented as a fallen hero as a result.
Poor Pegg, in turn, copped severe abuse for daring to suggest that commercial geek culture might not have the best interests of its audience at heart beyond squeezing a few dollars more out of them.
Tomorrowland appeals to the past in order to propose a more hopeful future, but all it has to offer is calories-free nostalgia. Its grasp of utopian fiction is superficial at best. Thomas More’s eponymous work proposed a perfect society, but reveals that it is founded on slavery.
More also threw in an aside that the toilets and chains of slaves were made from gold. Utopian glamour is based on unseen oppression and suffering. Dystopias bring those systems of domination to the surface.
The idealism of the 1964 World’s Fair is contrasted with the deconstruction of NASA’s space program in the present-day, but the role of military expansionism in scientific research and technological development is off the table for the film to discuss.
There is, to be fair, an interesting plot-thread involving eerily smiling men in black casually killing anyone they encounter while hunting Frank and Casey, but it feels like a leftover from an earlier draft. Again perhaps because any hints of Tomorrowland’s militarism would result in accusations of bowing to “SJWs”.
Geekdom over the past year has been rocked by outbreaks of culture wars on several fronts. In each instance, these conflicts have been sparked by the perception that a ‘golden age’, a better time, of geek entertainment has been spoiled by criticism. That to point out issues relating to class, race or gender is somehow destructive.
The reception of Pegg’s mild criticism is simply the latest example of that reactionary element. And it makes the forced choice of Tomorrowland between a criticial, and therefore fatalist, perspective on the future and a more ‘optimistic’ one feel incredibly tone-deaf.
Instead of a story that preaches hope for our tomorrow, Tomorrowland is a film out of time, neutered, apolical and uninterested in challenging the over-merchandised geek bedrock it sits upon.