Dangerous Visions:

The False Nostalgia of Tomorrowland

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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6 Comments

  1. >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.

    See this is the problem I have with his argument and upon any type of examination of this underlying premise Pegg et. al. are flat out wrong. By virtue of a film being Adult oriented or rated R their audiences are simply smaller by flat out numbers so of course they won’t be making billions of dollars. The other underlying premise is the 70′s was the pinnacle of artistic expression and popularity, this not only isn’t born out by history but it isn’t born out by the numbers. Sure there were some big successes for adult content in the 70′s but if you compare that to now those types of films continue to make around the same amount of money and there are far more of them and they turn a profit to boot.

    This is complete nonsense if anything challenging and difficult art is being consumed by more people than it ever has its just that it is now consumed on TV or via streaming services. I’m not gonna go see the next Von Trier, Almodovar, or whoever film in the theater because it likely won’t be playing near me, and the theater isn’t IMO the best place to experience that. Adult themed material isn’t really enhanced that much by a huge screen and 7.0 surround sound, it enhanced by being in my home and being able to digest it at my pace and have a discussion with my SO.

    The renaissance that is going on in TV is offering content every bit as artistic and complex as was offered from the 70′s and from far more voices. In the last 15 years we have had things like Mad Men, The Wire, Deadwood, the advent of LGBT cinema and serialized TV, we have far more films from women, and from people of other cultures and creeds. So I do not lament the 70′s. There were some amazing films being made in the 70s that deserve every bit of admiration they get, but to think that its some by gone age and we now live in a time where we can’t get such content is lament a time in the cinema where unless you were a middle aged white dude you couldn’t get a film in the theater. Now not only is there content every bit as challenging and artistic as was made in the 70′s, its also confronting us with more voices for more different people all the time.

    His argument is the same argument we have been hearing since Aristotle’s day, that these young kids just don’t care about art or sophistication and woe be the world. To quote from True Detective, an amazing piece of challenging art Simon Pegg thinks our generation no longer cares about;

    Jake Herbert: “So you’re telling me the world isn’t getting worse? I’ve seen kids today all in black wearing makeup, shit on their faces, everything is sex, Clinton.”

    Detective Marty Hart: “You know, throughout history, I bet every old man probably said the same thing. And old men die, and the world keeps spinnin’. “

    • Unfortunately it is just as easy to say something like True Detective is overrated in its approach to storytelling, with a pseudy-script and some allegedly plagiarised speeches – largely succeeding due to the quality of the direction and the actors concerned.

      Yes the cultural skies are always falling. But that’s not the substance of what Pegg is saying. For one he is addressing Biskind’s notion that the blockbuster has narrowed the opportunity for film-makers to even get to make smaller projects without a cape or phaser in sight.

      Pegg addresses the empty content of the major geek properties.

      I feel your comment is unintentionally dismissive of the very geek culture you’re defending. Comics and films – of either the pulp or B-movie variety – have long presented challenging ideas in amongst the exploitation and violence, be it passing social comment or a bloody-minded piece of satire.

      Commercially driven science fiction and fantasy abhors that, because its objective is to make as much money as possible from the intended audience. Anything with the potential to offend, or indeed bore (there’s a theory in film circles that scripts are now structured to allow for audience members to check their phone between action beats) is right out.

      And as I say in the article, the past year we have had a number of flare-ups within geek culture from individuals who have embraced that idea of non-political, uncritical entertainment and are actively hostile to anyone who desires something different.

  2. ...Jonathan Sharp says:

    In terms of the criticisms given by Moore on “geek culture” my issue is when he said “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” I am one of these people that Moore is talking about in that I am a Spider-man fan for instance and Moore is correct in calling characters like Spider-man a twentieth century children’s character in my view.

    However, my interest in Spider-man does not stop me from understanding the complexities of the modern world. I’m very interested in understanding the complexities of the modern world hence why I study Political Science at a university, read broadsheet newspapers and attend political protests at least twice a month, all of which has lead me to reach similar but not identical conclusions about politics to Moore.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m not sure that there is an either-or choice between embracing 20th century children’s characters and trying to comprehend and change the political, economic and social status quo which is what Moore is implying. People are capable of doing both which I think is what Moore is missing.

    Although, he is completely justified in saying (as he said in another guardian interview I believe) that Marvel and DC have basically given up in trying to create enriching, entertaining and artistically rich comics that help expand the minds of 9-13 year old boys and girls. Moreover, his prediction that comic books are in their dying days (as he stated in and interview with CBR) is also correct in my view. I can remember seeing a Joe Kubert interview in which he said in the 1940s if a comic sold 150,000 copies or less a month it would be cancelled; nowadays 150,000 copies is considered to be a massive success indicating the health of comic books is in less than ideal compared with other moments in its history, so I think a lot of criticisms that Moore gives of comics and “geek culture” have at least some truth to them.

    Anyway, that’s my borderline simpleton and narcissistic rant out of the way.

    • ...Jonathan Sharp says:

      “as he stated in and interview with CBR” no in “an interview” – learn how to type Jonathan.

    • Cheers for the comment! I agree that it is not an either/or proposal.

      I just wish the response to Moore’s interview wasn’t a multitude of spluttering jeremiads about our favourite bearded magus from Northampton. How dare he!

      • ...Jonathan Sharp says:

        I agree, anyone who lives in the East Midlands of England deserves our pity and condolences, not our scorn!

        On a serious note I think you’re right that people overreacted to the comments of Pegg and Moore whose points of view I don’t agree with 100% but I definitely think there’s a lot of wise words in what they said and didn’t deserve the backlash that they both received. Sarkesian on the other hand I have almost no issue with at all and could play a big role in making video games becoming more than the unoriginal and juvenile male power fantasies that too many of them are.

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