Tomorrowland

Disney really believed in Tomorrowland: not only did they give it a huge budget (nearly two hundred million, not counting advertising costs), but they released it on Memorial Day, traditionally one of the biggest movie-going weekends of the year. In a way, their optimism is justified - most of the movie's many sci-fi setpieces are so well staged that they validate its wonkier aspects; people that only ask for their summer blockbusters to  be chockablock with cool visual effects will probably be satisfied with Tomorrowland's impressive retro-futuristic sheen. But then again Disney's faith in this project was also a little naive, because a movie that tries to match high minded philosophical discussions with killer robot fist fights was always going to be deeply uneven.

Tomorrowland is basically a parable about three inventors. You have a young woman named Casey who still believes that science has the potential to improve the world; an old curmudgeon named Nix who believes that the world is destined to self-destruct no matter what we do; and then there's Frank, the bellweather in the middle who used to be idealistic but who has retreated into paranoia and depression. Tomorrowland gives into the basic requirements of the modern tentpole film, regularly indulging in laser battles and big explosions, but the movie's heart is in the dialogue between those three ideologues, and in trying to settle which of them is more correct about the way the world really works.

On paper that sounds great. I mean that literally: Tomorrowland's high-minded story would probably work better in a book than on screen. The film's first fifteen minutes or so are almost a stand alone short film about a young Frank and his first invention - a rocketpack that doesn't quite do what it is supposed to do, but which has real potential. But Frank's story cuts off almost mid-sentence, and suddenly the focus shifts to Casey's story, which takes place decades later in a very different part of the country. Off the top of my head I can't remember a more jarring cinematic transition, not just because of the abruptness of the about-face but because of how poorly matched the two stories are - they aren't similar in setting, or tone, or appearance. It is the sort of abrupt perspective shift that novels regularly pull off but which rarely works in a film, where the audience can't flip ahead to see that one chapter is about to end. Then again, even in a book that narrative flip-flop would still be a frustrating because it is never fun to leave a story right when it is getting good to start another story at its (markedly less exciting) inception.

Unfortunately, I don't really think there is any real solution to Tomorrowland's structural problems. The film's opening has to provide so much heavy handed exposition that it naturally ends up feeling clunky, but that background is also absolutely necessary for the overall story to work. The audience needs to know about Frank's early years if they are going to be able to understand the significance of his emotional arc; but of course his eventual intellectual redemption won't mean much to the people who mentally tuned out after Tomorrowland's early missteps. As an academically minded man I found the tension between Frank and Casey's ethical positions to be fascinating - but even I have to admit that a compelling ending doesn't automatically excuse an opening act which feels very schizophrenic.

But enough about Tomorrowland's plot; if you want to read more about its various strengths and shortcomings there are plenty of other reviews out there that will detail them in full. Instead, I'd rather spend some time drilling into its philosophical core, which I found to be both engaging and underwhelming.

You see, I've spent a lot of my adult life alternating between cynicism and idealism, and as such I was very much prepared to engage with Tomorrowland's central argument. Indeed, I left the theater feeling inspired, because there is some integral part of me that agrees with Casey, who is (of course) the ultimate victor in the film's moral battle. I basically share Casey's assumption that our culture was better off when we had more faith in the possibility of change. I, too, am uncomfortable with the internet's lazy nihilism; I've grown exhausted of the outrage economy which over-emphasizes shame as a tool for societal improvement. And of course it seems obvious to me that America's recent emphasis on hate-watching horrible people on television has left us feeling unnecessarily disheartened about humanity's ultimate worthiness. So, yes, I would be very happy if we started to work towards a future that emphasized education and idealism and the potential for progress. But while Casey's pro-optimism argument is compelling it is also overly simplified.

One of the things that I struggle with the most as an adult is the fact that you can never deal with a problem just once. If something breaks once it will definitely break again; if it breaks a third time it might have to get replaced. Each correction is easy enough, but eventually the accumulation of all those small adjustments becomes exhausting. It doesn't take much work to change your oil once - but at a certain point the realization that you're going to have to change your oil every three months for the rest of your life starts to feel daunting, like you are a Sisyphus with a smaller boulder. 

Which means that for my money Casey's pro-improvement argument might be appealing but it is ultimately incomplete. Miraculous new inventions are a great start for a brighter future, but they aren't enough to keep people eternally happy and motivated. We can only appreciate them up until they become everyday items, and once they cross the threshold into being normal they become invisible - and thus no longer inspirational. Sure, Casey, we can still change the world, but your youthful perspective overlooks just how galling it would be to revolutionize modern life only to be asked to do it again and again by bored people who can't see the miracles that exist all around them, silently improving their lives.

(And that's even allowing that miracles are possible! There are some days when I'm too cynical to even go that far.)

As I started writing this I started to think about Annie's iconic song "Tomorrow", which shares a lot of thematic ground with Tomorrowland. Casey would probably agree with that song's superficial meaning - that the fact that tomorrow is always only a day away is promising. What she probably doesn't see is that song has a sinister underbelly - that the idea that will constantly have to start over is just as depressing for a person who is riding high as it is uplifting for a person who is in the dumps. Who wants to have to choose between trying to top their own accomplishments or else risk becoming irrelevant and overlooked? That's a bummer of a choice, but that's what we have to live with. Time is a perpetual motion machine, pushing us inexorably towards the future, and there's not much we can do to soft-pedal that often distressing fact. And if you don't believe that, you should probably call up the good folks at Disney, because I'm sure that they could explain to you just how little the success of Frozen last year means in the face of Tomorrowland's financial failure today.

Winner: Me

Tomorrowland on IMDB