There’s a meme going around that Tomorrowland underperformed at the box office because people weren’t ready for its message of optimism. There’s just one problem — Tomorrowland isn’t an optimistic film at all.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead...
So, some people have been claiming that Tomorrowland’s relative failure is because it was too optimistic. (One such article even calls out io9’s review of the movie.) The idea is that America is too wedded to dark futures — we’d rather watch Mad Max: Fury Road than an uplifting movie that calls on us to make the world a better place. (Leaving aside that Fury Road does actually have a very uplifting storyline.)
On the surface? Sure. Tomorrowland has an optimistic wrapper around its pessimistic core. The surface message of Tomorrowland is, “Remember when we used to believe in the future?” And all of its most beautiful imagery is in the service of retro-futurism, recalling the Jetsons aesthetic that signified “futuristic wonder” 50 years ago. Jetpacks! Cool robots! Spaceships! Walkways! Blue skies! It was so cool, and now everything is just emo.
But that’s part of the problem — nostalgia for optimism isn’t optimism. Optimism means looking at the world we have today, and saying that we can make it better. Optimism includes pointing to all the actual reasons in today’s world to be hopeful. Like, solar power is rapidly becoming cheap. We can be cyborgs. Same-sex marriage is mainstream. NASA is sending cool robots all over the solar system. And so on. Optimism is seeing progress, and finding ways to build on it — not obsessing over whether we’re dismantling a gantry that hasn’t been used to launch space vehicles in years, as this movie does.
Nostalgia is closer to being optimism’s enemy than its friend. Nostalgia is a fundamentally regressive, non-constructive sentiment. Geek culture, and by extension the activities that geeks are engaging in, are overloaded with nostalgia for futures that didn’t pan out, and images that we loved decades ago. We don’t need more nostalgia. (Edited to add: For more on why nostalgia for the World’s Fair vision of the future, in particular, has issues, check out this great Wired piece.)
But that’s not the main reason why Tomorrowland, in its heart, is pessimistic.
The real problem is, Tomorrowland is a deeply misanthropic film that believes that people are sheep, apart from a few “dreamers” like Casey (Britt Robertson). There’s an early montage where Casey is the only one in her school who keeps asking “how do we fix it,” while the other slack-jawed students listen to the teachers drone about all the reasons we’re doomed. Casey gets singled out by the cute robot girl because she, alone, still wants to make the world better.
And the actual plot of Tomorrowland is also incredibly negative, in almost every way. Tomorrowland itself is defined by what it isn’t — it’s a place without politics and bureaucracy, so you can actually create innovation without the stupid regular people getting in the way. (So, basically, John Galt’s happy place.) This ignores the fact that we didn’t land people on the Moon thanks to rugged individualism, but rather thanks to a massive government bureaucracy. At one point, Frank (George Clooney) says that there was a plan to open up Tomorrowland to everyone — but when Frank gets the chance, he still decides to open it up only to the select few.
And then there’s the big threat in the movie — which combines two of the worst things about Hollywood storytelling: there’s a definite countdown, but only the mushiest sense of what, concretely, will happen when the clock reaches zero. (Something apocalyptic-ish.) Turns out that Frank built a machine that can see possible futures, and he saw a vision of a dark future for the Earth. And the people of Tomorrowland decided to broadcast this to Earth to warn people — but instead, the dumb, lazy people of Earth decided that future was set in stone, and accepted it as a given.
Towards the end of the movie, Hugh Laurie’s Nix (clearly acting as a mouthpiece for the film-makers) says that people eat up dark, apocalyptic, dystopian futures, because they ask nothing of us. We’d rather just wallow in despair than try and make things better, and when presented with a vision of destruction, we latch onto it rather than trying to fix it. That’s the core message of the movie — that people suck, and that we’re just not enterprising enough or industrious enough, to build the future our parents or grandparents dreamed about. To drive this home, there’s a recurring motif of the hit movie Toxicosmos III, which sounds like the worst Toxic Avenger spinoff ever.
(I take that back. I would watch a movie about the Toxic Avenger going into space. Please make this movie, Troma.)
I don’t think you can be that pessimistic about human nature, while still claiming to be optimistic, in the abstract. It also misses the main point of the 1960s Space Age shininess this movie claims to be pining for. Back in the 1960s, optimism about our future and faith in human nature were intertwined. Humanism was a huge part of the can-do spirit, and the notion that people can rise above, and the potential for greatness is inside all of us, is preached in dozens of classic Star Trek episodes. It’s pretty much THE philosophy of the Space Age.
So no, Tomorrowland is not an optimistic movie. It’s a much less upbeat, hopeful movie than any dystopian or post-apocalyptic film I’ve seen lately. The best hope it offers is that the handful of special few can save the rest of us from ourselves. That’s not a vision that I would cling to in a dark moment.