Tomorrowland has the bad luck to be released the week after Mad Max: Fury Road. Not for box office reasons - I’m not sure that a PG-rated family film is truly competing with an R-rated action picture - but because Fury Road so totally refutes the case made by Tomorrowland… before the movie even has a chance to make it.
This will not contain spoilers for Tomorrowland (I don’t think it needs to in order to make a point), but those who are exceptionally spoiler-phobic, especially when it comes to themes, will want to steer clear.
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland launches from a place of nostalgia - a nostalgia for an old vision of the future, a nostalgia for a time when our popular science fiction presented a tomorrow that was brighter than today. Talking to Wired Bird says:
At one time the future was consistently presented as this bright thing where all these problems were going to be solved. I remember that feeling of wow, starvation will be solved and the air will be clean, weapons will be obsolete because we’ll understand that there are better places to put our energy. And gradually that vision has just been nibbled away at until it’s basically not there. And what’s in its place is this very dark, negative version that everyone seems to have accepted. Damon and I kept looking at each other and asking what changed it? And is it possible to get back to it?
Tomorrowland critiques dystopian visions of the future - quite explicitly, in dialogue. It makes the case that these dystopian visions of the future are self-fulfilling prophecies, and that they give us, the audience, the freedom to not care about the problems surrounding us. We’re fucked, these apocalyptic movies say, so why bother?
But Bird’s (and writers Damon Lindelof and Doc Jensen) understanding of the future, or how it’s depicted in media, seems to be coming from a weird blindspot - the future is never about the future. It’s always about today.
The shiny future of the 50s and 60s that Bird fetishizes was the result of two things: the societal trauma of the Second World War and the looming threat of the Soviet Union. This future was one part balm - a nation staggering out from the other side of a Depression and a costly war that revealed atrocities at a level never before seen by humanity needed some reassurance that shit would get better - and one part propaganda. A future where our values had triumphed, and where our science had out-scienced everyone else’s science, was part of the national call to beat the Soviets in technology. The Cold War wasn’t just a race to build bombs, it was a race to build the next generation who could invent stuff to better kill the other guys.
All of that futurism was based in how people felt at the time - they were trying to beat the Commies and they were trying to get over the Nazis. It was a future of avoidance.
The truly dystopian stuff begins in the 70s, and that was also about the now - Logan’s Run about the generation gap, Soylent Green about overpopulation, the Planet of the Apes movies (slightly predating the 70s) about race relations and nuclear death, Rollerball about corporatization, A Clockwork Orange and Mad Max about changing social mores and crime, Silent Running about pollution - as well. But without the need to hide from the horrors of the Holocaust and with the sense that the Cold War was actually going to just stretch on forever, a stalemate for the next millennium, there’s a true darkness in these films. That darkness reflects a lot of what we were seeing come out of Hollywood at the same time - there’s a despair eating away at the culture as the oil crisis rages, inflation staggers the economy and Jimmy Carter is ineffectual. This is the heyday of downer endings.
What we see today is nothing like these films; the latest trend in post-apocalyptic films are, in many ways, better refutations of this 70s wave than Tomorrowland itself. The new post-apocalyptic movie is about survival. These are movies about survivors.
No film in the current crop exemplifies this as well as Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a movie about a broken man who meets a group of women trying to free themselves from sexual slavery. By helping them he not only reclaims his sanity, he aids them in toppling an unjust system that has been oppressing people. When the movie ends every surviving major character is in a better place than where they started. They all survived.
That’s what we want to see right now- proof that we will get through this. That, no matter how bad it is, we’re going to walk out the other side, stronger for it. That’s why the serialized misery of The Walking Dead does well, because it is about people who are defiantly carrying on in the face of overwhelming despair. It’s why The Hunger Games movies are so popular, because it’s about people rising up against a system that kept them divided and down. These aren’t movies about giving up, about reveling in the horrors of the Wasteland - they’re movies about kicking the Wasteland in the ass and continuing to put one foot in front of another, no matter how hard it is.
The future that Tomorrowland envisions is a paternal control state, one where everything is provided and the problems are gone. This, in short, is closer to Brave New World than any of the cheery Tom Swift stuff Bird thinks he’s celebrating. The idea of a future where everything is okay and everything is solved? That’s a future where we stop being free, and scifi has touched on this again and again - even Woody Allen figured this out in Sleeper.
So save the utopian retrofuturism for a time when blacks couldn’t ride at the front of the bus and gay men were arrested for kissing. I’ll take the modern wave of dystopian scifi that says to me, “Yeah, it’s tough… but you can get through this.”