I managed to see Tomorrowland, the new Brad Bird movie, before it was unceremoniously hustled out of the local movieplexes in favor of Jurassic World and Upside Down. Tomorrowland has not done well in the theaters—despite being a sci-fi action-adventure movie starring George Clooney, directed by the man who brought you The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and produced by Disney—and has garnered some criticism for its simple and cynical/optimistic theme.
And I’m left trying to figure out exactly why.
First of all, Tomorrowland is a beautiful movie, with ever-popular George Clooney as leading man, kids that are smart, cool and not annoying, great special effects, cool fights and chase scenes, humor, robots, alternate realities, an imminent threat to the planet and a crazy bad guy who seems to want it to happen, or is at least too far gone to see the sense of stopping it. The cinematography is excellent, it’s got a great soundtrack, and it leaves you feeling good at the end.
It’s a story about Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer, who finds a strange pin that introduces her to some kind of alternate reality where the world is amazingly futuristic and wonderful; and in trying to get back to it, she’s aided by a mysterious little girl (Raffey Cassidy) who brings her to Frank Walker (Clooney), an adult who’s apparently been there… and was later exiled. Though lethal human-looking robots are trying to stop them, they manage to reach Tomorrowland, and grapple with the Mayor to prevent his machines from destroying our Earth. In the end, Earth is saved, and our heroes help others to make sure Earth will have better days ahead.
And isn’t that pretty much what people are asking for from their movies these days? I mean, isn’t that pretty much what you get from all the other big movies out there? So how is it that audiences haven’t been going to this movie? Why is it that critics dismiss it?
Is it that Tomorrowland‘s message—that society has essentially given up the future, but if we gave our best thinkers and creative minds carte blanche to think and create for us, we could have a utopian world in our lifetime—just too much for movie-goers to accept? Is the villain of the piece, Mayor Nix, right when he suggests that people have resigned themselves to imminent doom and disaster just because it demands less effort from them?
Or is it really that the critics managed to poison the public against Tomorrowland and its positive message? Critics aren’t exactly known for responding well to your average action movie, much less your average science fiction adventure movie… and the concept that we can make a better future if we try isn’t exactly the popular zeitgeist of the day. Critics also don’t usually take too well to meta messages that essentially tell them what to think; and Tomorrowland‘s message is about as meta as you can get. So critics have decided to tell the American public that we can’t accept the premise of this movie; that the power of positive thinking is so far beyond us as to be a neon-colored Kool-aid we just won’t drink.
They may have softened their barbs, if this had been intended as a kid’s movie, or if it had been animated… no one takes cartoons and kid’s flicks seriously. But because it was nominally aimed at adults as well as kids, its positive message was unsurprisingly deemed unrealistic, and therefore dumb.
And that’s the sad part about Tomorrowland: That it clearly shows us our self-fulfilling prophesy, our inability to make our world better because we can no longer imagine anything but chaos. With all the brilliant minds at our disposal, with all our technology, the only thing we seem to be able to do with it is imagine wartime scenarios, terrorist targets, machines that will turn on us, jobs we will lose, authorities that we cannot trust, and an environment that we cannot save.
Tomorrowland dares show us the truth: That all of those things, and more, can indeed be fixed—if we decide to fix them. It shows us that we have a choice, that we can stand up, join hands and make this world better than we can possibly imagine.
Its message is summed up in an exchange between Casey and her father, a riddle introduced early in the story and reinforced at the end: Two wolves fight. One is Despair, and one is Hope. Which wolf wins?
The answer is: The one you feed.
Coming on the heels of another similarly-themed post, it’s easy to imagine that defeatism may be one of the things that is bringing America low; that we’ve lost our ability to dream, to dare and to innovate our way out of problems. True, when your best efforts have given no results, it’s far too easy to just throw up your hands and give up, to turn your back on a challenge and just let it roll over you. Tomorrowland is pretty sure we’ve already turned our backs, and we’re just waiting until we get rolled over, not long from now. And based on its ticket sales, it seems to be right.
But the movie is also sure that it’s not too late to turn back around. It shows us just what we’re capable of, and it tells us that the only thing we have to do to get there is to try.
Tomorrowland makes no secret about which wolf it feeds. Which one we feed is left entirely up to us.