Not Yesterday's Tomorrow
Sunday, November 29, 2015 Filed in: Opinion
Watched the movie Tomorrowland twice this weekend. Kudos to Disney. Best film I've seen in a while. And best Disney movie since Tron Legacy. But that's another story. The story today is that this movie was pretty well hated by reviewers and the public. People complained about a muddled plot, and I agree there were holes (scroll to the end, but be warned: spoilers). But they were no bigger than the plot holes in any other movie you can name, that people missed because they were comfortable with the movie's theme. I think the real issue was that this movie made people squirm a bit. Especially in the climactic scene, when David Nix, the boss of Tomorrowland and the guy we had assumed was the villain says this:
Just imagine --
If you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to...who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck.
The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if...
What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head?
The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up, and the only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they had ever known or loved?
To save civilization, I would show its collapse.
And how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom?
They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise. They repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, as books, movies -- the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.
Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one.
Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you, the coalmine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint.
In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future, yet you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it, for one reason.
Because that future doesn't ask anything of you today.
So, yes. We saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why?
Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not the monitor's fault. That's yours.
The premise of the movie, established brilliantly in the first few seconds of dialog, is that the future isn't what it used to be. This idea is familiar to the science fiction crowd, who have been asking "where's my flying car?" for some time now. There are a lot of reasons the Tom Swift future gave way to the cyberpunk future. It wasn't a technically feasible future. It wasn't a particularly environment-friendly future -- if there was even an environment in it. But in my opinion, the main reasons were technocracy and inequality. The future was something that was going to be made for us by smart people. And, as William Gibson famously said, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.
Both of those problems are present in some degree in the Tomorrowland future. The creative people have actually found a place (unexplained, but apparently a pocket universe or a separate/parallel dimension) where they can be free to create without constraint. It's almost a Galt's Gulch, except that they had intended to bring the rest of the world along with them, or at least to share the fruits of their creativity. The Frank character is a bit complicated, and it's unclear why he was banished long before the story begins. He's clearly not in a sharing mood when we first meet him.
But those issues don't really detract from the point that Nix made. The signs are there, but the stories we're telling celebrate the post-apocalyptic struggle because that allows us to wait for the apocalypse. And let's face it, even if Tina Turner is singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" in the background, Mad Max is still doing all the work for us.
So the challenge, I guess, is to imagine a future that acknowledges the problems we face but retains some hope we'll figure them out. I thought Tomorrowland made a decent start on that road. Gotta make sure I try and do the same, when I build Part Two of my Environmental History class and textbook.
The plot holes? I thought they were forgivable, and ironically probably due to the fact that Disney knew how unpopular their theme was going to be. The biggest plot error is that after giving that intelligent and obviously caring speech, David Nix tries to shoot Frank and ends up killing Athena. This is ridiculous. Nix likes Frank, and he loves Athena. And he has just explained the situation with the monitor. He wasn't trying to destroy the world, he was trying to save it. He believes the monitor can't be turned off, not that it shouldn't be. So it's entirely out of character for him to act the villain at that point. It advances the action, but makes it a bit nonsensical.