Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Let's begin with a confession: I love Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney World is basically a giant, shiny toilet made of delusions where you flush thousands of dollars, but I simply cannot resist its futuristic elements. I suppose that would include Epcot too, Walt Disney's prototype for a future city. We're going to quickly bypass the troubling idea of a guy having such specific ideas about what future cities should be like, mostly because I'm sure he had very specific ideas about who should and should not be alive in the future.

Regardless, my Disney cynicism usually dissipates somewhere around the time I first catch a glimpse of Space Mountain. As a kid, Tomorrowland (one of the five major areas of the Magic Kingdom) was just the best. (I never had a princess phase, I guess.) It was by far the most intriguing part of Disney World to me and I even have fond memories of the syrupy idealism of The Carousel of Progress. Many of the things one finds in Tomorrowland (both the Disney Land and World versions) were debuted at the World's Fair, Walt Disney's stage before he built his own parks to showcase his ideas. This brings us to Tomorrowland, the movie.

Given my (somewhat shameful) fondness for Tomorrowland the place, I was very intrigued when I first saw the trailer for Tomorrowland, the film. Disney overlords knew that people like me--you know, the ones who ride the PeopleMover over and over--would shell out money for this film no matter what. And so I did. In recent years, Tomorrowland the place has become sorta sad, projecting a vision of the "future" that is clearly from the 1950s and 60s. It is no longer about the future, really, and is instead a kind of homage to what middle class white kids thought of as "the future" in 1955. It seems like the writers of the film have caught wind of this, and they situate part of the story right in the middle of this bygone vision, not with any sort of critical approach but with a typical Disney nostalgia that one can forgive up to a point.

One can even forgive the bad acting by Britt Robertson, who plays the forgettable main character, Casey. One may also be persuaded to forgive the implication that some elite people (mostly men) are pre-destined to save our entire world. That's about where my forgiveness ended. What one cannot forgive is the bait and switch this movie plays on you, wherein you spend about five minutes in the actual Tomorrowland of the trailer and of Disney lore. The rest is of the film is set in our own times, with the last quarter of the film in a dilapidated version of the shiny Tomorrowland we see in the trailer. But I guess that's the writers' prerogative, as much as it seems to betray Walt's own desire to immerse us fully in realities that either do not or do not yet exist.

What does not betray Walt's vision, it seems, is the narrative itself, which ends up being a diatribe against both dystopian fiction and real crises like climate change and starvation. That's right: the writers don't make any sort of effort to talk about how dystopian fiction and real-life catastrophes are different, but opt instead for an ideological position which maintains that our eventual demise as a species can be fixed by (wait for it)...dreamers. The problem with Disney World and all things Disney is the simple refusal to engage in things that are really important, at least for any sustained amount of time. Perhaps a company that predicates itself on fantasy notions that we can simply build new "worlds" and "lands" in which to retreat is bound to make such a film. Or maybe Disney (the World, the Land, the films) gives people a sense of hope in a world full of despair. But one has to ask: hope in what? In our own ability to save us from ourselves? In our own imagination, which often dreams of new ways to kill instead of to love?

Disney has released a truly anti-dystopian film, one that sets up the false choice of hope or dealing with real human tragedy, and tells you that you must pick. But what these filmmakers (and probably Walt himself) fail to understand is that the question of hope is at the very center of the dystopian fiction that Tomorrowland assaults. Furthermore, the real tragedies around us--war, hunger, greed, the destruction of nature--from which Disney directs our gaze are the very sites that need our hopeful attention the most. By lumping these two things together and dismissing attention to them as unhelpful, I'm afraid Tomorrowland invites us into real despair. There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day...unless that was the day you saw Tomorrowland. 

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