The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow in Tomorrowland: Disney Does Eschatology

The futuristic city of Tomorrowland in the film Tomorrowland rises from the amber waves of […]

Michael Nicholson / 7.16.15

0clip_image001The futuristic city of Tomorrowland in the film Tomorrowland rises from the amber waves of a vast field of ripened grain, gleaming in the sunlight like, well, like the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). But this is the City of Man, or at least a possible city of humanity’s possible future as envisioned by writer-director Brad Bird. Bird’s vision is part utopian, part anti-dystopian diatribe, part pop eschatology, all wrapped up in a paradoxical package of American populist optimism mixed with elitist progressivism. With a little Steam Punk thrown in for good measure.

The city of Tomorrowland inhabits an alternate dimension or time—maybe both, it is not made clear. In the brief Steam Punk segment we learn that Tomorrowland was originally created by Gustave Eifel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison. Together they founded Plus Ultra, a select group of artists, engineers, designers, and inventors who dedicated themselves to making a better tomorrow, and in the process discovered—in some unexplained way (there’s a prequel set-up there)—the extra-dimensional reality in which they built Tomorrowland. But Tomorrowland isn’t for everybody. “Politicians” specifically are excluded as hide-bound obstructionists who thwart the creative free spirits who could solve humanity’s problems if only given the chance. For everyone else, entrance is by invitation only. The chosen few—those who are intelligent, creative, and optimistic enough—are sought out by realistic animatronic robots resembling pre-adolescent children. The elect are given a small enameled pin emblazoned with a stylized T and keyed to their DNA, which pin enables them to see Tomorrowland in all its extra-dimensional glory. Physical transport to the city is accomplished by a trans-dimensional bridge, opened from the Tomorrowland side.

The story line of the film hinges on trouble in Tomorrowland brought about by the invention of a machine that uses tachyons (hypothetical faster-than-light particles) to see into the future. The inventor, Frank Walker (played as a boy by Thomas Robinson, as an adult by George Clooney), was recruited into Tomorrowland when he was a young boy attending the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Now an adult, his tachyon device has predicted the cataclysmic end of civilization as we know it, in about two months time, with 100% certainty. His creative apocalypticism led to his banishment back to the ordinary world by the governor of Tomorrowland, David Nix (played by Hugh Laurie). Somehow, from his end in this world, Frank can monitor the readout of his future-predicting machine. A teenage girl, Casey Newton (played by Britt Robertson), ends up in the reclusive Frank’s high-tech hideout in upstate New York, after a few plot twists and turns and being recruited with a Tomorrowland pin by a renegade robot, who has chosen to oppose governor Nix’s gloom and doom grip on both Tomorrowland and the world’s future. The spunky Casey wonders why Frank is so jaded and disillusioned about the future. In surely unintended parallel to the book of Revelation, we see the woes about to be visited upon humanity revealed not in a prophetic spiral of symbolic signs of scrolls, and seals, and trumpets, but displayed on video monitors framing Frank’s grim countenance. With his future-predicting machine on his mind, and it’s read-outs on the screens behind him, Frank meets her spunk with the question, “Would you believe me if I told you I could predict the exact date of your death?” Casey responds, “I would believe you, but I wouldn’t accept it.” With that little bit of positive thinking, the screen’s read-out of 100% certainty of the Earth’s demise drops a fraction of a percent. Seeing this, Frank has an epiphany, realizing that his machine isn’t just predicting the future, it’s affecting it negatively and he realizes that with a bit more optimism, and the destruction0clip_image002 of the tachyon device, the future can be different. After being chased by killer robots, taking a back door portal to Tomorrowland via an antique rocket ship lifting off from the Eifel Tower (the Steam Punk sequence again), and overcoming governor Nix and his minions, Frank and Casey, with the help of the renegade robot girl Athena, succeed in destroying the device. All is well in Tomorrowland, the Sun comes out on an even brighter future, and Frank and Casey renew the elite recruitment program with a new crop of kid robots.

Bird wants to tell a parable of how unshackling the creative individuals among us will usher in a true, good, and beautiful Future. Gather all the gifted scientists, engineers, and artists in one place, turn them loose on the world’s problems, and they will usher in the Kingdom of Tomorrow. The city of Tomorrowland is the prolepsis of this kingdom-to-come, an anticipatory intrusion of the future into the present.

There are some superficial resemblances to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in this scenario, and some internet critics have accused—that’s the right word—Tomorrowland of channeling Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Bird dismissed this kind of analysis of his earlier animated hit, The Incredibles, as “silly” and “nonsense”. David Sims puts the recent criticism to rest in his review for The Atlantic.

The real philosophical problem with Tomorrowland is that it celebrates a technological utopianism resting on an insubstantial pastiche of unexamined modern and postmodern themes and assumptions. There is the Romanticist myth of the unique creative genius, misunderstood by the masses and restrained by the rules and regulations of bureaucratic authority. The Modernist faith in Progress, while tempered by human intransigence, is maintained by the power of positive thinking. The way forward is always forward. Pragmatism—results and quantification—is the only view of truth in view, since no sense of an objective transcendent reality ever impinges on the secular sacredness of a “better tomorrow.” An incongruous irrationalism—the “leap of optimism”—allows a simulacrum of transcendence when the numbers and the data despair of the future. We can still have hope—the assurance of things not seen—that the future, like the present Disneyland / World, will be the happiest place on Earth. Writer Marvin Pinsky has pointed out that this “faith in faith” is quintessentially Disney: “Disney characters had to have ‘faith in faith’ . . . they had to believe in themselves, as well as in something greater than themselves. That greater something was nonspecific, usually (and vaguely) defined in terms of human values and moral lessons rather than particular religious creeds”.0clip_image003

Underlying all these assumptions is an unthinking embrace of what Neil Postman has called Technopoly. Technopoly is “technology as faith”; it consists in the “deification of technology” in which culture seeks its validation and satisfaction and “takes its orders from” technology, and in which “human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique” (see Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology). Tomorrowland’s depiction of the city of the future itself is astonishingly sterile. Monorails glide silently through a metropolis dominated by gleaming white spires and curvilinear architecture with chrome and steel accents, and populated by robots and people dressed in white with chrome and steel accents. In Tomorrowland, human culture, which is barely visible, has been subordinated to a machine culture and a technological aesthetic.

This may seem like quite a bit of over-analysis to dump on what is essentially a film for children. The movie is moralistically didactic, but certainly Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland does not partake of the sort of heavy-handed cinematic preaching of such films as James Cameron’s Avatar, a paean to pantheism, or Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, described as advancing an “openly socialist political agenda.” But it is precisely this lack of a strong personal ideological bent that makes Bird’s “centrist” (his own self-description) vision, seen through the Disney lens, such a revealing bricolage of the bits and pieces of worldviews lying at hand in the broken cultural landscape of postmodern America. What is revealed is a sort of secularized postmillennial eschatology.

In this eschatology Armageddon is averted and we are saved from self-destruction, not by the prophesied return of a divine savior, but by the good intentions and creative problem solving of an elite cadre of creative thinkers. The best of us will fix what the worst of us have wrought. In the final dénouement, the city of Tomorrowland does not descend out of heaven like the New Jerusalem, rather it rises from the Earth, out of the dreams and aspirations and efforts of humanity. The sub-text of Technopoly assures us that now the dwelling of Man will be with his Machines, and they will live with him. There will be no more crying or pain—maybe not even death, who knows—for the old order of things has passed away (cf. Rev. 21:1-4).

So far Tomorrowland has been a box-office failure. Part of this may be the result of what several critics have noted: though the acting, production, and effects are stellar, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Individual scenes are polished and intriguing vignettes, but they seem haphazardly strung together, rather than melded into a coherent and satisfying story. Maybe. I would say the same about Jurassic World, and it has been a record-setting blockbuster. I enjoyed Tomorrowland, and if I were a younger member of the target audience I’m sure I would have enjoyed it even more. I think one of the “problems” of Bird’s vision is that it is good-hearted and earnest, and so it lacks any combination of those essential postmodern ingredients—irony, cynicism, and darkness—that it seems younger and younger audiences respond to. I would not make much of Bird’s, or Disney’s, theology, but at least Tomorrowland contains the recognition that what the world is now is not how it should be, nor how it could be.