Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, watch it and write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.
This week’s film: Tomorrowland, in which a brilliant woman saves the planet from a fear-mongering idiot. Sadly, life isn’t like the movies.
SPOILER ALERT: As this is a recent film (from 2015), here’s a spoiler warning. I will discuss Tomorrowland in depth from start to finish. So, if you haven’t seen the film and want to remain unspoiled, don’t read on.
There are two wolves and they’re always fighting…
Tomorrowland is a confrontational film, which isn’t something that can be very often said about Disney movies. But Brad Bird is a take-no-prisoners kind of film-maker, as anyone who’s seen the documentary on the recently-released blu-ray of The Iron Giant can attest. His films always have something to say, and often say it firmly and without shame. This has led him into some trouble in the past, most notably on The Incredibles, which some commentators (incorrectly in my opinion) maintain has Ayn Randian/Objectivist philosophies at its core. Tomorrowland has been criticised from that angle as well and I’ll return to that later, but first I want to address the confrontational aspects of the film, because understanding them is key to understanding the film as a whole.
Tomorrowland opens with George Clooney talking direct into camera. He plays Frank, a jaded middle-aged man who can’t see anything in the future but darkness and despair. This attitude informs his opening line: “This is a story about the future. And the future can be scary.” He proceeds to list all the reasons why, yes indeed, the future is scary: famine, disorder, collapsing governments. It’s a pretty intense way to come out of the lovely, comforting sight of the Disney castle logo, but it doesn’t last long because suddenly another voice comes on the soundtrack, a female voice, chiding Frank for being so pessimistic. This voice belongs to our hero Casey Newton, a brilliant young woman with a love for science and discovery. She demands more positivity and eventually takes the telling of this tale away from Frank. She’s better equipped to tell it, she says. Why? “Because I am an optimist.” An angry, determined, purposeful form of optimism is the driving force of Tomorrowland.
One is darkness and despair…
Before this week, I had planned on dedicating this edition of Mouse House Movie Club to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I’ve spent a lot of time on modern Disney recently, and wanted to take on something a little older. Also, I wanted to discuss Heffelumps and Woozles, because it terrified me as a kid and I find children’s reactions to scary things fascinating. That was going to be the crux of the article: Disney, childhood, and scary monsters. Then Fuckface von Clownstick was elected President of the United States, and my mind changed. It’s not much fun to talk about scary fiction when real life is much more terrifying.
As I wrote about the election in the wake of Trump’s win (A Blog and What Just Happened?), and talked about it with North American friends I’ve had the privilege to get to know through the internet, I quickly became convinced I needed to watch Tomorrowland. It captures so much of my post-election mood and some of the attitudes that have led us into this dark and depressing situation. Because Frank is wrong at the start of the movie. Tomorrowland isn’t just a story about the future and the future isn’t scary, not necessarily. It’s a story about the present and how the way we act and the fictions we create and consume in the present shape the future. If you create and consume only scariness, scariness is all you’ll get.
When the film was released, it took a bit of a beating for that attitude. It was seen as naive and a little obnoxious, maybe even socially irresponsible. Should we ignore all the bad in the world to exist in a perpetually happy state, some critics asked. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. At no point do Bird or screenwriter Damon Lindelof ever dismiss the horrors of the world. In fact, humanity’s propensity for stupidity, destruction, and evil forms the heart of one of the film’s best moments. David Nix, the overseer of the utopian parallel world that gives the film its title, explains that the city has been planting visions of destruction into humanity’s minds in a bid to scare us toward common sense. But instead of instilling fear in us, we’ve “gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair.” “They didn’t fear their demise,” he says of humans, “they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.”
There’s goodness in Nix’s intentions, but they’ve become corrupted just as the utopian ideals of Tomorrowland itself have. The city was set up by Plus Ultra, a secret society that counted the likes of Einstein, Tesla, Earhart, and (in a sadly deleted scene) Walt Disney amongst its ranks. This element of the story is where accusations of Rand politics and Objectivism come from. Bird has always been fascinated by exceptional people and how outside forces can destroy them, be that the cruelty of the human world against Remy in Ratatouille, the anti-superhero sentiment that resigns Bob to an office cubicle in The Incredibles, or IMF being disbanded in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.
Plus Ultra is essentially IMF for smart people rather than action heroes, and if you take that to its logical conclusion then the film is espousing the idea that there are only a select few intellects who can save us, and those people deserve to be placed on a pedestal above all else. They should be able to escape from the humdrum world and humdrum people and essentially do as they please. There’s an air of Objectivism to this, no doubt, and as much as I loathe Rand and love Bird, it lingers in most of his films (it’s worth reading this Slate piece and this Atlantic piece for more on why it just lingers rather than dominates them). But there’s a critical point of difference between Tomorrowland and Rand: Plus Ultra failed.
Our first sight of Tomorrowland is when the city’s at its peak: a glittering utopia of wonder and scientific advancement. But in the present day, it’s a mess. The experiment has failed, the city is abandoned, and the only thing it’s achieving now is to send to Earth visions of our doom. Nix is an arrogant and egotistical man who’s the very embodiment of Rand: he sees himself and the Tomorrowland concept as being above everyone else. He refuses to open the doors to the city because he believes that in doing so he’d only be enabling the human race to do to Tomorrowland what they’ve done to Earth. Indeed, he sends androids to earth in an attempt to kill anyone who may stumble across his precious city.
The utopia has become a dystopia that absolves itself of its evil by casting its eye to humanity and saying: well, at least we’re not as bad as them. But they are, and they’re infected by the same fear and paranoia as humanity is. But gladly, one person is beyond it all.
The other is light and hope…
If Nix comes to represent the dark and despairing wolf, Casey is the light and hopeful one. Relentless in her quest for knowledge, she is, like Nix, a huge intellect, but unlike Nix, there’s no arrogance, no sense that she’ll ever believe she knows everything she needs to know. This inspires her to ask questions and in a scene early in the film, we find her at school. A montage shows teachers lecturing her classes about the world’s ills, and on each occasion, Casey thrusts her hand up, desperate to ask a question. Finally, she gets her chance. “I know things are bad,” she says. “But what are we going to do to fix them?”
Luckily for the teacher, he doesn’t have to answer as the bell goes and class ends. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, but then… neither did Casey. Which is pretty much the point. On purely filmic (rather than political) grounds, Tomorrowland was criticised for weak pacing and showing too little of the city itself. Both are fair points; Tomorrowland is not without its flaws, and if you’re looking for a thrill-a-minute ride about a sci-fi city you’re not going to get it here. And nor should you. Tomorrowland represents the perfect world, but perfect worlds aren’t easy to build. You have to work, you have to fight, you have to ask questions before you can find the answers. You have to keep going, and humanity’s refusal to do so is exactly what so exasperates Nix, who rants:
“In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but 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. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because *that* future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up!”
Casey and Nix are similar in their disdain for giving up, but she maintains a love for humanity that shows that she, unlike him, hasn’t given up on our future. This is what makes her the film’s hero (and honestly, a true hero of mine. I adore this character!). In a tremendous scene near the end of the film, she’s given a vision of the Earth’s destruction, which will arrive just 57 days into the future. It’s one of the most moving moments Tomorrowland has to offer and that’s because Casey seems genuinely distraught about the end of the world. There’s no nihilism, no Batman v Superman esque stylisation of the darkness. Hatred, death, and destruction are coming, and Casey is devastated, so devastated that even this most optimistic of women (and how wonderful is it that our optimistic saviour is a brilliant woman of science!) nearly gives up. She almost falls to Nix’s self-fulfilling prophecy. But she cares too much, much more than Nix does, much more than Rand ever did. When you care that much, giving up simply isn’t an option.
The question is: which wolf wins?
And we can all care that much, if we choose to. Tomorrowland‘s thesis is that darkness is a choice not our fate: if we believe annihilation is an inevitability then it will be. If we accept that there’s nothing but darkness out there, there really will be nothing but darkness. The images of destruction that Tomorrowland started pumping out were so convincing that we all decided we couldn’t do anything about it. The problem’s too big, so why fight it? It’s a sentiment that feels very real after this week. So many voted for Trump and he’s now so powerful… what can one person do? Isn’t it easier to just accept that he’s in that position for the next four years and get on with it?
Casey wouldn’t because she knows the answer to the wolf question. She knows that the winner is whichever wolf you feed, whichever one you pay most attention to. And she’s adamant that no matter what happens, no matter how dark and desperate things get, she will feed the right one: hope and light. Because those things can win. Even if it’s just on a small scale for a fleeting time, even if you’re just saying hello to someone who seems a bit down, offering to help someone who seems like they need it, complementing someone on something cool, or nice, or good they did. It all counts. It’s all valid. And more importantly, it’s all achievable.
Will that save the planet? No, maybe not. Not right away anyway. But it sets the Doomsday Clock back just a second, and every act, every moment, every person who believes that there is and can be a great big beautiful tomorrow can help. The world is scary, and we’ve made it scary. But we can make it unscary again, each and every one of us, if we continue to believe that we can. So keep on believing, keep on dreaming, and go out and find others who dream too. Because dreamers need to stick together, and Tomorrowland shows us that as long as we do, anything is possible.