Tomorrowland immediately grabbed my attention last summer as the kind of movie I would have written about in Flickers of Film had it just been released a year or two earlier. Brad Bird’s nostalgic ode to Disneyland and to old-fashioned space age optimism was another movie that attempted to alleviate anxieties about an uncertain aesthetic and economic future by appealing to a nostalgic longing for past (unfulfilled) utopian futures, at the same time it tries to disavow its own nostalgic impulse through narratives that superficially reflect on the need to let go of the past. Tomorrowland is a film strangely without a clearly defined audience (at least one it doesn’t not so secretly loathe)—a baby-boomer action-adventure whose central premise is that baby boomers are too bitter to still believe in working for a better future.
One of the ways the film was heavily self-theorized was as a truly “original” idea in an era of reboots and remakes—which is ironic to me because it’s a film so dependent on past media. The very name "Tomorrowland" is a nostalgic anachronism. At a point early in the film, one character asks another if she wants to go “backwards or forwards?” in an apparent nod to the film’s insistence on working towards a future-oriented utopia. But the irony is that even the movie doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to “backwards or forwards”—the awkward counterweight of nostalgia omnipresent throughout.
Tomorrowland is about a secret city—which the film depicts as something of an alternative universe that coexists with our own—where the best and the brightest on the earth (scientists, doctors, artists, inventors, and other visionaries) come together to solve the various problems of the world. As another character describes it: “Did you ever imagine what would happen if the brightest people in the world decided to do something about the future?”
Yet the movie establishes itself with extremely nostalgic contexts, with one of the main characters, Frank (George Clooney), explaining that “this is a story about the future,” but then quickly adding that “the future can be scary” and listing off the standard dystopic roster of starvation, riots, global warming, and what-not to show how much there is to be scared of in the future—hence the desire to look back instead. (As a side note, the vaguely eco-friendly message Tomorrowland half-heartedly promotes is somewhat ironic in the context of a film and a corporation that subtly, but also sometimes very obviously [as in the Antique Toy Store], celebrates the excesses of consumer waste—shades of what myself and others have previously written about in relation to the eco-contradictions of Pixar’sWall-E).
As the film aptly puts it: “The future wasn’t always like this.” This leads to a flashback to the 1964 NY World’s Fair, which Frank visited as a kid—and gives the film several opportunities to nod to the Disneyland attractions which got their start there, and more generally to evoke the specter of Walt Disney (and speaking of self-theorizing, the rhetoric around the promotion of the film was very focused on pushing this nostalgic idea that Walt was the ultimate optimist). Tomorrowland is a nostalgic narrative—both for Frank (who lived in Tomorrowland for awhile before being kicked out) and Casey, the teenage girl who comes to find him in the hopes that he can lead her back to that place. Frank is nostalgic for his own lost childhood and a lost love from that time, while Casey is nostalgic for the era of space exploration that NASA pioneered in the second half of the 20th Century.
And importantly her introduction is as a child, with her parents, looking up at the stars and dreaming of the future is a moment of simulacric nostalgia (old home video look, time stamp). Casey’s nostalgia is perhaps the more fascinating because it’s even more anachronistic than Frank’s since she’s fascinated with an era that precedes her own lifetime. Casey—and to a lesser extent, Frank—betrays a hope for the future that is largely rooted in her own childhood ideals, of believing as a kid that anything was possible, and it is that feeling of nostalgic loss for both characters (and I’d argue too director Bird) which is what enables in them the desire to work for a better future. In this sense, it’s a superficial example of Svetlana Boym’s progressive notion of reflective nostalgia—though I would argue that ultimately the film is simply a commodified repackaging of that impulse, since it offers no real clear sense of what a utopic future would actually look like, let alone get there, and it’s ultimately meant first and foremost as a fun summertime diversion.
As both a narrative and a symbol of its parent company, Disney, Tomorrowland is an acute example of the tension in the age of digital production and media convergence between innovation and anachronism. It is a film that pushes hard to promote the possibility of a utopic future through little more than the power of positive thinking, but it is so deeply mired in various nostalgic impulses that it struggles to articulate what that future might look like, or how we might achieve it.
It is ultimately a perfect example of the nostalgic disavowal—a film whose appeal is entirely based on childhood nostalgias, but then tries in the end to argue that we have to move on from that in order to construct the future. Unlike, say, the original Star Trek, which offered a fairly specific futuristic utopia based on promoting ideals of class, gender and racial equality, Tomorrowland articulates little more than a vaguely defined techno-corporatist future based on the promise of mostly unseen scientific innovations to come.
In some ways, Tomorrowland suffers the same fate as its Disneyland theme park namesake—and it’s somewhat surprising that few inside the company seemed to anticipate this sooner. The original Tomorrowland debuted at Disneyland in 1955—one of the founding centerpieces of the park when it first opened to the public. Originally, Tomorrowland was mostly inspired by Walt Disney’s fascination with the possibilities of atomic power (hence the atom logo in the movie’s title) and with the possibilities of interplanetary travel at the dawn of the space age. Tomorrowland was, like the World’s Fairs, mostly a corporate showcase, like Monsanto’s House of the Future or TWA’s Rocket to the Moon.
Tomorrowland in its original design was doomed to fail. The first problem was that our aesthetic and technical conceptions of the future are always changing, and thus it’s impossible to build a physical space that can maintain relevance within that shifting historical environment. Ultimately, in the late 1990s, the decision was made to radically facelift Tomorrowland so that it no longer reflected anachronistic mid-20th Century depictions of a space age future and instead looked like a deliberately retrospective take on past futures inspired vaguely by the work of Jules Verne (who is referenced in the film).
Another problem with Tomorrowland originally was that it was hard to practically envision what innovations would arrive in the future because no corporations wanted to make their research publically available for concerns of corporate espionage—so, in a sense, all that could be displayed were innovations already on, or about to be released to market. And this problem in particular mars the film because it does seem so invested in promoting Tomorrowland as a quasi-Silicon Valley start-up company where the world’s best and the brightest are recruited to invent new innovations in a so called “fun” environment, and yet those innovations are deliberately withheld from the rest of the world. In the film, innovation is an empty signifier—we are meant to believe that it presents the audience a utopic future for no other reason than the fact that it looks really spectacular.
Tomorrowland the movie is certainly evoking the Walt era that the original attractions were tied to, but it’s manifested in the film more by a nostalgia for Disneyland--even as the film clearly implies that this kind of baby boomer nostalgia, embodied in Frank, is powerful but incomplete, as he is depicted as a bitter old man. But the irony here of the nostalgia for “Uncle Walt” is that his own vision of the future, called EPCOT, was an idea for a city in Florida that was meticulously designed and tightly controlled. There was an implied critique of the outside world in EPCOT—one that promoted abandoning what Walt himself called the “old ills of old cities” and starting from scratch in the country.
And of course this carried with it all these unanswered questions about who would be allowed to live in this utopic space—particularly regarding issues of class and race. EPCOT revealed what Mike Wallace has called Walt’s evolution into a “utopian capitalist” as a result of the huge success of Disneyland as a model for urban design: “The state, anticipating mammoth tourist revenues, granted him virtually feudal powers. Democracy for the residents of the Community of Tomorrow would have been a nuisance. (‘There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control’). To ensure that EPCOT ran smoothly, Walt would be King” (43).
I would add finally there is something profoundly dystopic about Walt’s vision of the future (one which is also perpetuated in the recent film)—one based on a fear of the outside world, both of the people and its problems, and of the inability to absolutely control it. Walt’s vision of the future was not a desire to make the world a better place.
This kind of historical revisionism is echoed later in the film when Casey and Frank arrive at the Eiffel Tower, only to discover a secret room with mannequins of Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Nikola Telsa, and Jules Verne. In the film it turns out that this iconic group of turn of the century visionaries, a kind of Victorian pastiche, were the ones who started the secret society of inventors that led to the discovery and creation of Tomorrowland. There are a lot of troubling ideological questions here—one significant one (which is foregrounded when the film evades the question of the Tesla-Edison rivalry) is the era of economic oligopoly that Edison ushered in through an era of patent wars. The goal of inventing new technology was less in making the world a better place than in making profits off controlling the market. It certainly wasn’t in the collaborative spirit that this sequence implies—but was rather a pretty ruthless and ugly competition.
This is something I find distressing in many of the films that romanticize earlier histories of film in the digital age, for example—where messy economic and technological histories become obscured through nostalgic narratives of personal optimism and perseverance. A film like Tomorrowland seems to suggest that anyone can aspire to be the next Edison—but of course the real life Edisons would probably see you as a threat to be at best co-opted or in some other way legally marginalized.
Thus the other thing distressing here is how the vision of the future that Edison pushed for did indeed come to pass—and the impression that Tomorrowland is some alternate reality fantasy instead of a reality like Silicon Valley—in fact the film’s curious absence of any kind of corporate business presence at all—is perhaps the film’s ultimate nostalgic disavowal.
The film’s unofficial theme song, finally, is “It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”—which is a song that was featured at the Carousel of Progress at the NY World’s Fair. The Carousel of Progress was a series of A-A panoramas of a typical white middle class family as they aged through the years, and the domestic technology evolved with them—ending, appropriately, on the future. In his famous Marxist critique of the Disney Parks, Wallace wrote that: “At the Carousel of Progress, Disney takes visitors on a ride through time. After they settle down in the Carousel’s small theatre, the curtain rises of a robot middle class family at home in 1900. Mom, Dad, and the kids are chatting about housework. They have the latest in labor-saving devices—gas lights, telephones, iceboxes—and think that life couldn’t be any easier” (39).
Wallace argues that the entire attraction was just basically one long commercial for how GE keeps making things better and easier for the average American family through the decades:
“The Carousel of Progress is more than simply an extended commercial break. It is a paean to Progress—defined as the availability of emancipatory consumer goods . . . [by] putting sanitized [in the historical sense] entertainment at the service of business boosterism, and pointing the way to the original EPCOT.” This is, he adds, “a discernible corporate vision of history [. . .] history is a record of the invention of commodities which allow man to master his environment” (44).But, he adds “the corporate histories are less than clear as to why problems emerged [… even though] luckily we are given to understand, people (or more precisely corporations) are working on these problems.” (I quote so much of Wallace here because it’s such an eerie foreshadowing of the film, one which nostalgically pines for Carousel of Progress in particular).
One of Tomorrowland’s acts of nostalgic disavowal is to celebrate past innovations as a solution to some of the very same problems those innovations helped cause—since the era of modernity that Edison helped usher in was one of the mass production and consumption which fed so many of the dystopic problems that the film laments in the beginning.
Wallace quoted an Imagineer as saying “what we create is a ‘Disney Realism,’ sort of utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements” (35). Many Disney scholars have noted that the theme parks promote a pro-corporatist vision of the future that omits the histories of class tension, racial strife and gender inequality through its unrelentingly optimistic narrative of neoliberal progress. But, it is impossible to begin imagining a truly better future without working through those “negative, unwanted elements.
Tomorrowland uses an old capitalist nostalgia for the “Great Man” Myth of history (Walt, Edison)—and its selective history of industry, labor and consumption—to envision a thoroughly corporatist future defined, ironically, by the visible absence of any actual corporate presence, let alone the necessary mechanisms of control to make such a utopia a reality, and instead promotes the idea of personal autonomy and independence, which ultimately reaffirms the same paradoxical logic of consumer culture in the digital age.
Finally, the film’s desire for utopia (and commercial viability) is undermined by its own contempt ultimately for its own audience. What else to make of the (long-winded) offered by the film’s main villain (Hugh Laurie), trying to explain why the promises of Tomorrowland are an impossibility?
“Let's imagine. If you glimpsed the future and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to... Who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? With 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. 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 have ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. But 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, 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 coal mine canaries are dropping dead, and you won't take the hint! In every moment, there is 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, 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, we 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.”