Tomorrowland is Wrong About Science

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland is a well-meaning film that’s spreading a message we’re desperate for and that few other films are right now, yet it’s almost impossible to recommend as political inspiration because it’s sending other very damaging messages. The abbreviated version of Tomorrowland is that the end of the world is coming, one that the visuals strongly code as being climate-related, but the optimism of one brave girl reduces the probability of it. Her pure belief that things can be changed acts as a source of change in itself, encouraging us to all adopt the same positive spirit in transforming prospects for humanity’s future, which currently aren’t looking so great. The film also pays homage to great inventors of the past and America’s mid-century “World of Tomorrow” dreams of techno-utopia. It even ends with a group of androids being told to go forth and find the bright young minds that can make our ideal glittering future a reality.

The film brings the same enthusiasm for getting kids into science which brought us new episodes of Cosmos and Netflix’s Bill Nye show. Tomorrowland is hyperconscious of a time when Americans earnestly believed in technology’s power to lead us to paradise on Earth and kids were told they could do magic with science if they just put their mind to it. And I want kids to be able to get into science like that, it’s a beautiful vision, but this is as far as I can follow Tomorrowland’s optimism. For one thing, people didn’t fall out of love with the idea of the techno-utopia for entirely bad reasons. Technology in and of itself is a tool; it doesn’t inherently lead to good or bad. The good and the bad are born out of peoples’ attitudes towards ethics, politics, and economics, and this is something that Tomorrowland doesn’t confront.

There’s a moment near the beginning where an excited young boy brings his jetpack to the World’s Fair and shows it to the villain, David Nix. Nix disregards his invention because the kid, Frank, can’t conjure up a practical application for it. Frank replies “Can’t it just be for fun?” and that’s an endearing idea, but when was this time in U.S. history when science was done just for fun? Or even just because it improves the future? The World’s Fairs and EPCOT Centre which Tomorrowland draws from at least partly believe in technology for technology’s sake, but the whole 20th century “Home of Tomorrow” vision is also inseparable from U.S. consumer culture. It came about at a time of consumer boom for America and was very much intermingling with the promise that your life would become a dizzying whirlwind of everyday miracles once you bought the space-age products America’s captains of industry were churning out. Even Tomorrowland itself and the whole Disney company which enabled its production are part of a massive for-profit venture. It’s the late capitalist forces that would have profited from the “World of Tomorrow” that are using their technological power to wreck the planet, to begin with. And this is only part of the issue.

Americans were also encouraged to mentally invest in their country’s technological capabilities around the mid-century because fierce technological capacity translates into formidable military supremacy. At one point, Tomorrowland celebrates old rocket technology as the result of techno-optimism, but the space race happened for a very serious reason. It wasn’t because the U.S. government longed to dance among the stars, it happened because being able to send a rocket to the Moon was a proof-of-concept for being able to send a nuke to Moscow and this was all on the back of rapid technological development that occurred due to WWII. If it seemed like America was a country of enormous scientific prowess during the 1940s, it’s not because the American government were experiencing an intellectual renaissance, it was because nuclear reactions, synthetics, aviation, rocketry, and even the groundwork for modern computers all had far-reaching military applications and so the Allied Forces developed them. With this in mind, Tomorrowland’s harkening back to America’s mid-century tech boom as a well-meaning era of wonderment rings hollow. This is problem A.

Problem B is the statement made by Tomorrowland’s third act twist. As it turns out, the world only ends because Nix sends a warning signal back in time that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He beams the image of the end of the world into the heads of everyone in our era and, as Nix tells us, it doesn’t work because people embraced the apocalypse and turned it into fantasy entertainment. This doomsday signal is an obvious metaphor for the media and Tomorrowland’s statement is that showing people the reality of climate disaster through the media only makes us want it. It doesn’t begin to make sense.

Firstly, it’s not accurate to cast a net over our whole base of post-apocalyptic art and entertainment and suggest it’s all celebratory of the apocalypse. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Day After Tomorrow have been rightfully praised for warding us away from climate-based self-destruction and just try to play a game like The Walking Dead or This War of Mine and see how much you want to embrace the end times after that. Art is as much about what we fear as what we want. Secondly, although there is a fair bit of exciting popcorn media set in the post-apocalypse, Tomorrowland conflates escapism and an earnest wish for us to be destroyed. While every bit of escapism reveals a little bit of genuine human desire, playing a bunch of zombie shooters doesn’t mean we want the world to end any more than playing a bunch of WWII shooters means we want WWII to happen again.

Beyond that, not only are people not embracing the end of the world as we know it, it’s been an uphill battle to convince them it’s real. Less than half of Americans believe in humanmade climate change, and the numbers are better for Europe but far from perfect. Tomorrowland’s response to this lack of awareness over the dire future we’re careening towards is to stop reminding people of it altogether. It’s the naive thought that “Our planet’s dying gasps are such a downer, couldn’t we just solve everything by making people think about the cool jetpacks and teleporters we could invent instead?”. It’s an incompatible approach for a film trying to celebrate science.

Tomorrowland wants to cheer a generation into a life of academic pursuit or at least interest them in what academia has to say about the universe, and yet it can’t perform the academic basics of researching into whether the data supports what it believes. Finding out that many people don’t believe in humanmade climate change was a Google search away, but that was one search too many for Tomorrowland, and if the film won’t inquire into the world in that way, how can it encourage us to? Science is also built on rationalist philosophy. It’s reliant on the premise that us being more informed about the world is inherently a good thing. Science never moderates what it discovers based on whether we want it to be true or whether it makes us happy, but that’s what Tomorrowland advocates. The film thinks it can build a more informed future by creating a citizenry that is more ignorant about climate change now, but the message of history is that we ignore danger at our peril.

Tomorrowland’s problems may be a result of what happens when you try to take the Disney film formula and apply it to a story about a large-scale real-world problem. Disney films end on a feel-good note with the darkness banished and the protagonists safe and happy, and that’s fine for telling stories about individual fictional characters, but in the real-world, there’s no quick-fire solution to our existential threats. One of the best hopes we have against them is confronting them head-on, in all their terribleness, and even then, we don’t know that that will save us. We need scientific pioneers who are enchanted by the field and make mind-blowing discoveries, but we also don’t get a pass on ignoring who uses those discoveries and how. Nor do we get a pass on facing up to the damage we’ve done if we want to be able to prevent doing more. Thanks for reading.

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