Optimism and Pessimism in Tomorrowland


Spoiler warning: this essay’s exploration of Tomorrowland’s themes reveals twists in the narrative.

In Tomorrowland, the spunky heroine Casey Newton instructs her depressed father to remember the story that he has told her her entire life: “There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair, the other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?” The film’s appropriation of the popular parable (of Cherokee or perhaps even Billy Graham origin) noticeably shifts the inner conflict away from good and evil to focus on our expectations and desires for what is to come.

Tomorrowland came and went fairly quietly last May. Probably known best as the passion project that Brad Bird gave up Star Wars to complete, Tomorrowland (with a screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Bird) deserves some attention—perhaps less for what it tells us about our age, though, and more for what it tells us about a certain philosophy of life prevalent in the corporate and tech enterprises of contemporary California.

While I think Tomorrowland has significant weaknesses—particularly a muddled narrative, underwhelming secrets, an unsatisfying resolution, and some contrived acting from Britt Robertson (who plays the heroine Casey as a caricature of “spunky”)—its themes offer a resolutely clear argument: our present culture has lost, and desperately needs, hope for tomorrow.

In the film, optimism about our future is associated with the recent past, meaning the booming American post-War era and the hopeful Space Age. The film exhibits a strong nostalgia for mid-20th-century American visions of the future as a consumerist utopia, full of sleek designs and useful technology: think jetpacks, flying cars, and instant food. In other words, the film has a wistful affection for the future we never got, exemplified by the Tomorrowland futuristic-themed land in Disney parks (the initial inspiration for Disney’s film), Star Trek, The Jetsons, and the year 2015 of Back to the Future Part II.

The film contrasts that past vision of the future with our current preoccupation with doom and gloom, whether we’re despairing about climate change, global conflicts and terrorism, or the decay of Western civilization. (Contemporary shorthand for this worldview might be “apocalyptic,” but the common dislocation of that word from its origins in Christian eschatology is itself a great example of our current grim point of view. In the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse [from the Greekapokaluptein, “uncover, reveal”], the destruction of the ends times precedes the new heavens and new earth. According to Christianity, the ends times will be fearful and destructive, but everything will eventually be made better. In common usage today, however, “the apocalypse” means something less like the violent renewal of a forest fire and more like “game over.”)

In a strange moment in Tomorrowland that melds current fears with those of the Fifties, one of Casey’s teachers uses the term “mutually assured destruction” to talk not about the Cold War but about global terrorism. During a montage of Casey’s classes, her other teachers lecture about the melting of the polar ice caps and dystopian fictions becoming reality. While these pessimistic pedagogues drone on, Casey resolutely waves her hand for the chance to ask, “What can we do to fix it?” Casey, you see, is an eternal optimist.

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton contrasts the character of the pessimist with that of the optimist in what is ultimately a critique of both positions:

The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises—he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, “My cosmos, right or wrong.” He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.

Writing in the early 20th century, Chesterton sees the pessimist as the ceaseless critic and complainer, whereas for him the optimist is too satisfied with how things are. In contrast, in Tomorrowland, Casey the optimist wants to “fix” what is wrong today, because things can always be made better for tomorrow. As the film’s title hints, Tomorrowland pivots the dichotomy away from views of the present world and towards views of the future. In the film, one perspective is hopeful about that future, the other isn’t.

The question is, then, where does one place hope? In what does one hope? Chesterton develops his critique of both positions, while also rejecting “the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise,” which he decries as a resolution that froze his own epoch (the fin de siècle and early 20th century before WWI). For those unfamiliar with Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy outlines the development of Chesterton’s mature worldview, and how that came to align with Christianity. A champion of Christian paradox, Chesterton argues, “We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.” For Chesterton, the resolution is the paradoxical melding of both extremes, not complacency or mild discontent. In contrast, Tomorrowland embraces one extreme, rejecting pessimism in favour of optimism.     

This is where Tomorrowland gets it wrong, in my opinion. First, it places too much hope in techno-utopianism (which is arguably the present-day religion of Silicon Valley). Second, it gives too little credence to the criticisms and complaints of the pessimist.

Walt Disney was a well known futurist. The land beneath what is now Walt Disney World Resort was originally conceived by Disney to be a planned community known as EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). After his death, the idea lived on in the form of Epcot, the theme park at Disney World dedicated to human achievement, technological innovation, and international community. Disney’s futurist and tech interests are evident in other areas of the Disney empire, from the aforementioned Tomorrowland park, to his WWII propaganda feature Victory Through Air Power (1943), to all those Disney informational shorts, such as “Magic Highway U.S.A.” (1958). (On a tangential note: It makes sense that John Slattery’s Howard Stark, Tony’s father, would resemble Walt Disney in Iron Man 2.) Thus, it’s unsurprising that the film’s story begins (after the initial framing device) at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, remembered today for its optimistic and extensive showcase of mid-20th-century technology and consumer products. These scenes in the film even feature the It’s a Small World ride, which Disney designed for the World’s Fair and afterwards relocated to his theme parks.

Lindelof and Bird have stated that they wanted to make a movie about the lost optimism of the Space Age and the hopeful vision of the future offered by such events as the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Tomorrowland the film is notable for its purity of vision, but the brightness of its fond view obscures the darker elements. Tomorrowland, it turns out, is an utopian community build in an alternate dimension, where dreamers and inventors can work together without the hindrances and limitations of government regulation and oversight. Sounds kind of like the dream of every tech company! When the film talks about all the geniuses, it’s notable that the film only mentions artists and scientists—in other words, the two areas that Disney the man and his company, both obsessed with standards of artistic quality and innovative technology, require. According to the film, the secret society that created Tomorrowland was founded by Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison. The idea that Tesla and Edison would work together is definitely utopian, and Edison, like many of the tech and entertainment companies of today, was well known for trampling his competition (admittedly, the film does briefly acknowledge that Edison wasn’t the nicest guy). Overall, the film trusts in the self-guidance of “great” individuals to an almost Randian extent.

The film’s blinkered view is obvious. After all, to return to my earlier point, the film doesn’t give any credit to the pessimist view. The main pessimistic character is George Clooney’s grizzled inventor, Frank Walker. He starts as a plucky child inventor (in the scenes set in 1964) who, through sheer gumption, makes his way into Tomorrowland, where he falls for a precocious girl with a British accent, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who turns out to be an android. When Frank’s affections for the girl crumble at the discovery that she’s a robot, his plucky optimism turns to bitterness. Thus, in the film, pessimism is foremost a product of personal disappointment. It reflects a (wrong) state of mind. This theme is further supported by the eventual revelation that the world’s pessimism is being encouraged by broadcasts coming from Tomorrowland. The original intention was to send out messages alerting humanity to the catastrophe that is inevitable unless we change our ways, but instead the broadcast conditioned people to think dark thoughts about the future, feeding despair instead of hope. The big twist turns out to be the power of negative thinking.

Aren suggested to me that the broadcast functions as meta-commentary on the dour grittiness and relentless doom of 21st-century blockbusters. It’s an intriguing interpretation, but the subtext isn’t enough to win me over to Tomorrowland’s blinkered vision of human nature and achievement.

For even after events late in the film have revealed that the leader of Tomorrowland, Hugh Laurie’s David Nix, got things wrong about the broadcast and maybe even intended to destroy the world, the film largely refuses to acknowledge the dark side of “genius.” Even if we are meant to read Nix as a bad guy, a genius who oversteps his bounds, the character functions to deflect criticism away from the society of Tomorrowland and onto the one “bad apple”—to shift our attention away from the fact that Tomorrowland really has no bounds. Surely in this utopian community of geniuses, one man couldn’t be solely to blame? Was he acting entirely alone? After all this, the film’s ending still serves to reinforce the message that Tomorrowland is necessary, as Casey chooses not to expose the nefarious machinations of an overreaching elite, but rather to create a new generation of manipulators, er, dreamers.

If I want an inspiring paean to human potential, I’ll take Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, from 2014, which offers an insightful point of comparison to Tomorrowland. Nolan’s film’s optimistic view of what humans are capable of is set against a world that has rejected space travel not out of pessimism but out of necessity. The world has been ruined and generations need time to rebuild. As the film taps into Space Age promise, it counter-balances with thoughtful criticisms, such as John Lithgow’s point about a previous age when invention seemed unlimited but everyone wanted it all. Furthermore, the hero of Nolan’s film is not a genius, but a capable everyman and father, who is motivated more by familial devotion and love than grand ambitions about humanity’s destiny. The foil to McConaughey’s Cooper is, of course, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), who is said to be humanity’s best and brightest but turns out to be selfish and fearful, motivated by survival above all. Mann is the dark side of the great achievements and accomplishments of individualistic competition-based capitalism. Condemned by some as overly hopeful and thematically naive, Interstellar is actually thematically nuanced and complex in comparison to Tomorrowland.    

Tomorrowland offers no such counter-balances, nuances, or complexities. I have long cherished Brad Bird’s philosophy of art in Ratatouille, which states that not everyone can be a great artist, but that a great artist can come from anywhere, and I have also appreciated his message in The Incredibles that to count everyone as special is to make no one special. To me, those messages have always struck the right balance of democratic equality and elitist accomplishment. It’s too bad that his passion project comes across as an unbalanced panegyric to techno-utopianism.

Tomorrowland (2015, USA/Spain)

Directed by Brad Bird; screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird: starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, and Tim McGraw.