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'Tomorrowland' (The Movie) And the Future of the Past

In science fiction, we have to stop looking backward for inspiration on how to look forward.

Walt Disney Pictures

About seven full minutes of “Tomorrowland” is worth your while, which is pretty rough for a film with a running time of two hours and 10 minutes.

The good bit was teased in an early trailer for the sci-fi film, which stars George Clooney and opened on Friday: A young woman named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) responds in a state of open-faced wonderment at a distant, futuristic city gleaming in the middle of a sea of golden wheat. In “Tomorrowland” — no relation to the excellent new collection of Steven Kotler’s essays by the same title — we get to follow Casey around the city for a few moments, and they are undeniably the best moments of the film: Teenagers rocket around the city on jetpacks as monorails whiz by on currents of air, and a teenage student assures her jittery parents that her student trip into deep outer space will be perfectly safe.

Those beautiful few minutes in “Tomorrowland” are an advertisement for two things at once. First, obviously, the whole sequence is a synergistic ad for Disney World’s theme park of the same name. Second, it represents the near-extinct optimistic brand of science-fiction daydreaming that the rest of “Tomorrowland” lectures us about. George Clooney’s effortless charm is wasted as a washed-up former boy genius who has apparently spent the last 50 years practicing his scowling techniques. Hugh Laurie, apparently threatened by Clooney’s attempts to out-scowl him, scowls five times as hard in response. And then they talk about what’s wrong with the audience.

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Every character in “Tomorrowland” lectures the audience about its lack of idealism at least once.

Minus the one brief sequence that demonstrates high-minded sci-fi adventure through director Brad Bird’s trademark assured widescreen kineticism, “Tomorrowland” is all about telling and not at all about showing. Why do audiences flock to dystopias and grim assessments of humanity’s doom, everyone involved in “Tomorrowland” wants to know, when they could be watching chipper, forward-thinking humanistic science fiction like Ray Bradbury and Gene Roddenberry used to make?

Well, the audience responds after sitting through the three or four different beginnings of the film, wading through several dozen scattered exposition dumps, and trying to find some narrative thrust in a movie that willfully doesn’t explain the villain’s motivation until the last 20 minutes, that sounds just great. If you could make a movie like that and show it to us, we’d love to watch it.

Dozens of film critics have written think pieces pitting the cynical hand-wringing of “Tomorrowland” against the energetic and inventive dystopia of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which came out last Friday. They’re right to do so: While “Tomorrowland” complains about the death of the human spirit through our post-apocalyptic obsession, 70-year-old director George Miller has made an unabashedly humanistic film about second chances in “Fury Road.”

But this is not just a tale of two movies, a pat compare-and-contrast exercise. What “Tomorrowland” demonstrates is something more than one normally excellent director’s first real total failure of a film. Instead, it’s the latest salvo in an ongoing backlash against dystopia.

This has been going on for a while now. No less an influential thinker than novelist Neal Stephenson recently published an anthology of positive science fiction, “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” in the hopes of inspiring a new generation of scientists to consider big, bold solutions to our modern problems, the way early sci-fi pulps paved the way for real-life NASA inventions. Everybody’s out searching for hope.

Listen, I’m as sick as zombie apocalypses as anyone. I’m exhausted by all the attempts to clog our most optimistic modern myths with grit and rage and howls into the void. Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” devolved my favorite fictional character, Superman, into a troglodytic murderer. And “Star Trek Into Darkness” — it must be noted, a film co-written by “Tomorrowland” co-writer (and “Lost” co-creator) Damon Lindelof — weighed down some of the 20th century’s most hopeful characters with an unnecessary (and, it must be said, fairly dated) post-9/11 worldview.

But let’s be honest: “Tomorrowland”’s longing for a hopeful future has absolutely nothing to do with looking forward and everything to do with looking back. The real culprit behind this moaning and complaining is nostalgia. And like most exercises in nostalgia, the time to which we’re trying to return never really existed in the first place.

You can’t lose your virginity twice. We can’t return to the sci-fi of rayguns and jetpacks and moral simplicity unless we acknowledge we’re making and enjoying works of retro-fiction, a throwback to a dead past. As great as Ray Bradbury’s works are — and oh, lord, Bradbury’s fiction is incredible — they are very much a product of their time and place, the America of the 1950s. It’s difficult to remember now that the description of billboards Bradbury wrote into “Fahrenheit 451” (“cars started rushing by so quickly they had to stretch the advertising out so it would last”) were written shortly before the national highway system, and therefore the concept of billboards, was created.

Those stories may have been set in the future, but they were really about documenting the time in which he lived. Bradbury’s Martian colonists were products of a homogenous, unselfconscious America. The stories still have great value today, but emulation should not be our goal.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I don’t live in the America of the 1950s. The Internet may be a cesspool at times, but I’m glad that everyone, regardless of race or class or religious belief (or lack thereof) has a megaphone and a platform. I’m glad that women are speaking up about the thousand little injustices they suffer every day, because it gives us an opportunity to change the system, to make things better.

It’s unpleasant to know about the human cost of American drone strikes, say, or the brutal history of colonialism, or the human rights violations that make Chinese-made products so cheap, but I would rather know about these things than not know about them. We can’t go back to innocent stories of space exploration, now that we know the real stories of what white Europeans did to indigenous people. We can’t plug our ears and shake our heads and relive our grandparents’ fantasies until the whole world goes away.

So, yes. We don’t need any more “Hunger Games” knockoffs, but that’s an aesthetic argument, and not a moral one. I think the idea of a “Walking Dead” spinoff show is frankly a bit much. But it’s easier for a multinational entertainment megaconglomerate to sell cynicism than optimism, so I suspect this dystopian trend isn’t going to end anytime soon.

The first thing that has to happen in science fiction, though, is we have to stop looking backward for inspiration on how to look forward. The real future — multicultural, inclusive, aware of injustice and striving for something better — looks brighter than anything the glamorous, mostly white cast of “Tomorrowland” can offer us.

Let’s tell each other stories about our future. Let’s stop trying to live up to the present as dreamed up by the past. Once we free our sci-fi from the heavy chains of nostalgia, we can start pointing the way to something better. Let’s turn our backs on “Tomorrowland.” That’s not where the future is.

Paul Constant has written about books, politics, nerd culture and film for The Progressive, Newsweek, The Utne Reader and alternative weeklies all over North America. Formerly the book review editor at The Seattle Stranger, he now works at Civic Ventures, a political strategy firm. Reach him @paulconstant.

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