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Inside 'Tomorrowland'
Inside ‘Tomorrowland’

Tomorrow sucks. That, in a nutshell, seems to be the assessment of many film reviewers and even the box office receipts when it comes to the futuristic Disney release, Tomorrowland.

TomorrowlandlogoExpected to pull in at least $50 million over the long Memorial Day weekend to justify its $180 million price tag, Tomorrowland barely eked out $42 million. That led to such performance-deflating adjectives as Variety’s “stumbles,” Forbes’ “failure,” or the Wall Street Journal’s “flops.” Reviewers have been damning, leading to a middling 49% Rotten Tomatoes rating right after the holiday weekend, with a relatively common criticism that the tale is “ham-handed and preachy” in its celebration of the power of optimism.

Screw the critics. We need more science-fiction films like Tomorrowland, not fewer. And far less rejection of an upbeat tone about the potential of human imagination when married with technology.

Tomorrowland, as a film, does have its issues. First and foremost was a marketing campaign that gave viewers no idea what the movie was actually about, beyond a magical pin that appears to transport a troubled-yet-brilliant teen girl to a futuristic land with soaring spires and jet packs reminiscent of Golden Age science fiction to which only George Clooney knows the secret.

What the previews didn’t make clear was that “A Walt Disney Pictures” movie is retro code for “a classic Walt Disney Pictures young adult movie with a plucky teen protagonist and big-name actors in the adult roles.” So, what the previews didn’t indicate is that Tomorrowland was not developed for Mad Max-flocking adults or Pixar-loving young kids (though each may get something out of it). It’s for a traditional YA audience.

A better title
A better Tom Cruise title

(Science fiction is no stranger to muddled marketing: the smart, thrilling Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow suffered from both an awful title and bad promotion, at least making up a bit for the former when its tagline – Live. Die. Repeat. – became more prominent than its original lame name in the DVD and streaming release.)

Cluelessness about Tomorrowland being a YA film might explain why post-weekend estimates also pegged 61% of its ticket buyers as adults. Of course we’re going to find overt messages in movies ham-handed. We are the ones used to delivering those types of messages to young adults, not listening to them. That’s the first filter reviewers should apply: Does the film do what its creators intended for it to do, for its audience?

But that evaluation mismatch aside, there is a compelling reason Tomorrowland should portend a trend, and not be a forgotten one-off experiment at optimism about fictional futures.

Preparing to enter the "mighty microscope"
Preparing to enter Inner Space’s “mighty microscope”

To understand Tomorrowland, it helps to understand Disneyland and how our view of the future – and even Tomorrowland – shifted. When the Anaheim Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland, as one of the four themed areas of the park, was supposed to represent how the future might turn out, due to advances in science, engineering and technology. It was blindingly (some may say blindly) optimistic in its early decades, from the plastic House of the Future, to the emission-free PeopleMover, to the household-inventions-over-the-ages Carousel of Progress. (This last debuted, before being moved to Disneyland, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, a setting of Tomorrowland and eerily similar in architecture to the 1962 World’s Fair Pacific Science Center in Seattle – which, appropriately, is where I saw the movie.)

Even Disneyland’s fantastical Adventure Thru Inner Space, in which visitors were “miniaturized” as their ride vehicle passed through a “mighty microscope,” had as its objective exploring molecules and atoms contained with a single snowflake.

The cusp of Tomorrowland's transition to fantasy
The cusp of Tomorrowland’s transition to fantasy

But all that began to change in 1987, dramatically, with the opening of Star Tours. Star Tours was the first blatantly non-real-future-based attraction in Tomorrowland, science having been replaced as a foundation by George Lucas’ fictional Star Wars universe. It was fantasy with the trappings of technology, and none of the underlying extrapolative substance.

It was (and is), I recall from covering its opening, a hell of a ride. But a lead audio-animatronic engineer whom I interviewed at the time acknowledged that Star Tours represented an inflection point – at the same time as he proudly described a technology exchange agreement Disney had with the University of Utah to swap details of how to make audio-animatronic limbs move realistically for Disney’s expertise in making fake skin and hair appear lifelike.

Tomorrowland’s problem seemed to be that keeping up with true science and engineering (and projecting from that in entertaining and understandable ways) led to attractions being rapidly outdated by the very pace of scientific discovery. Who would ever need to update the scientific underpinnings of Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters?

Yet it’s that very projectable imagination that helped get Disneyland-going kids fascinated by what we now call STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) disciplines, a direction that’s mostly been abandoned for fictional worlds that are also intensely fun to play in, but can’t logically be created in real life.

Unstated in Tomorrowland itself, but revealed in interviews and articles in advance of its release, is that the movie’s Tomorrowland is also a projectable what-if: What if Walt Disney’s own visions of Tomorrowland, and original plans for Disney World’s EPCOT to be a true Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, had been made real?

That’s why we need more Tomorrowlands. We need more optimistic visions of the future, more firmly grounded in science, to provide something to reach for rather than just play in. Yes, we still want the Mad Maxs and other dystopian heroes’ quests for variety and contrast. They shouldn’t be the only, or largely dominant, popular entertainment visions.

Tomorrowland is not a perfect movie, especially for adults. The story is a bit too straightforward and some of the most fascinating concepts (Edison, Verne, Tesla and Eiffel – together?) are never satisfyingly explored. Yet the acting is quite good, the look nicely retro futuristic, and Space Mountain gets to make a few cameos.

But the most optimistic nod comes at the very tail of the end credits. “Filmed on location in …” it reads, listing several prominent cities, “… and Tomorrowland.”

My inner 10-year-old can only hope.

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