Looking back at “Tomorrowland” – Was Disney Studios’ 2015 epic ahead of its time?

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV

Image Copyright Disney

Disney’s movie Tomorrowland, which hit theaters on May 22, 2015, centered on the struggle for just a few people to make a discernable difference in the future. Not your traditional summer blockbuster, the film began and ended with a simple message: Don’t give in to fear.

Recently, none other than The Villiage Voice posted a story entitled, “Apocalypse Numb: It’s the end of the world as we know it — and I feel tired.”

In the piece, reviewer Bilge Ebiri wrote:

I was about two-thirds of the way through Avengers: Infinity War when I realized just how tired I was. Not “tired” as in bored, but “tired” as in exhausted, depleted — maybe even a little depressed. That’s not, for the most part, a qualitative assessment of the movie — for the record, I found it significantly more engaging than the last Avengers film but not nearly as entertaining as the first. Rather, it’s a response to the constant, bludgeoning promise of repeated apocalyptic devastation.

As a moviegoer, I am tired too.

I have been cowed via the consistent browbeating from Hollywood’s fascination with the end of days. However, when that onslaught becomes too much to bear — or when too many of my heroes vanish at the whim of a demigod — I turn to tomorrow.

Better yet, I turn on Tomorrowland.

The Brad Bird (director) and Damon Lindelof (writer)-helmed opus had a simple premise [as described by IMDB]: “Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.”

However, Tomorrowland was no simple film…

“Tomorrowland is a highly original, occasionally even visionary piece of sci-fi filmmaking, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie,” wrote Slate’s Dana Stevens, and a whole lot of folks agreed. With a 50% (rotten) review score on Rotton Tomatoes and a 49% audience rating, the film underperformed at the box office and faded into obscurity.

Or did it?

Four years ago, two friends started TomorrowlandTimes.com, a site dedicated to “unofficial source for the latest news, rumors, viral marketing, and interviews on the upcoming Disney family action-adventure movie, Tomorrowland!” I’ve been a loyal follower of their @TheTomorrowTime Twitter feed, and I was thrilled to connect with Nick to get his take on the legacy of the film.

Tomorrowland Times was forged out of ‘The Optimist,’ an immersive alternate reality game produced by Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development which took place in the narrative world of the (yet unshot) film, two years before its release,” he explained of the game [ covered extensively by ITM on YouTube ]. “My co-pilot Hastin and I met playing that game during its six-week run in Summer 2013. When it was finally revealed the game tied into the movie (a fact not made immediately apparent), we wanted to have a place for Optimists to speculate and anticipate the film’s release.

“In the ensuing years, we’ve attempted to keep the flame burning by reporting on the fan community’s emerging cult status,” he said.

The legacy and meaning of any film — even a wildly successful film — is often difficult to place. But with a movie whose reception was so mixed, I was glad to solicit an expert.

“Big question,” said Nick. “I spent a hearty sixteen minutes on YouTube breaking down exactly why I think Tomorrowland is a brilliant movie, and how it has become a functioning mythology in my life.

Tomorrowland is a challenging film that asks a compelling question: When the structures of yesterday fail us, what of today will carry us into tomorrow?”

The film is, in fact, built on nostalgia, what with the beginning of the movie finding its place and pace during the 1964 Worlds Fair, with “A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” the theme from Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, and the attraction “It’s a Small World” providing a soundtrack and setting for young Frank Walker’s adventure.

“Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing,” explained Nick. “After Frank [George Clooney’s character] is cast out of the city of the future, he escapes into his past. People failed him, so he turns to the raw creation of technology.

“[Frank’s] dovetailing character arc with Casey [Britt Robertson], a renegade optimist focused only on destroying that which inhibits progress with no eye toward actual creation, takes them both on a shared journey to an ideological reconciliation of the framing question: take inspiration from the past without succumbing to that which caused past failures.

“An ode to the scientific method, embracing failure itself as a necessary process of creation,” he said.

An inherent optimism was clearly in the movie’s DNA.

Named, of course, after the embodiment of Walt Disney’s futurism — Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in Anaheim — the film’s premise tugged at the heartstrings of anyone who watched “Uncle Walt” (or even Michael Eisner) on Sunday nights.

“People had a very positive idea about the future, even though there were bad things going on in the world,” Bird said to the LA Times. “But there was a sense we could overcome them. And yet now we act like we’re passengers on a bus with no say in where it’s going, with no realization that we collectively write the future every day and can make it so much better than it otherwise would be.

“We have to shut out that mentality, those voices that are scared and don’t know anything. And we have to bring in new ideas. Or we’ll end up with nothing left.

How often do all of us wish we’d retained a measure of the inherent optimism we once felt while watching Disney’s “Man in Space” or the PBS program “3-2-1 Contact” or even “merely” seeing a shuttle lift off from the very launch pads that Casey tries to save in Tomorrowland? How often does the act of putting on the news, check our Twitter feed, or watching a movie feel like a parody of Frank’s opening speech or an actual viewing of ToxiCosmos 3: Nowhere to Go (a fictional film advertised in Tomorrowland)?

In fact, much of the critique of Tomorrowland lay in the fact that the first chapters of the flick are precisely what most viewers expected (wanted?) when they sat down in cineplexes, i.e., a view of “tomorrow” which is much different than the world they see out their window today.

And it was the juxtaposition of that gleaming future (symbolized by Athena — played by Raffey Cassidy — and the new realm she represents) and the philosophical and physical conflict that takes place in the failed Tomorrowland (embodied by the villain, Nix, played by Hugh Laurie) which left audiences confused.

“People ask, ‘Why did you spend so much time in a car when you could have been in Tomorrowland?’ But the movie was always intended to be a road movie, and its title seemed to suggest, to some people, that the whole movie was going to take place in Tomorrowland,” said Bird to Oh My Disney in October 2015. “But just running around Tomorrowland is not a movie.

“There has to be a conflict… We set out to make a fable or a fairy tale about what happened to the positive view of the future and how can we get it back and pursue that idea.

“For better or worse, we did.”

Speaking to Collider in 2017, Lindelof, agreed, adding:

“We were trying to say something about the future and about the way people think about the future that tapped into Walt Disney’s fundamental idea back in the 1950s that the future was bright, and that’s a much harder idea to get across these days because we have a fixation with the apocalypse. It feels like we keep making these movies where the future isn’t bright and Tomorrowland was gonna try to thread that needle. I still celebrate the ambition of the movie and I certainly celebrate Disney’s big swing on letting us make it.”

Three years later, it’s the conflict, and the call to overcome fear — particularly a fear of the future — which remain the essential traits of the movie.

“The film has proven to be disturbingly prescient — particularly with its isolationist villain — which, for me, is a hallmark of great science fiction,” continued Nick from Tomorrowland Times. “I can tell you the message that the film spoke to me, based solely on the content of its cinematic ‘text.’

‘The final image of the film is the pure metaphorical imagery of myth,” he added. “From Casey’s isolation, alone in the field of wheat, through her shared journey, we’ve arrived at an ideological evolution that places us all in the field together.

“It’s not enough for us to be dreamers,” he said. “We’ve got to dream together.”

Which, in a way, brings us right back to the message behind Tomorrowland the film, and its progenitor, “Tomorrowland” in the Disney parks.

“Sometimes a piece of art comes into your life, and it’s exactly what you need, right when you need it,” said Nick when asked about the movie’s impact on his own life. “There are times it feels as if Tomorrowland was made just for me.

“I’m so grateful that Disney took the risk to make it a reality… [and] I can’t responsibly say what Walt would have thought, but I like to think Tomorrowland is ambitious ways that would have made him proud.

“At the very least, this movie inspires me in the same way he did,” he said.

For me, the real worth of Tomorrowland lay in its impact on my oldest son, Jack.

Just five at the time, it was the first “big boy” movie he and I attended, and it — and Disney movies in general — became a source of camaraderie. The film replicated the joy, both of discovery and adventure, I felt while, at Jack’s age, I watched already-classic Disney films like Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, Tron, and The Black Hole at the annual summertime film series at the local library; or when I turned on “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Unfortunately, some of those programs and pieces — seminal to my development — now seem dated, slow, and sometimes embarrassingly out of step with modern audiences (and my own little boys).

But here was Tomorrowland, centered on the struggle to make a  difference; a film about the responsible use of technology and natural resources. Yes, there were dire consequences should the group fail, but in the end, it’s a movie — a Disney-made summer blockbuster — which began and ended with a message that unequivocally stated, “Feed the right wolf…”

For that, and for giving Jack and I a moment that no critique or pessimism can ever take away, I thank Bird, Lindelof and the cast and crew of Tomorrowland. And this year, three years out from its debut on May 22, 2015, my family and I will take the time to dream.

8 Comments

  1. Jay

    I completely agree. I actually just watched Tomorrowland again last week. It’s pure optimism, and it’s something we need right now. I hope more people get inspired by it, it certainly inspires me.

  2. Miles Archer

    Thought provoking article, thanks for posting. Tomorrowland was an intriguing and frustrating movie from my perspective. The “optimism” often attributed to Walt Disney is, in my opinion, often misunderstood. Seen in the larger context of a large publicly traded media conglomerate whose corporate culture and values today share less and less in common with it’s founders (including Roy Disney as co-founder), it’s understandable that the current version of Walt put forth by the company has been edited and reshaped to fit modern popular culture. To be sure, he was a flawed human being as we all are, but he had exceptional talents and abilities and he is worth remembering for what he was and not for what we wished he was.

    In my opinion, the truth about Walt Disney is that he was far closer to Ray Bradbury’s pragmatic description of him (i.e. an “optimal behavorist”) than the version of him put forward by the company and by Disney-enthusiasts today. The Worlds Fair & E.P.C.O.T. projects were not attempts at innovating for the sake of creating a science-centric Utopian society of perfect people with perfect intentions, they were extensions of Walt’s often stated belief in the concepts of liberty, the free exchange of ideas, and of free enterprise.

    These are values not shared by Mr. Iger and The Walt Disney Company as it exists today as evidenced by their continued investment in the Chinese government. There is no way to square the Walt Disney that appeared in the E.P.C.O.T film shortly before his death in 1966 expressing his hope that it would be a “showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system…” and the company he co-founded making it possible for a govenment ,who is the antithesis of freedom, to profit from Shanghai Disneyland and the Disney brand. It’s probably not that useful to speculate about what he would approve of and what he wouldn’t in a modern context, but is there any doubt how he would come down on a Disney park built in a Communist country? It isn’t optimism driving that decision, but cynicism.

    The horrors and challenges of this world aren’t solved by well-intentioned dreamers using the scientific method, and this is why the message of Tomorrowland came across as hollow and didn’t connect with audiences. One of Walt Disney’s greatest achievements was his consistent successful leveraging of American free enterprise to make his ideas a reality. ABC bankrolled Disneyland, G.E. & Ford made the World’s Fair exhibitions possible, and the plans for E.P.C.O.T. contained an entire industrial park which would have acted as the engine fueling the city’s growth and sustainability.

    It isn’t fear of the future that stops us from building a Tomorrowland but rather a cultural fear of freedom itself.

    “Once a man has tasted freedom he will never be content to be a slave. That is why I believe that this frightfulness we see everywhere today is only temporary. Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life. All men will want to be free and share our way of life. There must be so much that I should have said, but haven’t. What I will say now is just what most of us are probably thinking every day. I thank God and America for the right to live and raise my family under the flag of tolerance, democracy and freedom.” – Walt Disney, 1941-03-01

    Thanks again for posting.

  3. TimP

    Tomorrowland was about “apocalyptic devastation” that happened to the real world, whereas Avengers Infinity War was about an apocalypse in a comic book world that will likely be reversed by next year when Guardians and Spiderman will soon be filming their sequels. Movies that show the apocalypse is not always tiring. Tomorrowland was just a bad movie and nothing will make me watch that mess again.

  4. Mario

    I have to agree. Tomorrowland has certainly made an impact on my life the first time I saw it in theaters the summer of 2015. Despite how people thought of the movie, both critics and moviegoers alike, I thought the movie was a masterpiece and was beautifully crafted. I feel like this movie is really underappreciated and deserves more attention especially since we live in a world that needs these types of messages to help dreamers and innovators change the world for the good of everyone and inspire new generations of people to do the same. Perhaps one of my other favorite things asside from the actual reimagining of Tomorrowland’s appearence is how historic figures and events such as the 1964 World’s Fair and people such as Walt Disney, Eiffel,Tesla, Edison, Eirhart, Verne, and so many others were all woven into the doings of the futuristic society of the Plus Ultra. But the best part about this fascinating and intriguing movie is the important message it sends forth to the audience: Optimism is the best way to make the world we live in a better place, to continue to dream big, and to always do what is good.

  5. Rich Kostner

    I thoroughly loved this film! From beginning to end. However, I feel it just wasn’t marketed correctly. It’s like the marketing was based for another movie. Had more people known what the movie really was about, I think it would have been more successful. Performances were all top notch and I especially loved the “Small World” ride and added bonus if wearing the right pin! I did not understand, though, why Walt Disney was not mentioned in a post credit about being a true innovator. The music was incredible! Perfect scoring for the ending scene.

  6. Matt

    Great article.

  7. Tomorrowland is confused.It had to overcome a preconceived prejudice of just being some other Disney subject park promotional movie however in preference to making human beings swallow their premature phrases a la Guardians of the Galaxy it delivered a weak script, uneven pacing, heavy exceeded moralising and a pretty underwhelming finale.

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