Note: This article contains SPOILERS
Tomorrowland is a movie that has a lot it wants to say. You can tell, because the movie frequently makes time for characters to speechify about its themes practically to the camera. And you know what, I’m totally okay with that. It’s usually preferable for a film to employ more subtlety, but sometimes being blunt has its place. I like that Tomorrowland has big ideas on its mind and isn’t afraid to be blunt about them. I just wish that the end of the movie didn’t totally contradict these themes in frustrating and baffling ways.
The way I see it, there are two primary thematic threads running through Tomorrowland. The main one deals with the idea that our contemporary depictions of the future thrive on negativity and despair when instead we should be focussing on hope and optimism. This is the theme Brad Bird has discussed extensively in interviews, and it’s the one that gets the most speechifying in the film. This is what we’re supposed to be thinking about when we contrast Frank’s vision of the future in the bright, colorful setting of the 1964 World’s Fair to the future of Casey’s world in which NASA is demolishing an unused launch facility and her school teachers remind her on a daily basis how the world is doomed to destruction. This is the meaning of Casey’s story about the two wolves and is the point of David Nix’s big speech at the end of the film. Wallowing in destruction just perpetuates a vicious cycle of apathy and despair – the feeling that the future is already written and there’s nothing we can do to change it. This is an idea I can get behind. I do think Bird is missing the ways much of modern science fiction is about the inherently optimistic notion of overcoming oppression and reshaping the world into a better place, but Devin Faraci over at Birth.Movies.Death. already has an excellent piece on that idea, and all I’d be able to do is repeat him. Setting that aside, I fully agree with the idea that now more than ever, in the face of all of these overwhelming obstacles, we need to be broadcasting messages of optimism to the world.
That’s what makes Frank and Casey’s decision to blow up the Monitor so baffling. The Monitor, as you might recall, is the machine at the heart of Tomorrowland capable of glimpsing into the future. It’s a machine invented by Frank, but when it showed the world’s eminent destruction, it negated all the effort that went into making Tomorrowland a symbol of hope. The world is already doomed, so why bother trying to make it better?
When Casey arrives, though, she quickly figures out that the Monitor isn’t just predicting the future, but is actually broadcasting it. The idea that the world is doomed has permeated human society and thereby ensured its prediction will come true. Casey notes that it’s not unlike how the vision she glimpsed by seeing the pin filled her with hope. In fact we’ve even seen that optimism is, in a sense Casey’s super power, and that she’s the only one who has been able to affect the Monitor and lower the probability of the Earth’s destruction, even if just by a fraction of a percentage. Thematically, the ending of the movie comes down to a conflict between David Nix, a hopeless, cynical old man and Casey, a bright, optimistic young girl to determine whose message will be broadcast to the world.
So why is Casey totally sidelined during this conflict? Instead of having Casey use the Monitor to broadcast optimism to the world (metaphorically bringing in fresh faces to tell new kinds of science fiction stories), they resolve to blow the whole thing up. If we’re tracking with the film’s metaphors, it seems to be arguing that science fiction is inherently bad and must be destroyed to save the world, an idea that obviously contradicts with the rest of the film.
It’s possible that this was the result of studio interference; they wanted a big action setpiece at the end and they wanted their big star (George Clooney) to be more prominent, so they sidelined Casey and made things blow up (and gave us an intensely creepy moment where it genuinely appears as though Clooney is going to kiss a child). I’m absolutely willing to buy that, but there’s something else that complicates it: the film’s subtext.
I touched on this idea in my review, but underneath the speechifying and bluntness of the film’s major theme, there’s a (slightly) more subtle thematic through line and it crystallized for me in a conversation held in the “Blast From the Past” shop.
Brad Bird is well aware of the growing popularity of the objectivist reading of The Incredibles, he’s even commented on it a few times, so when he has the audio animatronic owner of a nostalgia shop describe Tomorrowland using the most plainly Randian phrasing possible, that’s not a mistake.
Tomorrowland was an objectivist utopia, a place where extraordinary people can escape the restrictions of governments and the needs of mundane people to achieve their own ideal of greatness. But Tomorrowland failed. Not only did it fail, but it failed specifically because they convinced themselves that “regular” people were destroying the world and then cancelled plans to let them in. When we finally get to Tomorrowland, how do they visually depict its failure? Not with crumbling buildings, not with evidence of some apocalyptic event, but with desolation. We as an audience feel Tomorrowland’s failure because there are no people there.
Let’s think about the animatronics for a moment. Throughout the movie, they are the main antagonistic force fighting against Casey, and they’re fighting her because they want to keep people out of Tomorrowland. They are literal products of the city fighting to maintain its objectivist exclusion even as the city is in disrepair. Not only that, but the AAs running the nostalgia shop, the ones who give the Atlas Shrugged sales pitch, are the first ones who are revealed to be murderous kill bots.
There is one good animatronic, though. Athena, the one who isn’t fighting to keep people out, but trying to bring people in. The only good animatronic is also the only one who rejects the objectivist ideal.
As for the human residents of Tomorrowland we meet, there’s David Nix, who has the opportunity to save humanity from destruction, but refuses to do so because he’s worried about the parasites ruining his city. Then there’s Frank, who created the machine that was used as an excuse to keep people out, but is now fighting alongside Athena to bring in someone new, someone who might be able to make the world a better place for everyone not just the special people.
All of this is a scathing critique and rejection of objectivism. The reason Tomorrowland failed, put simply, is because it embraced these Randian ideals. And yet when Frank and Casey overthrow the objectivist leadership, what do they do? They start sending out exclusive invites to special people. The same goddamn mistake that led to Tomorrowland’s failure in the first place. Not only do they NOT open Tomorrowland to the public, but they destroy the piece of machinery that would have allowed them to instantly spread hope and optimism throughout the world. In the end, they’ve committed to going forward with objectivist ideals, but under new management this time.
What is going on with this movie?!
Sure, you can infer that they intend to open Tomorrowland to the world at some later date, but so did the original members Plus Ultra, and look how that turned out. The fact is, after all the thematic work this movie does to refute objectivism, the ending of the movie – its culmination and final thematic statement – is embracing objectivism, thereby undoing all the work the movie did prior. This isn’t something you can easily write off as studio meddling because it echoes the weird non-committal objectivist themes in The Incredibles, but on a much larger scale.
The movie has other problems that I discussed in my review, but this is its fatal flaw. As much as I like this film’s heart and ambition, I cannot understand nor stand behind the ways this movie refutes its own themes. I like Brad Bird a lot, and I think he’s made at least two bonafide masterpieces, but I’m at a loss to understand how he could undermine his film’s own themes in such a profound way.