Global annihilation. Epistemology. Belief. Hope for the future. No, we’re not talking about a Bible conference on eschatology. We’re talking about the latest summer blockbuster from Disney. Tomorrowland is certainly similar to most summer blockbusters. It has action, explosions, adventure, suspense, and all the other things you would expect. But it also has a defined, at times even heavy-handed, moral riptide that has been generating some unusual conversations.
I use moral somewhat loosely, however. This is the Disney version of morality. And it has almost nothing at all to do with religion, narrowly defined. Strangely enough, in a movie this preachy, there isn’t even a single mention of Christians. Or a religious believer of any kind, really. Even in the all-inclusive, ham-fisted, politically correct finale montage, not one religious person is included as a “dreamer.” I guess the brave new world of the dreamers is peculiarly free of religion. Or is it?
The Future: It Ain’t What it Used To Be
The movie begins rather haltingly with dueling narrators: one is the skeptical curmudgeon Frank Walker (George Clooney) and the other is hopeful dreamer Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). The movie plays out as an extended morality play pitting these two perspectives against one another: one of despair, the other of hope. Despair and hope are figured in the movie as a black and white wolf. Which one wins? Whichever one you feed. Which one wins in the movie? It’s made by Disney, so as you can imagine, the black wolf exited stage right limping and whimpering. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if it didn’t keep you wondering a little until the end.
But there’s one thing the movie never leaves in doubt: the world is set to end, and it’s our fault. The only question here is what we’re going to do about it. We can either give in to despair and let the world die, or we can refuse to believe the end is inevitable and start working toward a solution. Cue all the usual catchphrases: “You just need to believe.” “Don’t let your hope die.” “Trust your heart.” Blah blah Disney.
Don’t get me wrong. There is something refreshing in a movie that seems to have been made by true believers in a cause, even if that cause is not my own. There is a deadpan optimism running throughout the film that will be refreshing to viewers who have grown tired of our culture’s jaded negativity. But is a blind optimism better than a close-minded despair? That’s the rub.
Tomorrowland is a straight-faced resurrection of the rose-colored technophilic dream Disney has peddled since the Golden Age of scientific optimism.
Tomorrowland is a straight-faced resurrection of the rose-colored technophilic dream Disney has peddled since the Golden Age of scientific optimism—also known as the 50s. If you consider the source material for the movie—the Tomorrowland theme attraction which first opened in 1955—all of this makes sense. The Tomorrowland future was the sleek, clean, safe, flying-car utopia the Jetsons lived in. All that was necessary to get there? A hope in the humanist dream. A true belief in self-realization and progress. Nothing is impossible if the human will and imagination holds out. Just listen to Walt Disney’s vision of tomorrow. It would almost be laughable if it weren’t so tragically earnest:
Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements that will benefit our children and generations to come. The Tomorrowland attractions have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future.
If the last few decades have taught us anything, however, “the future” is not what it used to be. We look into the future and nearly all of us see some version of a dystopia. Why? Because the progressive dream of scientific salvation has failed to deliver. Instead of a peaceful, harmonious utopia free from the corruptions of ignorance and vice, technology has increasingly created additional moral quandaries well before it has succeeded in resolving the old ones. In fact, science never did resolve the old ones. Price of progress, we are told.
Consequently, most people have grown weary of the humanist program and wary of the humanist dream. Tomorrowland tries to get you to believe again. If only you would believe again, only then would your belief be vindicated by evidence. In other words, you don’t see the evidence correctly merely because you don’t believe correctly. Skepticism, the film-makers say, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They don’t seem to mind (or even mention) that belief is similarly circular.
Believe in Order to Understand
I hope you can see that understanding predicated on belief is a firmly religious idea. Augustine famously said, “I believe in order to understand.” Tomorrowland makes largely the same claim, though to decidedly different ends and on far less accommodating foundations. Tomorrowland wants you to believe in science and human reason. That’s a real problem. You see, science and reason are the epistemological foundations of humanism. And, when used as a foundation for how you can be sure of what you know, science and reason deny the permissibility and validity of belief. You shouldn’t need belief if everything you know is solely based on what you can see and think.
This is quite a conundrum for the humanist program. It is no longer reasonable. Its grand promises can no longer be trusted on the basis of evidence and history. So, on its own terms, it should be rejected. But don’t worry, Disney is here to save the day. It’s here to convince you that there is a measure of magic, wonder, and awe left in science. And that magic has not yet been extinguished. If only you would believe again.
One of the characters in the movie is an ageless “robot” named Athena (you know, the goddess of wisdom). She seems to represent some version of science. In the end of the movie, the skeptic Frank Walker has a bit of dialogue where he talks about how his view of Athena has changed over the course of his life. He was fooled into loving her as a kid until he realized Athena’s interest in him “wasn’t personal, it was just programming.” By the end of the movie, he has his personal feelings for Athena restored. Sure, she’s a cold, logical, unpredictable machine. But she sure has a heart. Frank says, “I used to think she was nothing more than ones and zeroes. But now I realize she was so much more.” So, what does that mean? You can believe and even love science and reason. They aren’t just cold hard facts. You might have thought that once. But realize that science has a heart. It’s … well … it’s almost like a person.
And with newly personified Science on its team, humanism is firmly reasserted as a religious alternative. Tomorrowland desperately wants you to confess your faith again in the humanist hope and reaffirm your religious commitment to the humanist program. Forgive me, but isn’t such blind faith the reason people abandoned religion for “science” in the first place? If such blind faith is necessary for humanism, what makes it any better than the religions it has rejected (and apparently replaced)? I would say science should only be trusted for scientific reasons—according to science. Which is why science has always been and always will be a flawed epistemological foundation—it can’t support itself without metaphysics after all.
Trying to Have it Both Ways
You can’t have it both ways, no matter how desperately Tomorrowland wishes this were not so. And the belief vs. science conundrum isn’t the only place Tomorrowland wants it both ways. The film-makers have made no secret about the fact that one of their intentions for this movie was to convince people to do something about climate change. In Tomorrowland, despair has set in because people believe the world will end, but refuse to do anything about it. The certainty that the world will end has robbed people of agency. Consider for a moment the audience Tomorrowland most specifically desires to address and correct: climate change deniers.
But that’s a problem isn’t it? Climate change deniers don’t believe the world will end. Their lack of action is not necessarily based on apathy concerning an inevitable reality. Climate change deniers actually deny the apocalyptic narrative altogether. In a way, they’re already hopeful that the world won’t end.
As much as the film-makers try—and oh, how they try—this movie can’t possibly change anyone’s mind.
In a sense, the people who are convinced that the world is ending—the people who have apparently given in to despair—are the people who agree with the film-makers. Which leads me to the worst problem with this movie: as much as the film-makers try—and oh, how they try—this movie can’t possibly change anyone’s mind. Here’s why.
If you are a climate change denier, contrary to the manifest hopes of these film-makers, you already believe yourself to be a hard-working optimist. You think things need to change as well. You believe that the negative media and the preachers of Armageddon need to be convinced otherwise. You will leave the theater affirmed that you are one of the dreamers. And you need to keep fighting.
If, on the other hand, you are an ardent believer in the imminent end of the world, you too consider yourself a real agent for change. You have faith in hope and change. I mean, you voted for hope and change twice. You trust that, with enough effort, the ignorant can have their eyes opened. You too will leave the theater galvanized to continue on your current path.
So, in the end, Tomorrowland will annoy a few people. But it won’t change anyone’s mind. I guess we couldn’t have expected much different from Disney. They really can’t afford to be all that divisive. They have always been purveyors of contentless optimism and belief to accommodate the maximum variety among core audience members. I even coined a name for Disney’s all-inclusive values: imitation value extracts—values without objects and without any restrictive content. Faith, hope, love … For Disney, those mean whatever you want them to mean. This is just good business.
We can all hope that perhaps eventually people will give up on the humanist dream. It has had enough decades and centuries to prove itself vain, but there will always be those who refuse to be convinced, no matter the evidence. Tragically, these people think we—you know, the incorrectly demarcated religious people—are the ones who are trapped in rosy ignorance. Bless their little bleeding hearts.
This movie feels genuine. It really does inspire the viewer to hope and dream. Hope in what? Dream for what? It won’t say exactly. It was designed to make you feel like you have had an authentic experience at the theater, but it does so without taking any real risks or demanding any real action.
So don’t be fooled. It’s not personal. It’s just programming.