Saturday, May 30, 2015

You Can Kiss My Ass, Tomorrowland

I’m not seeing the movie Tomorrowland any time soon. The seemingly earnest and gentle movie turned me against it pretty early, with a trailer lauding the great minds of science history. Einstein! Edison! Walt…Disney. This is a Disney production of course, and I’ve always found that company’s self-aggrandizing, disingenuous self-mythologizing really irksome. In theory, that would have been the end of things. Disney’s Disney hagiography is nothing new, but I would have rolled my eyes and moved on. After all, Saving Mr. Banks rewrote history so embittered author P.L. Travers achieves emotional catharsis under the beatific watch of wise and kindly Uncle Walt, instead of being someone who was pissed off and didn’t want dancing penguins in the adaptation of her work, and I didn’t rant too much about that. It’s a movie that should have just passed me by, even if I have much more of an affinity for science fiction than I do for mid-century quasi-historical retcons. But then the movie came out, and the story became clear.
            Then, I got pissed.

            I’m not seeing Tomorrowland any time soon. Since I’m not a professional critic, I’m really not under any obligation to, but I’ve read about what’s in it, including any spoiler-space I could find, sufficient to feel confident in all the things I want to say. Some I know have praised the movie for its admonishment to embrace of optimism, but me, I don’t think there’s anything more cynical than a multi-billion dollar shambling mound of a company selling us on embracing optimism. So I’m not paying for it directly. Particularly given how we are admonished to embrace optimism.
            The movie exhorts us to stop being a bunch of glower-faces and Deborah D. Downers, give up on our negative sci-fi dystopias, and embrace the golly-gosh-gee-wiz optimism of the sci-fi in the 50s and 60s, because all that negativity makes us fear the future and keeps us from achieving the promised golden age.
            Even if this weren’t being sold to us by Disney, which notably has no big dystopia franchises, this would be some old man baby boomer back-in-my-day horseshit.
            There are a lot of outlets on the internet that have had a lot of perspectives on the particular nature of this horseshit—its ahistoricity, the inequality of American society in that era, how much of that Space Age era sci-fi comes off generously as uncomfortably Futurist, less generously as alarmingly fascist, and so on. My issue is that the concept is disingenuous and damaging. The Space Age wonderment at the wonders of wonderful tech contributed to the atmosphere that led to the proliferation of dystopias and post-apocalypses, and going back to that spirit will not help us solve the issues that led to that proliferation.
            I’ll agree with the movie in this regard—dystopia and apocalypse are about fear. When I was young, the hellscapes of Mad Max, Blade Runner, and The Terminator resonated because their worlds frightened us—a gift of Reagan, I’d say, whose deification is funny to me, because his main accomplishment I remember is convincing me I’d either die in a nuclear fire or live in the aftermath to become a hardened Kyle Reese myself. And the appeal and resonance of those sorts of movies and stories hasn’t dwindled, because they only change to the Doomsday Clock (first started in 1947, by the way, before Tomorrowland’s hagiophilic era) is what is moving us to midnight. We’re less concerned with nuclear annihilation today, but that doesn’t mean environmental degradation and class inequality, fears best displayed in both Mad Max: Fury Road and Snowpiercer, don’t weigh as heavily on us.
            And there is what I see as among the sick jokes of Tomorrowland’s finger-wagging—the Camelot Era World of Tomorrow stuff the movie so wishes we’d return to is a contributor to those issues.
            Here’s where I should note something. While everything I’ve read and listened to regarding Tomorrowland’s idolatry is described as being directed toward sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s, none of it sounds like it’s actually about the sci-fi of that era as I experienced it. At the same time I was transfixed by Max and Reese, I read Asimov’s Robot novels (1950 to 1953 mainly), which are not suffused with starry-eyed hope of our glorious tomorrow, Dune (1965) which shows a profound worry about our relationship with the environment, and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which is a formative dystopia. It seems to me that what the movie worships is not the sci-fi of the day, but rather the covers, and fantastical propaganda filmstrips that are more relevant today as fodder for Simpsons jokes than actual inspiration to the human spirit, and of course The Jetsons. And let’s not forget that the ultimate symbol of Space Age utopianism, Star Trek, posits we don’t achieve the future paradise where there is no money, a white man can kiss a black woman without fear, and even a Russian can be trusted with a military post, only after a genocidal war and a nuclear Armageddon, nor that one of the most iconic lines of sci-fi cinema of the age is “You maniacs! You blew it up!”
            Basically, it seems the movie idolizes the facile sci-fi that promised an array of products designed to make our lives easier. Buy these products and live in the future. It was a facet of a growing rapacious consumer culture, whose thoughtless consumerism damaged our planet in ways we are only just starting to understand, and enriched and continues to enrich the very few at the cost of the very many—the very concerns most of our dystopias and post-apocalypses grapple with.
            Another sick joke is this: The World of Tomorrow happened. Yeah, yeah, we don’t have jet packs or flying cars or whatever twee adolescent bullshit is demanded, but you can’t tell me that even my modest Honda Element isn’t closer to a space ship than it is to the Edsel Pacer. I walk around all day with a supercomputer in my pocket, which I’ve used to communicate across the globe, navigate across the country, and access the full breadth and depth of human knowledge. And it was probably made in a factory under conditions perilously close to slave labor (much like all Disney merchandise bearing the label “Made in China”). It tracks my every movement and monitors my behavior, information that several corporations keep for their own purposes, including occasionally selling it to other corporations or just handing it all over to law enforcement. We reached the World of Tomorrow, and guess what? It turned out to be a dystopia.
            Yesteryear’s technophilia is not only part of our problems, it plays a role in keeping us from finding any solutions. As important as clean technologies are, the continued assumption that some smart person somewhere will invent some techy tech that will solve all our problems, and in the meantime we don’t need to change our lifestyles at all is a mindset that persists and prevents us from taking action, and is one that the movie doesn’t seem to critique at all—unlike Snowpiercer, the sort of movie that’s supposedly dragging us back, which posits relying on a magic techy tech cure for our ills may lead to even worse disasters. Tomorrowland doesn’t entreat to hope, it smarmily suggests you bury your head in the sand and keep buying.
            So kiss my ass, Tomorrowland. I see right through your crypto-Randian smarm.

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