The original teaser for Tomorrowland shows a teenage girl collecting her personal items after being released from jail on bail. One of those items is a small pin that looks simultaneously like a letter T and a person flying through the air like a superhero. When she touches the pin, she is whisked instantly to the middle of a wheat field ripe for harvest. In the distance she can see a shining city. Letting go of the pin whisks her back to the concrete bunker-like processing room of the police station. She is bewildered.
Structurally and tonally, this scene is Tomorrowland in a nutshell (edited to save a few good visual gags for the theatrical release of the film). The film flits back and forth from the mundane—getting out on bail, a letter T, a concrete bunker—to the fantastic—dimension-hopping, a superhero, a wheat field and a shining city—in a somewhat bewildering and disorienting way. One scene will feature the characters driving down a nondescript road in a truck talking, or rather refusing to talk to one another. The next scene will feature high action brilliantly choreographed and creatively executed as only a trained animator like Brad Bird could conceive it; anything is possible, but the physics of the world still matter, the action is comprehensible, and he is always on the lookout for opportunities for physical humor and visual amusement.
Tomorrowland is a classically structured adventure film like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Star Wars movie, and the serials on which those films were based. Both Raiders and Star Wars are a lot more “talky” than movies we make today. Our contemporary adventure films feature credits-to-credits action scenes that only slow down long enough to set up the next action scene. They don’t feature whole scenes devoted to exposition and character development through dialogue. In most modern films, those things happen, if they happen at all, in the midst of frenetic activity. Joss Whedon’s Marvel films and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are the closest we get to the classic adventure structure today, but Whedon/Marvel intercuts “talky” scenes with action like when the Avengers are “reveling” as Ultron becomes self-aware (and based on interviews, Whedon had to fight to keep the ‘talky” scenes in the movie at all), and Interstellar’s “talky” scenes are almost universally (pun!) loathed. Tomorrowland may be about an attractive future, but it’s built upon a currently unpopular structure from the past. I loved it, but I typically love rhythmically varied films with big ideas at their hearts.
Tomorrowland’s “big idea” is also caught in the tension between two extremes. On one side, the film is soberingly realistic about the challenges facing the world today – environmental decline, poverty, famine, genocide, over-consumption, partisan bickering, extremism, rampant exploitation, fear-fueled war, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. On the other side, Tomorrowland is endearingly optimistic about the potential for positive change. It roots this optimism not in a progressive faith in tomorrow’s technology to save us, but in a nostalgic conservatism typical of the can-do 1950s when tomorrow’s good depended upon today’s human ingenuity and elbow grease in service of the world. Pursuing individual happiness leads to destruction. Tellingly, Tomorrowland’s heroes are not looking to save the world but to “fix it.” Like WALL•E before it, Tomorrowland is forward-looking and backwards-reaching in a way that is typically difficult for our partisan present to swallow.
I ate it up, and then I went back for seconds, because I believe Tomorrowland’s tension is truer to the way the Bible suggests the world will be made new. The kind of doom and gloom apocalyptic thought typical of American Christianity where God does everything and we just sit back and bide time is only in the Bible if you’re willing and able to leap textual buildings in a single bound. The Bible suggests and historic Christianity has confessed that cooperative effort between God and humanity in the work of fixing the world is the way the good end will come. Tomorrowland may not include the God-side of the equation, but it gets the human part right. For that I am grateful. As I’ve written many times, we can’t expect movies to do everything. At some point, we have to bear witness for the hope that we have in Christ.
Tomorrowland’s fields are ripe for harvest. Its shining city (on a hill? coming in the clouds?) is near enough to touch. The thinnest of veils separates that plain from ours. The veil has been torn. “God’s Kingdom is already among you.” God loved the world and saved it from destruction and for everlasting life. “Look!” God says, “I’m making all things new!” Do you see? Are you pitching in? Participate in the renewal, the remaking, the fixing of all things. And to God be the glory for kicking off the good work and seeing it through, for ever and ever. Amen.
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