Tomorrow ain’t what it used to be: A discussion of the humanist themes in Disney’s Tomorrowland

Disappointment in Tomorrow

Listen, I didn’t expect much from Disney’s Tomorrowland other than it just being a fun movie. Unfortunately I can’t say that it was. It had fun moments, fun characters, and a fun premise, but the movie itself wasn’t that fun. How is that? I think I can sum it up in a few issues:

– Plot: the plot was weak, and it took almost 30 minutes to establish what was going on what the stakes were. There was also a huge error in logic of the whole thing that I’ll discuss later.

– The title/setting: only about 20 minutes of the film actually takes place in Tomorrow land, the titular location. The rest is spent in several car rides and a few action scenes as well as arguments between the three protagonists.

– The weirdness: Ok, having a little robot girl confess her love to a guy in his 50s as she “dies” is strange. It doesn’t matter if the character is actually 50 years old, we all know that the actress is 10 and it’s weird. Also, she’s a robot, we all just saw age of Ultron (another Disney property); robots can’t really die unless the Vision hacks their programming, causing them to be unable to upload their conscientiousness to the internet. (if you don’t understand that, what Rock are you living under?)

– the message. Like the final act of Atlas Shrugged, the film reads like a manifesto for humanism rather than a fun family film. It comes off preachy, which honestly is a comfort to me – until now I thought Christians were the only ones this bad at subtly embedding a message in a film. Many Disney films have a message to them, but the content of this film’s message is the biggest disappointment, and that’s where I’d like to spend the rest of the discussion

The Plot

The story of Tomorrowland is about a utopian city in an alternate dimension that was discovered/created by Tesla, Edison, Eiffel, and Jules Vern. (One of these things is not like the other…) The current governor of Tomorrowland is named Nix (played by the incredible Hugh Laurie) and despite the fact that apparently Tomorrowland was created in 1800s, it wasn’t beginning to be open to the public until the 1950s when a little robot girl named Athena was supposed to start recruiting geniuses to come to Tomorrowland and make the perfect society where they can just make sweet, sweet science all day long. Somehow this society has bypassed politics and bureaucracy – which apparently are the only things keeping us from developing faster-than-light space travel, immortality, and jet packs. (Not, you know, physics, and laws of nature)

Side note here: this is very similar to both the plots of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and 2k Games’ BioShock which was heavily influenced by the former. In Bioshock, when a group of scientists are given free rain to do whatever they’d like in a secret, highly-advanced underwater city, the results were horrifying. I frankly think this is a far more realistic picture of this scenario if it were played out in real-life since real-life humans are fundamentally selfish and flawed.

The “T” pin pictured at the top of this entry, and featured heavily in the previews, was, at one time, intended to be a special invitation to Tomorrowland. Each pin is coded to a particular person’s DNA and it only works for that person. Athena (little, British, kung-fu, robot girl) was supposed to search out people who fit the profile of Tomorrowland; creative, intelligent, people. Only she was never allowed to complete her function because a young boy who would grow up to be George Clooney created a machine that could see the future and it predicted the end of the world, which for some reason made Nix exile George Clooney and destroy the pins, stopping people from getting invited because Nix believed that the people of earth weren’t worth saving since they were soon going to bring about the end of their own world. As such Tomorrowland is actually mostly unpopulated.

The first huge error in logic here is obvious: why would knowing the date of the end of the world stop Nix from recruiting geniuses, allowing Tomorrowland to fall into disrepair? Even if he believes that the pending end of the world is going to be the fault of its occupants, why would he stop bringing the world’s best and brightest to Tomorrowland instead of continuing to use it a cosmic bomb shelter for those who are smart enough to help Tomorrowland? Even someone as heartlessly elitist as Ayn Rand recognized the value in gathering up the exceptional people into their own, hidden society in her magnum opus. Regarding governor Nix, for the leader of the smart people – he’s not that smart.

Also, why did their adorable recruitment robot need to be programmed for advanced hand to hand combat? And why is she apparently way better at it than any other subsequent robot they made, even the robots made for the express purpose of security and enforcement?

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Secular Humanism

Disney morals are often secularized versions of Biblical principals, that’s why so many people can identify with them. Christians like them because they see scriptural truths. Others like them because the virtues of the faith are undeniable by reasonable people. Usually, a Disney film’s “moral” isn’t telegraphed in the way that this film’s message was. The message of the movie was explicitly stated several times by several characters in the film. Basically its this: If man didn’t have politics, (and one might infer, religion) and maintained a positive attitude toward the future, then he could progress far beyond what most would believe possible. We could then solve issues like the energy crisis, climate change, the nuclear arms race, famine, obesity, hunger, and on and on and on. These things are actually listed in the film at different points.

On a surface level this is simply optimism, and while optimism is an expressed theme of the film, this thinking also has other implications. First it implies that most men are basically good at their core, and these good men utilizing science and creativity are the answers to the world’s problems. Also implied is that the progression of science and creativity is being held back by foolish men that should be left out of this conversation – these would be the exception to the “men are basically good” rule.

While Christian Humanism has it’s place, this view is definitively secular humanism: Man can improve himself by himself, if we could just get rid of those few unusual men who stand in our way. There is no power higher than science, human creativity, and reason. People coming together and thinking positively is the answer to the worlds problems, while negative thoughts being broadcast into our brains by the few, unreasonable nay-sayers is the reason we have any problems in the first place. People who believe that inevitable dangers lie ahead for the human race have simply given up. People who try to warn the world of impending doom are just causing a self-fulfilling prophesy, and if those people would stop broadcasting their warning then people would all get along better (sounds a lot like an indictment on Christians, warning the world that the wages of sin is death.) The absolute worst thing you can do is give up hope in humanity.

I recently had the honor of hearing the message from Alastair Bragg (in fact I briefly mentioned it on the most recent episode of the Brio Podcast) In which he mentioned that the first reality that must be faced before one can understand the gospel is the far less cheery prospect that we’re all sinners, we’re all doomed, and we’re all dying. No amount of positive thinking, no amount of our own achievement can save us. And as for the people who have given up, those who have lost all hope – they are the exact people for whom Christ died.

Also, even among the good guys Tomorrowland promotes an eleteist view of humanity; while many humans are smart, creative, positive thinkers and therefor humanity’s greatest hope – others I guess, are in the way? Or are at least useless. This is the exact thinking that leads to the kind of political and ideological disagreements that the film is railing against. You’re still creating an “us” (the smart people) and “them” (the not smart/creative people) which historically never works out. This is an odd choice in an otherwise totally humanist film as it seems they’re saying that certain men can save humanity, while others are just taking up space and headed for destruction. It seems that they can’t escape the reality that we are self-destructive, but the story tries to convince us that only some of us are actually doomed. This is totally counter to Christian faith as Christ followers we believe that we are all equally sinful and we are all equally worth saving.

The fact is that if you believe what this film is trying to sell you, you’re missing out on a fundamental, foundational truth of humanity and that is the depravity of man. A hard core Calvinist (which I am not) would stand up and say amen right now. But regardless of one’s theology all Christians have to believe that we needed Christ to come save us because we are sinful and without Him and Him alone, we are doomed. I’m all for a film with a Christ figure **spoilers ahead** and there arguably is one in this film, though it’s coupled with the weirdness of the man-on-little-girl-robot love-declaration… ultimately this Christ figure is a flawed example because it’s a robot, and therefore a creation of man – showing that once again, man is his own greatest hope. This isn’t just  unbiblical, it’s totally counter to the Biblical narrative. I shouldn’t have to tell you that in scripture we’re told repeatedly that we’ve all sinned and rebelled against God, that the wages of that sin is death (ergo we’re all doomed) but the gift of God is eternal life. Nothing else can supply that. Sorry if that isn’t “positive” thinking enough for you Tomorrowland fans.

Update:

In a post on this review, I made the statement that I believe this theme is one of the reasons why this film bombed, and someone (who no doubt didn’t actually read this entry) commented that the theme is present in Star Trek, so it’s not possible that the theme had anything to do with the film’s poor reception. I agreed with him Star Trek has a heavy secular humanist vibe to them, but I pointed out that arguably the most secular humanist of the films was the first one, which almost killed the franchise. And arguably the least secular humanist of the films is the 2009 reboot, the most successful of the films. I do want to say that even thought I do believe this played into why this film wasn’t a success doesn’t mean that secular humanism is a death sentence. I think it is for Disney films however, because arguably the more clear a Biblical truth there is the more successful those films have been. IE Lion King: your father died for you, you squandered it, then he called you back to take your rightful place as being his image to a lost world – and it was the most successful home video release of all time.

 It’s not all bad

First I’d like to say that secular humanism is a shade closer to Christianity than many worldviews such as naturalism, existentialism, state-ism,  and most other atheist world views are not only far less positive, they also elevate other things above humans, such as nature, knowledge, or government.  Arguably Jesus was a humanist – he promoted the idea that human life is sacred and went as far as to die for all men so that they wouldn’t have to go to hell. But this is still different from a secularized view of humanism wherein humanity is the highest force. I also think this is why some nominal Christians may fail to see the humanistic values, because if Christ isn’t the at the absolute center of your worldview, but you like all the “love” and “community” and “social justice” parts of Christianity, then you are basically just a secular humanist. If you think that the goal of Christianity is to get your “best life now” in the material sense, then you are basically a secular humanist and a capitalist, with a dash of optimism-as-religion.

Really the most positive thing in this film is found in a thorough discussion on eschatology – that is, the study end times. Many Christians, especially those in the older generation who hold to a highly traditionalist view of their faith, have adopted a “The end is near” worldview and use that as an excuse to disengage from the larger culture. These people may have a great deal to offer, but they’ve given up because in their view, if Jesus is returning soon it’s just better to stay out of things until he comes back to make everything right. Not only is this a crappy way to live, it’s totally non-biblical.

Setting aside the question of whether or not we’re living in the end times (which is at least debatable) we’re told by Jesus himself that when he returns we are to be about the Father’s business. In other words, we’re not supposed to give up – ever – regardless of how near or far we believe his return to be. This is the greatest truth that can be mined out of Tomorroland. And in my opinion it almost makes the film worth it, as it is such a pervasive issue in the church. I only wish that the other philosophies displayed in the story were less overt so that it was harder to miss this point: Don’t give up. According to scripture things are going to get worse before they get better, but we’re never told that means the church should withdraw. As long as we’re on this earth (that one’s for you hard-core rapture people) we’re supposed to do the work of the church and we’re never given any instruction to give up or withdraw regardless of what is happening, quite the opposite, we’re told to be instant in-season and out of season. We’re told to love one another as Christ loved the church.

At the same time we are told that there will be wars and rumors of wars. We’re told that there will be sickness and famine and that things are going to get worse. To ignore this is to ignore scripture. To act as if we can beat the scripture prophesy with positive thinking, it might sound noble, but you cannot argue that is scriptural. If we could save ourselves from destruction then we wouldn’t need Jesus to return.

Is it worth seeing?

In my opinion, that’s a solid No. It might be one to rent from redbox when there is nothing else and you’re just really bored. It is slightly entertaining at moments, but the plot leaves something to be desired, and the worldview is not consistent with itself. Perhaps the film’s greatest offense to me personally is that because of its poor box office reception, Disney cancelled its sequel to Tron (it’s only non-pirate, non-fairy-tale live action property that hasn’t bombed in the last ten years) So you can expect more remakes of classic Disney animated films into live action films and yes, a fifth pirates movie. Because of films like Tomorrowland, John Carter, and Lone Ranger, we’ll likely never see another Tron film because Disney has, ironically, given up on it. TRON Legacy had a considerable Zen/Buddhist slant to that, but if you actually look at the plot, there’s a fabulous Christ story in the midst of it that is hard to miss – which is why I enjoyed the film and was sorry to see the sequel get cancelled the week that Tomorrowland failed to perform on one of the worst memorial day weekends in recent box office history.

Update:

Someone commented, “I don’t think it was humanist. If anything its misanthropic” not sure if we watched the same film – the bad guys were misanthropic, the good guys were totally “positive thinking” humanists as evidence by the end wherein they were gathering the best of humanity to save humanity.

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Posted on May 31, 2015 in Movies & TV

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About the Author

William H. Adams does creative work for a church. He enjoys sandwiches, jet skis, legos, ultimate frisbee, and living life to the fullest. Will is most passionate about using creative media to tell the story of what God is doing in the lives of those who love Christ. He believes the purpose of his life to glorify God and encourage others.

Response (1)

  1. […] and also understanding that you’ll come up with some different answers than your friends. You may have read my review on Disney’s Film, Tomorrowland*, but you’ll be interested to know that my friend Ken Roach, who I’d say is easily much […]

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