Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland vs. The Gernsback Continuum vs. BioShock

It's hard to dislike Tomorrowland and its central message that imagination is a positive good--that thinking that some task is possible is better than thinking that all tasks are impossible.

It's hard to dislike that message and yet...

(Spoilers ahead.)

Getting out of the Gernsback Continuum

William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum" is a story that shadows Tomorrowland as a nightmare to a daydream: both focus on an alternate dimension where the 1950s dream of jetpacks and age-defying shakes is real. They're both rocket- or space-age dreams.

Gibson's genius in "The Gernsback Continuum" is to connect those rocket-dreams of what our future could've been both to the failures of that imagination (just about everyone is white and hetero in 1950s sf) and to the failures of our actual post-rocket time (where our rockets were pointed more at each other than at the moon).

Tomorrowland addresses this a bit, at least in the commercial for it, by presenting a multi-ethnic future; and by presenting our dreams of that Tomorrowland as an antidote to our obsession with our trending slide to dystopia and apocalypse.

But it doesn't all iron out, in the end. (Actually, the ethnic variations of the final recruiting scenes is pretty nicely done to remind us that Tomorrowland needs all kinds of people (even if all the lead actors that make it possible are white).)

The villain is appropriately named Nix, since nixing is the ultimate sin here, whether that's saying no to NASA funding or saying no to trying to change the world. He has one great monologue at the end where he points out that we enjoy apocalypse because it doesn't ask anything of us. (The fake movie billboard for "ToxiCosmos" bears the tagline "Nowhere to go," which lets us off the hook; it's almost like someone read Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster.") If nothing you do can help, than you can go on enjoying your rain forest-destroying burger and your conflict-mineral-related iPads.

(I would argue that the other great benefit of apocalypse is imagining a return to the Real: to that time when we're reduced to pure survival. I mean, in the apocalypse, I wouldn't be blogging and we can all get behind that.)

The heroes respond to this by saying, hey, let's try imagining progress rather than disaster. Which raises all sorts of questions that the movie can't ask: Whose progress? What sort of trade-offs are we willing to go through for this progress?

Let's have a utopia and invite everyone some people!

I also think BioShock might be instructive here (at least if you're interested in why I got some less-than-great vibes from this movie): BioShock is the great video game that showcased the art deco city of Rapture, a place where the elite could withdraw from the world to live out their Ayn Randian fantasy of self-fulfillment.

Which is kind of the end of Tomorrowland: they reopen the future and send out recruiters to find "dreamers." Among the dreamers are engineers, mathematicians, scientists, ballet dancers, street-artists--just a wide variety of people from the arts and sciences. (Notably missing: movie producers. Fuck those guys, am I right?)

And I'll admit, I got a little chill when I saw the last image of everyone, all together, standing up in the corn field and looking out at the city of tomorrow. All those people, all coming from their own particular places, all coming together to make something.

Except... there's like maybe a hundred people there. And that's the remit of Tomorrowland: it's not a place for everyone, but only for a small group who can work unencumbered by laws and social mores. (Hey, isn't Jurassic World about to come out? That's another story about people moving to a place to do something scientific.) Sure, maybe--maybe--the Tomorrowlanders will come back to Earth and share their great scientific advancements. Yeah, that's imaginable.

(What if they came back not as saviors but as technocratic rulers, with disintegration rays and robot armies and--but no, that's the bad imagination speaking.)

This is another aspect of the movie that leaves me wanting more answers; and it connects to the original question: if you limit your society to just the people who pass the test (not the Voight-Kampff, because that would prove empathy and that's not what Tomorrowland is about), then you can maybe all agree on what sort of progress you want.

Or put in question form: is progress compatible with democracy?

(You know who would say no to that? The 1930s Technocracy movement that seems to cast a long shadow over a lot of 1950s sf, where slide-rule-bearing engineers are clearly the right men for the job of making the rules.)

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