Tomorrowland, a.k.a. the "easy-fix", the "chosen-one", and the "positive thinking" obsession

I watched Tomorrowland a few months ago, and I've been meaning to write about it, but life has been happening again. Anyway, I suppose a "better late than ever" attitude is applicable here, so here it goes...

(Take notice that there are some mild spoilers for this movie and also for The Lego Movie and Inside Out.)

I am a lover of science fiction, it is arguably my favourite genre. However, I'm not a simple consumer of hi-tech graphics and futuristic cinematography. I seek intellectual fulfilment as much as audiovisual gratification. Sci Fi can be the best of everything, when it is coupled with rich philosophy, well-thought-out script, clever direction, and good acting. The Matrix, for example, remains in my mind as one of the best movies ever made, because it married all of these things in a happy polygamous arrangement.

So, when I went to see Tomorrowland, I knew I was going to enjoy the audiovisual treat (and I absolutely did). And because I'm easily moved, I can count on any movie to have some moments that will tear me up (I am a sucker for emotions), even if I recognize at the same time they did it in a rather cheap way (compartmentalization FTW). What was really up for grabs was whether the whole project would stand intellectually, philosophically. The main debate people have about this movie ιs probably the standard disagreement of “romantics” and “cynics”. Romantics were moved, cynics found it “preachy”. As usual, my view is more complicated.


The movie has a wonderful premise: Imagine what would happen if the most intelligent and creative people in the world got together and devoted their time exclusively to making the world better, free of politics and power games. It’s something I've thought of many times, and I always come up with “That would be absolutely amazing”.

The movie, however, completely fails to see that idea through. It begins with that large group of people, which we see for less than ten minutes, and then one single invention by one person is seemingly enough to destroy everything, and then everybody simply gives up, except, apparently from a stubbornly programmed robot, and a teenage girl. Together, they drag back from the precipice of cynicism a former dreamer, and thus the typical trio of heroes is complete.

They “save the day”, not by hard work or perseverance, but by thinking positively and having a couple of ideas on their feet. “Let’s go there”, “Let’s destroy it”, “Use my self-destruction”, and that’s pretty much it.

And, thus, the entire premise of the movie is neatly negated. A quick fix from a handful of people over the hard work of many people, that’s how you save the entire world.

What is the character of our most recent “savior”? It’s a teenage girl, self-proclaimed “optimist”, who understands “how things work”. This includes a wide variety of technological stuff. She moves a diode a little and fixes something her father is building, her father being a full-grown NASA mechanic. We don’t have any background as to how she has developed her tech skills. There is no mention of her having spent a significant time studying and trying and practicing. It’s safe to assume, though, having been raised by a NASA mechanic has given her a head start, an early exposure to mechanics and electronics, but for all we know, she just popped out into the world having engineering superpowers.

As per usual, we are asked to accept she’s just “special” for some reason, and that “being herself” will save the world.
Oops, the "sarcasm" brain module took control for a second.
Please, scroll down. Thanks. 

The former-dreamer, on the other hand, is presented to us as someone “self-made” in that he didn’t have his father’s support. But again we’re not given any insight as to how this small boy has learned so much. He is given to us ready-made, an “unexpected” talent. Though, why exactly he's an “unexpected” talent, is not really clear. If a pre-teen showed up with that contraption, even if it's not entirely functional, any proper engineer would be impressed. That little sequence was an unexplained bit of “unfairness”, only to set up the consequent gratefulness that someone vouches for him, against the panel's better judgement.

It's all very superficial. But putting our heroes aside for a moment, the whole movie came down to... positive thinking. And I have very mixed feelings (pun intended) about positive thinking.

I don’t find positive thinking negative (well, obviously). I don’t find it irrelevant, either. But I also don’t consider it enough or even the most important factor. Negative thinking can act like an anchor, dragging us down and away from our potential. However, we cannot safely reverse this sentence. Positive thinking isn’t enough for us to meet that potential. Hard work and dedication and patience is what will make us reach our potential, and the “positivity” or not of our thinking is secondary. An easy proof for that is how many creative people who have offered a lot to the world, were, in fact, quite cynical and how many positive thinkers don’t manage to make much difference. Positive thinking is useful, but not enough, and it can also be a problem.

In his book, “The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking”, journalist and author Oliver Burkeman, argues that we're putting way too much pressure on people to avoid “negativity” at all costs, which leaves them unprepared for and in constant fear for failure. His proposed antidote is to learn how to enjoy uncertainty, accept the possibility of negative outcomes, and embrace insecurity:

Writing this reminded me of The Lego Movie, where the eternal positive-thinker Princess Unikitty tries and tries to keep being positive in spite of the all the bad things that are happening, and in the end she just gets really angry and single-handedly defeats the bad guys. She was probably my favourite character in that movie (well, she is a unicorn/cat hybrid) and this short compilation of her funniest moments - including the unavoidable epic meltdown - is guaranteed to make you smile:

Inside Out also had a similar twist, with Joy realizing that Sadness has its purpose and necessity, too. Vanessa Hill, a science communicator behind the psychology and neuroscience YouTube programme “BrainCraft”, made an episode about it, where she explains how research shows that people who try to suppress their negative emotions end up experiencing them more often:

Through our cynical times, it is actually not uncommon to see hope and positive thinking served up as the ultimate answer. As usual, the two extremes coexist so as to keep a social balance. But positive thinking alone is not very relevant. The world, mostly, does not evolve by a few geniuses that have single strokes of inspiration born out of hope. It evolves through hard, hard, hard work of many, many, many nameless people and lots and lots and lots of time. Many – most – of them are not “incredibly” intelligent or “incredibly” talented. They’re just regular people who have spent a lot of time learning a craft. The top is a small place and most of the work is not realized there.

The movie attempted to capture this at the end, with a beautiful scene that, I shamelessly share, brought me to tears. But it has that inherent flaw. It shows how we go out there and pick those who are ready-made; those who are already “optimistic”, “talented”, “dreamers”. Again, no relevant solution is offered. How do we make more people like that? How do we bring out the potential of greatness in all people? How do we teach, how do we guide? The movie implies that this will happen along the way, and I’m willing to accept that, but that doesn’t distract me from the fact that the movie-makers avoided to make the hard work themselves. I’m supposed to take the optimism and accept that everything will follow from there, but this is simply not how life works most of the time, especially when we’re dealing with something as massive as the impending extinction of the species.

We love quick fixes. We love inherent “talent”, prodigies and geniuses. And, of course, all those things are fascinating and I wouldn’t discount their value. However…
a) By default, there are very few of them, they are the exceptions,
b) Therefore we can’t count on them exclusively for the betterment of the species, and
c) It is wasteful to fail to focus on the contribution of all the “ordinary” people which, unlike “inherent” characteristics, can be influenced by our interventions.

Apparently, you're not allowed to Google "teamwork" or "cooperation", or you get bombarded
by nauseating business and marketing "motivational" nonsense. This was the best I could find.

To summarize, the movie had an incredibly profound premise (and that's why romantics were moved), but didn't do it justice at all (and that's why cynics were unimpressed).

So, let’s celebrate those rare, incredible people. But let’s celebrate just as much hard work and dedication, even when it can’t get us to excellence. Let’s celebrate perseverance even if we can’t be better than mediocre at something. We can’t all be first. We can’t all be best. We can't all be “special”. We can’t all “save the world”.

But what we can all do is add just a very small, ordinary, mediocre even, piece towards building a better tomorrow. That view paints a very positive picture, as well, but one that is free of naivete, arrogance, and delusion.

For the lovers, and the dreamers, and me...

No comments: