In both film and game criticism, few things are more insulting than being compared to a theme park ride. If you’re a movie, it means there’s little more to you than explosive setpieces, forward momentum, and barebones exposition; people will leave with nothing but a thin fartlike memory of being momentarily pleased. If you’re a game, it (ironically) means you’re more like a movie: rather than encouraging play, creativity, and exploration, you shuttle players from one elaborately produced cinematic to the next. It became a cliché to think of The Order: 1886 as “a grim-faced Disneyland ride” when its 5-hour length was widely panned in February. “Themepark MMO,” as opposed to “Sandbox MMO,” is a term people have been using for years to describe the kind of MMO where the developer focuses on creating a linear, tightly controlled “player experience” instead of letting players do what they want.
Even beyond movies and games, the term “theme park” bears the baggage of chipper Disney fascism—a world of cast members with airport wands telling you exactly where to park—and everything else that’s wrong with America, quite possibly because of Disney World. In 2004, the sociologist Alan Bryman wrote a monograph describing how various “dimensions of Disneyization” (including theming, “hybrid consumption,” and “performative labour”) had metastasized beyond the parks and into various areas of contemporary American life; in the 90s and early 2000s it was pretty commonplace to hear people bemoan the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, a place whose Disney Store was likely once a porn theater. Meanwhile, Disney World is the new Times Square, or the new Vegas, for gonzo creative nonfiction writers looking to document the sheer, hubristic, Babylonian excess of places where Americans gather in crowds. One of the main attractions of a piece like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “You Blow My Mind. Hey Mickey!” is the spectacle of people as cattle, led dumbly through Temple Grandin pathways designed to foreclose critical thinking of any kind—“the lines and the endless walking and the crowded feed stations.” No one who seeks to write about Disney World can seem to resist the temptation to peer into the “utilidors” of its inner workings, or its ideological underpinnings, or (in Sullivan’s case) the nooks and crannies where people smoke weed under the searchlights of the Mickey Police. To be a critic of Disney World, you have to expose its artificiality. As if it didn’t do that already.
Tomorrowland follows Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion in being a film adaptation of—or maybe the better way to put it would be “extrapolation from”—a Disney attraction. It’s easy to see it as a film that commits all the familiar sins. Tomorrowland, here, is a great big beautiful metropolis that’s mostly available to be gazed at from various modes of transportation: glass-floored monorails, rocket ships, jetpacks, floating platforms. It takes about 90 minutes for the protagonists to set foot there with any kind of permanence, but the journey to there is a relentless unfolding ribbon of setpieces and expository dialogue. The plot is borderline incoherent; the characters are borderline (and in a lot of cases literally) animatronic. It’s gotten some terrible reviews. And yet, at the same time, the fact that this is a movie based on an area rather than a ride suggests something about the nature of its ambitions, as well as the terms in which it might be redeemed. On one level, Tomorrowland is a movie based on a theme park that does a weirdly effective job as an allegory of what it’s like to go to a theme park; the self-referentiality goes far beyond having a building that looks like Space Mountain or making Disney pin trading the key to interdimensional travel. On another level, it’s a movie that actually seems to get what makes theme parks enduringly, paradoxically interesting.
The last time I went to Disney World, which was last week, my girlfriend asked a random cast member to give me one of those special pins that you can get when it’s your birthday. It wasn’t my birthday, or at least it hadn’t been for about a week, but Mickey didn’t bother to check ID (even though he absolutely does check ID when you pretend to be a “Florida Resident”). For the rest of the day, every single employee working every single attraction said “Happy birthday, Matthew!” in a chipper, genuine voice. Nobody seemed bothered by the obligation; it didn’t seem like they were doing it to satisfy a superior. I don’t really know why, but I ended up keeping the pin for three straight days of parkhopping madness in the 95-degree heat. I learned to respond to happy birthdays from the farthest corner of my peripheral vision, catching every shuriken of benevolence. Somehow, being told it was my birthday in exactly the same way every 30 seconds was neither weird nor distracting. It felt in tune with the essence of the experience.
Disney World thrives on conveying a paradoxical feeling of singularity: somehow, you feel like it’s for you, even as you wait in line with the multitude. Your experience is unique, central, better than everyone else’s. Every ride insists that you’re a protagonist with some kind of agency, even though it’s manifestly a passive experience. One of the most interesting things about Tomorrowland is that it dramatizes this effect. Neither of the protagonists has abnormally high midichlorians or the soul of a reincarnated god; they’re just kids with imagination and a good attitude who the world—the park—rewards with an explicitly manufactured feeling of specialness.
We first meet a little kid version of George Clooney’s character, on his way to the 1964 World’s Fair with a makeshift jetpack. He submits his clanky piece of shit to the judgment of stern Hugh Laurie, who presides over the Hall of Invention. Nay, House says, this will not do. But a little girl gives him a strange pin and tells him to follow her into “It’s a Small World,” at which point we see an astonishingly explicit Disney power fantasy: after scanning the pin, the ride isolates his boat, drops him into a hidden chamber, and gives him private access to a machine that will take him to the future. This machine is emblazoned with the word “SPECIAL.” He could not be more excited. He seems considerably less excited 40 years later, when he meets the film’s other protagonist and offers her a nugget of cynical wisdom: “[You think] they’re saving the seat on the rocket ship just for you? You’ve been manipulated to feel like you’re part of something—like you’re special. But you’re not.” Obviously that doesn’t end up being the message of the film. But it’s in there, and it isn’t untrue.
The experience of the other protagonist is even more clearly reminiscent of the strange machinations of theme park logic. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a 17-year-old who spends her free time attempting to sabotage the demolition of a local NASA launch pad to keep her dreams of the future (and her dad’s job) alive. Just like Clooney, the agents of Tomorrowland seek her out and give her that pin. Only this time, the pin transports her directly to their world. Or, rather, it superimposes Tomorrowland on top of her mundane world, in a way that literalizes the messy transactions between reality and unreality that help create Disney’s unique effects. Disneyland and Disney World are hugely different in scale, but they do have one thing in common: they are both surrounded by a filthy ring of free-market opportunism—strip malls, budget motels, 6 for $10 knockoff t-shirts—that makes the reality of the real world (vs. the ideality of Disney) painfully clear. Casey touches the pin and she’s in the most golden, virgin wheat field, looking out on a city of the impossible. She releases it and she’s in the pickup, in the rain, driving from the police station with her dad, who is literally Tim McGraw. Brought forth from a pin the way a movie might be brought forth from a theme park, this Tomorrowland seems to be a simulation. But then the movie raises the big question: Or is it?
From the beginning, Disney theme parks have attracted two kinds of people: 1) basically everyone; 2) postmodern theorists. The tradition of one type of cultural critic lambasting the “Disneyization” of society is at least as strong as the tradition of another type of critic exploring—and stroking his chin in admiration of—Disney’s status as the crown jewel of late-capitalist aesthetics, a “degenerate utopia” (as Louis Marin put it) where representation itself becomes a dubious category. Both Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard have held it up as a crucial example of the “hyperreal,” a kind of artifice that ends up feeling more real than reality itself. Baudrillard believed that Disneyland was, in fact, more real and “adult” than childish, artificial America at large: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.”
More recently, Cory Doctorow has de- and recontextualized Disney materiel in at least two works of speculative fiction questioning the limits of the human and the nature of technological change. In his 2011 novella The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, the immortal protagonist, troubled by his transhumanity, literally lives inside the Carousel of Progress. “I lived in the future that they were talking about in the ride, but we didn’t have ‘progress’ anymore,” he says. “We’d outgrown progress. What we had was change. Things changed whenever anyone wanted to change them: design and launch a fleet of wumpuses, or figure out a way to put an emotional antenna in your head, or create a fleet of killer robots, or invent immortality, or engineer your goats to give silk. Just do it. It’ll catch on, or it won’t. Maybe it’ll catch itself on. Then the world is…different.”
What makes Disney so ceaselessly interesting to postmodern theorists—or better yet, postmodern cynics? Above all, a kind of earnestness that fuels everything, especially in Tomorrowland: the earnestness of its simulations; the earnestness of its commerce; the earnestness of its ideology of “progress,” which assumes that we have the power to create a bright future for ourselves. That ideology is all over the place in Tomorrowland; like the similarly anti-cynical Interstellar, the movie proclaims with its every fiber that we as a culture need to stop being complacent with the destruction of the world and do something, dammit. “Have you ever wondered what would happen if all the smartest, most creative people in the world actually decided to change it?” asks a souped-up audioanimatronic, facing the main characters as well as the audience. Not since the most recent Atlas Shrugged has a movie been this openly propagandistic about the potential of the individual will. It even celebrates the potential of propaganda, calling for a mass-optimism-generating broadcast that essentially does the same thing as … the movie Tomorrowland.
But there’s something profound about the clarity of this message, the way it cuts so clearly through so much self-consciousness. Call it postmodern idealism—a sincerely communicated belief that somehow depends on the manifold insincerities of a self-referential theme park movie. The Baudrillardian idea seems more true here than anywhere: Tomorrowland is what’s real; the “real world” of pessimism and despair is the cheap simulation that feeds on itself. Only a movie deeply attuned to how theme parks work would understand how they manage to leave people feeling uplifted, rather than constrained, zombified, and depressed. “Tomorrowland” is not necessarily a good movie, but it does begin to show us why theme parks are not necessarily a bad thing.