Appreciating Tomorrowland: A Good Movie for Futures Thinking

“You were actually prepared for that?”

A great line from what I feel is an underrated – or at least, underappreciated – movie, Disney’s Tomorrowland.  The movie got a Metacritic score of 60 and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 50%, yet as a professional futurist the more I watch the film, the more I appreciate how well it functions as a prompt for good futures thinking.

Four of the most important reasons I think it works well for futures thinking:

Reason #1: It overtly trumpets the importance of optimism and attempts to restore the audience’s desire to be excited for the future. Today, so many actors and groups in society are jaded or cynical about institutions that were previously seen as facilitators of a better future and are understandably pessimistic about humanity’s chances of overcoming both age-old challenges as well new, complex challenges to our survival and prosperity.

Reason #2: Building as it does on Disneyland’s original Tomorrowland attraction, it proceeds from a 1950’s sort of techno-optimistic view of the future: science and technology can solve problems and make the world a better place.  This is, of course, almost a cautionary tale, as unsophisticated techno-optimist views can miss or dismiss many of the very human reasons why incredible new technologies are neither inevitable nor necessarily capable of solving complex societal issues (on their own).  Indeed, in the movie, there’s the minor mystery of why “the party” was cancelled in the first place (hint: it wasn’t for lack of technological promise).

Reason #3: The movie promotes science, technology, and innate human curiosity as critical drivers of positive change, which they absolutely can be.  Referencing Reasons 1 and 2 above, the movie tries to restore a faith in these things and, by the end of the movie, positions human diversity and curiosity as key to what we now talk about as “innovation.”  In this way it promotes what many trained futurists promote in work with their clients, that creativity, motivation, and knowledge (or perhaps, access to resources and tools) are key to envisioning and creating better futures.  Preferred futures don’t just happen by accident.

Reason #4: It does a great job of making images of the future central to human aspiration and to the actions we take in the present.  Through both the various characters’ optimism and earned-cynicism about the possibilities for a better future and through the device of the Monitor, the audience is shown how the images of the future we are fed and those we are drawn to have a huge impact on our orientation to the future.  I can’t think of another movie that so explicitly and simply introduces what is a core aspect of futures studies.

Whatever narrative criticisms people may level at the movie, I think it does a very good job of telling a story that is very much about “the future” and about the role that human hope, ingenuity, and imagination play in shaping the futures that we come to experience.

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