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In an entertainment landscape littered with dystopian franchises, Disney's "Tomorrowland," which comes out on Friday, is a beacon of techno-optimism. Not to spoil the movie, but the plot involves a jaded George Clooney, jet packs and a mysterious hidden city where people are free to tinker and make wild inventions without the threat of corporate greed or government bureaucracy
Written by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of "Lost") and Brad Bird (director of "The Incredibles"), "Tomorrowland" is one of the rare recent science-fiction releases where technology is a good thing — it's human nature, not a machine, that is the enemy. We talked to Lindelof about zombies, "Star Trek" and why utopian visions are so important.
The movie stresses the importance of optimism when it comes to solving society's problems. How important is it to have movies like “Star Trek” or real-life missions like the moon landing to galvanize that optimism?
Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about this a lot and he is an inspirational figure to me. We are a very goal-oriented species. With the space race, there was a specific thing we were going to accomplish — we were going to land on the moon. Once we achieved that, we didn't have a viable next big project.
The idea of using pop culture and fiction to show something to aspire to, that was the whole idea of "Tomorrowland." The city is a monument to what human kind is capable of.
What science fiction really inspired you as a kid?
I was a big "Star Trek" fan, as well as "Star Wars." But "Star Trek" was a big one for me, because it felt less like fantasy and more like hard sci-fi. "Close Encounters" was certainly a movie that had a massive impact on me as a kid. There were also smaller movies like "The Explorers," where three kids build a spaceship, which I always kind of loved. My favorite sci-fi film growing up was "Back to the Future." I love that movie more than I can possibly express.
What kind of technology captures your imagination today?
I'm really interested in electric cars and everything that Elon Musk is doing, like SpaceX and the battery he introduced.
Why do you think dystopia has become such a strong theme in pop culture?
Coming out of World War II, there was this idea of having triumphed over a very clear evil. There were not shades of gray in that conflict, it was black and white — and the good guys won. In the 1950s and '60s, we still looked at the future as this bright thing. As a child of the 1970s, I haven't lived through any experiences like that. It's all been kind of muddy and gray.
I feel like we have been fed a steady diet of dystopia, starting with "Planet of the Apes," where we created a world filled with nuclear war and destroyed the Statue of Liberty. Now there are movies where teenagers try to kill each other in arenas. I think when you constantly get that vision of the future, you start thinking that is how it's going to be.
When it comes to the glut of dystopian films and TV, is the problem that utopian visions are just harder to bring to the screen?
It's certainly more challenging. For a dystopia, all you have to do is knock down what we already have. You don't need to build anything, you just have zombies walk through the streets of London.
I'm really proud of this movie. When you say, "This is a movie about a better future," rather than, "This is a movie about a screwed-up future where things are trying to kill you," moviegoers tend to flock to the latter. For me, the higher degree of difficulty of making something like "Tomorrowland" is more satisfying.
There are obviously a lot of big ideas in this movie about optimism and the self-defeating nature of dystopian thinking. How do you weave those concepts into a fun story that feels like an adventure and not a lecture?
We tried to make it feel like it was a ride. Walt Disney, when he was designing his attractions —especially for Tomorrowland — aspired for them to have an informative element.
A big part of getting George [Clooney] to do this, because he doesn't really do big summer movies, was to say, "Hey, this movie is about something. We are not going to smash people over the head with it, but we are going to examine the state of the world now through the eyes of a teenage girl."
Ultimately, it's a bit reductive, but we think it's true that there has to be an attitudinal shift toward the positive. In order to present any vision of utopia, you have show the audience how to overcome the status quo. It's like the magic feather in Dumbo. It's not magic. He just thinks it is and that enables him to fly.