Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Hey kids, remember when the future used to be fun? We were going to colonize the Moon, zip around in hover cars like, the Jetsons, and voyage to the stars in the Starship Enterprise. Labor would be robotic, clothes would be space-age and really cool, and peace would be intergalactic.

But somewhere along the way, our dreams of the future got tarnished. It occurred to some cynics that humankind as a species was no more likely to create Utopias on other worlds than they had on this one, and our visions of the future became more and more bleak—like the present.

Think of the dripping, steaming perpetual night of Blade Runner. The burnt-out, post-apocalyptic survivalism of the road-raging Mad Max series. The repressive dystopian future of a thousand YA novels made into movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent series.
So bright, he has to wear shades.

So Tomorrowland is a breath of fresh air, harking back, as it does, to the good old days when the future still seemed shades-worthy. Yes, it's a Disney movie, and, yes, it began as a blatant attempt to cash in on another Disneyland attraction revamped for the screen (a la Pirates of the Caribbean).

 But the good news is the movie works on its own terms, largely thanks to the crisp direction and splendid sensibilities of Brad Bird (beloved by this blog as the director of the most soulful animated robot movie ever made, The Iron Giant). Among many other assets, this cheery adventure makes an effective case for engagement with the future, and considering how actions we take (or fail to take) in the present may serve it—or destroy it.

The story begins at the 1964 New York City World's Fair. On the soundtrack we hear "It's A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow," jaunty theme song from the onetime Disneyland attraction, Carousel of Progress. (On its revolving stage, "audio-animatronic" (ie: robotic) figures from several different eras—Victorian through the 1950s—in their various period rooms, extolled the virtues of futuristic devices like automobiles, washing machines, telephones, and vacuum cleaners.)

Eight-year-old Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) comes to the fair with a futuristic device of his own—a personal jet pack he's cobbled together from spare parts out of his dad's garage—hoping to win a contest presided over by a man named Nix (Hugh Laurie). Frank's invention doesn't actually work, but the principle is sound enough so that Athena (the poised and enchanting Raffey Cassidy), a girl he takes for Nix's daughter, slips him a special badge.

Just Imagine, 1930: Retro future.

 Frank follows them into a boat inside Disney's It's A Small World ride (yes, it debuted at the 1964 World's Fair), and finds himself transported into a parallel universe, a sparkling clean, fabulously sculpted chrome and steel high rise cityscape called Tomorrowland.

Cut to the present day. Teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), daughter of a NASA engineer, is committing midnight acts of sabotage to try to stop the authorities from shutting down a NASA research site. She's something of an engineering whiz herself, and through the agency of the weirdly unchanged Athena, scrappy Casey is teamed up with the grown-up Frank (George Clooney), now a brilliant, cynical recluse hiding out in a booby-trapped house out in the middle of nowhere.

Their mission? Well, I forget, but they have to outwit a sinister band of robothugs and get back to pristine Tomorrowland to try to persuade Nix (the governor of the place) not to abandon Earth to the fatal ravages of environmental disaster.

This involves escape from Frank's fortress in a jet-propelled bathtub, and a trip to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where, in the movie's most delicious sequence, they blast into space in a steampunk clockwork rocket designed by Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Gustave Eiffel.
Just Imagine, 1930: The future is wow.

Trust me, it makes sense enough (more or less) while you're watching. And Laurie gets to deliver a hilariously acerbic screed (as only he can) on how no amount of scientific reason, evidence, and proof can persuade willfully ignorant humanity from lifting a finger to save themselves and their planet before it's too late. 

In the meantime, we get to feast our eyes on gorgeously rendered visions of  the unpolluted waterways, unclogged aerial freeways, and clean energy of the future as it ought to be.

All of which reminded me of an odd little movies from 1930—barely a talkie—called Just Imagine. This weird little production (I think it's a musical) has a pretty silly, Sleeper-like plot about some schmoe from that era transported "50 years into the Future!" (ie: 1980.)

Okay, the state he discovers is a tad conformist and controlled. But it looks clean and beautiful! The film's production design is outstanding, some images from which I'm posting here, as a point of comparison. (Check out the complete movie on You Tube.)

Tomorrowland: the future as it ought to be.
Too bad that whenever we just imagine a really cool future, it's only a movie.

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