Why Disney’s “Tomorrowland” Matters

Tomorrowland poster and stills ©2015 Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

One of Walt Disney’s enduring lifetime legacies was his commitment to innovation, new ideas and imagination. An inventive visionary, Disney often previewed his inventions at the annual New York World’s Fair and contributed many technological and creative breakthroughs that we enjoy to this day. One of Disney’s biggest fascinations was with space exploration and futurism, often reflected thematically in Disney’s canon of material throughout the years. Just prior to his death in 1966, Disney undertook an ambitious plan to build a utopian “Community of Tomorrow,” complete with state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, every major Disney theme park around the world has some permutation of a themed section called “Tomorrowland,” first introduced at Disneyland in 1955, featuring inspiring Jules Verne glimpses into the future. This ambition is beautifully embodied in Disney Picttures’ latest release of the same name, a film that is at once a celebration of ideas, a call to arms for scientific achievement and good old fashioned idealistic dreaming. The critical relevance to our circumstances today and full ScriptPhD review below.

“This is a story about the future.”

With this opening salvo, we immediately jump back in time to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, the embodiment of confidence and scientific achievement at a time when the opportunities of the future seemed limitless. Enthusiastic young inventor Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), an optimistic dreamer, catches the attention of brilliant scientist David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and his young sidekick Athena, a mysterious little girl with a twinkle in her eye. Through sheer curiosity, Frank follows them and transports himself into a parallel universe, a glimmering, utopian marvel of futuristic industry and technology — a civilization gleaming with possibility and inspiration.

The futuristic Tomorrowland utopia.

“Walt [Disney] was a futurist. He was very interested in space travel and what cities were going to look like and how transportation was going to work,” said Tomorrowland screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus). “Walt’s thinking was that the future is not something that happens to us. It’s something we make happen.”

Unfortunately, as we cut back to present time, the hope and dreams of a better tomorrow haven’t quite worked out as planned. Through the eyes of idealistic Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), thrill seeker and aspiring astronaut, we see a frustrating world mired in wars, environmental devastation and selfish catastrophes. But Casey is smart, stubborn and passionate. She believes the world can be restored to a place of hope and inspiration, particularly through science. When she unexpectedly obtains a mysterious pin — which we first glimpsed at the World’s Fair — it gives her a portal to the very world that young Frank traveled to. Protecting Casey as she delves deeper into the mystery is Athena, who it turns out is a very special time-traveling recruiter. She distributes the pins to a collective of the smartest, most creative people, who gather in the Tomorrowland utopia to work and invent free of the impediments of our current society.

Casey Newton holding the Tomorrowland transport pin in a scene from Tomorrowland.

Athena connects Casey with a now-aged Frank (George Clooney), who has turned into a cynical, reclusive iconoclastic inventor (bearing striking verisimilitude to Nikola Tesla). Casey and Frank must partner to return to Tomorrowland, where something has gone terribly awry and imperils the existence of Earth. David Nix, a pragmatic bureaucrat and now self-proclaimed Governor of a more dilapidated Tomorrowland, has successfully harnessed subatomic tachyon particles to see a future in which Earth self-destructs. Unless Casey and Frank, aided by Athena and a little bit of Disney magic, intervene, Nix will ensure the self-fulfilling prophesy comes to fruition.

As the co-protagonist of Tomorrowland Casey Newton symbolizes some of the most important tenets and qualities of a successful scientist. She’s insatiably curious, in absolute awe of what she doesn’t know (at one point looking into space and cooing “What if there’s everything out there?”) and buoyant in her indestructible hope that no challenge can’t be overcome with enough hard work and out-of-the-box originality. She loves math, astronomy and space, the hard sciences that represent the critical, diverse STEM jobs of tomorrow, for which there is still a graduate shortage. That she’s a girl at a time when women (and minorities) are still woefully under-represented in mathematics, engineering and physical science careers is an added and laudable bonus. She defiantly rebels against the layoff of her NASA-engineer father and the unspeakable demolition of the Cape Canaveral platform because “there’s nothing to launch.” The NASA program concomitantly faces the tightest operational budget cuts (particularly for Earth science research) and the most exciting discovery possibilities in its history.

Frank Walker lives in exile in his technologically-rigged house, in a scene from Tomorrowland.

The juxtaposition of Nix and Walker, particularly their philosophical conflict, represents the pedantic drudgery of what much of science has become and the exciting, risky brilliance of what it should be. Nix is pedantic and rigid, unable or unwilling to let go of a traditional credo to embrace risk and, with it, reward. Walker is the young, bushy-tailed, innovative scientist that, given enough rejection and impediments, simply abandons their research and never fulfills their potential. This very phenomenon is occurring amidst an unprecedented global research funding crisis — young researchers are being shut out of global science positions, putting innovation itself at risk. Nix’s prognostication of inevitable self-destruction because we ignore all the warning signs before our eyes, resigning ourselves to a bad future because it doesn’t demand any sacrifice from our present is the weary fatalism of a man that’s given up. His assessment isn’t wrong, he’s just not representative of the kind of scientist that’s going to fix it.

“Something has been lost,” Tomorrowland director Brad Bird believes. “Pessimism has become the only acceptable way to view the future, and I disagree with that. I think there’s something self-fulfilling about it. If that’s what everybody collectively believes, then that’s what will come to be. It engenders passivity: If everybody feels like there’s no point, then they don’t do the myriad of things that could bring us a great future.”

Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Tomorrowland‘s emotional call for dreamers from the diverse corners of the globe is the hope that can never be lost as we navigate a changing, tumultuous world, from dismal climate reports to devastating droughts that threaten food and water supply to perilous conflicts at all corners of our globe. Because ultimately, the precious commodity of innovation and a better tomorrow rests with the potential of this group. We go to the movies to dream about what is possible, to be inspired and entertained. Utilizing the lens of cinematic symbolism, this film begs us to engage our imaginations through science, technology and innovation. It is the epitome of everything Walt Disney stood for and made possible. It’s also a timely, germane message that should resonate to a world that still needs saving.

Oh, and the blink-and-you-miss-it quote posted on the entrance to the fictional Tomorrowland? “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein.

View the Tomorrowland trailer:

Tomorrowland goes into wide release on May 22, 2015.

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