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Tomorrowland, NASA, and the beauty of hope

by Brandon Russell | May 22, 2015May 22, 2015 9:00 am PDT

Humanity has achieved so much. A trip to the moon, for instance. Netflix. Yet, rather than celebrating these accomplishments and aspiring for more, we’ve adopted a skewed, bleak vision of the world. A vision that insists we’re doomed. If a zombie outbreak doesn’t eliminate mankind, some catastrophic event will. We believe these things without question. Hear something enough times, and sooner or later you’ll convince yourself it’s the truth.

That’s more or less the idea behind Tomorrowland, Brad Bird’s optimistic new film about despair and hope, pessimism and joy. Even when the world has resigned itself to annihilation, there’s always room for change. And hope.

There’s a famous Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that perfectly sums up this ethos.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

That kind of Pangloss attitude is the driving force behind Tomorrowland’s plot, which stars Britt Johnson as Casey Newton, an intelligent troublemaker who suddenly finds herself pursuing the gleaming utopia. And just at the right time, too. As Casey’s home life crumbles around her, she’s given a glimpse of something better, a place that’s brimming with optimism and steampunk nostalgia. And she never stops trying, unlike her contemporaries. Something we can all take note of.

Tomorrowland begins in the past, with a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson, but much later played by George Clooney) at the New York World’s Fair. Here, young Frank gleefully pitches an invention—a jetpack—he made out of spare vacuum parts. But the competition’s main judge, played by Hugh Laurie, rebuke’s its usefulness. When Laurie’s character—and “villain” of the movie—asks what the purpose of the jetpack is, young Frank simply replies that it’s for fun.

This, so far as the viewer can tell, is a sly defense of dreamers, criticism of the Man’s irrepressible ability to discourage and demoralize anyone who dares to think outside of the box. Take, for example, the very presence of NASA in Tomorrowland, a symbolic and important beacon of possibility that inspires Casey to question the status quo.

NASA’s appearance in the film is no accident, either, as we found out from NASA spokesman, Bert Ulrich. What better symbol of American scientific progress is there than the idealism of NASA? While Tomorrowland, both the idea and the popular Disneyland attraction, is an emblem of promise and ambition, NASA’s presence grounds the film into a more realistic representation of hope.

When we first meet Casey, she’s seen sabotaging the platform at the famous Cape Canaveral launchpad in Florida. But she isn’t motivated by hostility toward the legendary agency. Instead, she’s trying to prolong the launchpad’s destruction, which used to employ her dad, due to the government’s defunding of the program. Not unlike the agency’s current plight.

Her unshakable moxie eventually puts her on the radar of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a Tomorrowland “recruiter” of sorts, who gives Casey a pin that transports her to the idyllic world.

That inducement is mirrored by the NASA logo on Casey’s hat, which remains an enduring icon she looks toward as a guiding light. While Ulrich said NASA didn’t directly give input into the more fanciful sci-fi elements of the film, he said Tomorrowland’s filmmakers worked with the agency from start to finish, with the hat acting as a kind of bridge between our world and a better tomorrow.

The marriage of minds is actually quite fitting.

As our lives become further embedded in the world of technology, we’re slowly creeping toward visions of the future Walt Disney himself had when Tomorrowland was first introduced to Disneyland back in the mid-1950s.

It gets you to think: where would scientific progress be if not for the suffocating restrictions of bureaucracy and greed. Tomorrowland and the meatball NASA logo are meant to inspire us to work toward something better. It’s in stark contrast to the wasteland of George Miller’s Mad Max, or the zombie-filled world of The Walking Dead. Instead of doom and destruction, Tomorrowland is a call back to the futurism of yesteryear. Something we as a society have lost.

“Pessimism has become the only acceptable way to view the future,” said director Brad Bird. “If that’s what everybody collectively believes than 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.”

In Casey’s case, she had the gall to ask if there was anything we could do to change (a curiosity that made her a perfect fit for the ideals of Tomorrowland’s “Plus Ultra,” a society of people striving for a better future, whether that be to stop the seemingly imminent destruction of Earth, or the spread of disease).

While the movie has issues of pacing, along with some truly confusing moments, its charm and outlook is infectious, and ultimately it’s a ride worth taking. If you, like Brad Bird, Walt Disney and Casey Newton, don’t feel resigned to a apocalyptic fate, Tomorrowland is the kind of movie that will inspire and reinforce the notion that we, as humans, have an obligation to preserve and protect not only our future, but the future of our children, and their children.

“Tomorrowland—A vista into a world of wondrous ideas signifying man’s achievements. A step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals… the challenge of outer space, and the hope of a peaceful and unified world.”

That mission aligns perfectly with not only Casey’s glimmering hope, but NASA’s own mission statement, which is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.

It’s funny. During my chat with Ulrich, he said that a lot of astronauts and researchers were inspired to work for NASA by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The hope is that Tomorrowland will do the same for audiences, young and old, who go out to see the movie this weekend.

Ultimately, Tomorrowland isn’t just a place with jet packs, spaceships and unlimited promise. It’s a symbol of hope, a place, whether in our minds or at theme parks around the world, where we have the power to influence and create our own future, rather than apathetically accepting the grim reality other people say will be.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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