Note: the following editorial is spoiler-free and is not a review of Tomorrowland.
“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
The above quote, from sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, always resonated with me, but I can’t say I fully grasped what it meant until I saw Tomorrowland. While certainly a fun adventure movie, Tomorrowland is a film with a message, and it is unabashed in its delivery of that message: the future can still be awesome, and it’s up to us to make it so.
It’s a message that NASA supports, as well, NASA Multimedia Liaison Bert Ulrich told me in an interview. The space agency collaborated with Disney on the film, which includes scenes shot at NASA’s actual launch pad at Cape Canaveral. While this isn’t the first time NASA has been involved in Hollywood productions, this collaboration on Tomorrowland stands apart thanks to a shared vision and the very direct inclusion of NASA in the narrative.
Casey, one of the film’s protagonists, is the bright, young daughter of a NASA engineer who is losing his job due to the shutting down of the space program. Wherever she goes, she brings with her a cap featuring the “NASA meatball” – the affectionate name employees have given to the NASA logo, Ulrich explained – as a form of security blanket that keeps her grounded amid the wild adventure that ensues in the film. Similarly, that symbol keeps the audience grounded in the reality that Tomorrowland is based on – this is us. This isn’t a galaxy far, far, away; this is our present, and our possible future.
But what does any of this have to do with Asimov? Surely, he didn’t mean that sci-fi should be used as a podium on which to preach. No, what he was referring to was the inspirational value of science fiction. One line of dialogue in Tomorrowland sums this up well. In justifying the existence of a jetpack, a character stated – and I paraphrase – “If someone sees a person flying around in a jetpack, they’ll think anything is possible.”
And there it is. Sci-fi is a boundless canvas for imagination and creativity, distinct from other forms of speculative fiction in that it depicts a plausible future. Controversies aside, Walt Disney was a futurist and optimist, and the Tomorrowland section of his theme park was born from his imagination as a, to use his own words, “living blueprint of our future.”
But science-fiction has always been a product of the culture, capturing the zeitgeist of the time – the prevailing spirit of the people. Politics, world events, war – everything that affects a culture has shaped sci-fi from generation to generation, and looking back through history, you can see this reflected in science-fiction. It is no coincidence that the initial conception of Tomorrowland happened during a time when America’s space program reached the height of its popularity. President Kennedy committed the nation to landing a man on the Moon and delivered his famous “We choose to go to the Moon!” speech. Everyone was excited and inspired by the possibility of the future being attainable in their lifetime, and sci-fi reflected this.
But what has happened since? Without going into the details of, well, history, we entered an age in which sci-fi is overwhelmingly depicting a bleak future. Nuclear fallout, viral apocalypses, world-ending environmental disasters… the concept of doom has never been so appealing to us. Here’s the thing, though – we may be seeing the beginning of a shift in the zeitgeist. Tomorrowland, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Interstellar, may be heralding in a new age of positive-minded sci-fi. Ulrich remarked that NASA and space exploration has seen a resurgence in public interest in recent years, sparked by the latest Mars rover mission – is it a coincidence that work on Tomorrowland began around this time?
NASA’s social media channels have exploded in popularity, Ulrich explained. The space agency’s primary Twitter account has over 10 million followers. Its Facebook page? 10 million likes. Three million Instagram followers. And that’s just a small sample of the agency’s numerous social media outreach. I remember an episode of The Simpsons from the mid ’90s that can be summed up in a single line of dialogue: “No, not another boring space launch!” Public interest in NASA seemed to be at an all-time low; but now? Well, numbers don’t lie, and we’re seeing some big numbers.
Last summer, I wrote about why a space program is worth funding. Practical reasons aside, one way you can justify the existence of NASA is not unlike how you can justify the existence of sci-fi: the inspirational aspects. And that’s what made Tomorrowland and NASA the perfect marriage – both seek to evoke a sense of wonder about the future and inspire individuals to step up and help take us there.
During a time in which we are trying to increase the representation of women in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – Tomorrowland gives us a promising young female engineer as a protagonist. In a world where the greater culture – both fiction and news headlines – is focused on doom and gloom, Tomorrowland shows us a vision of a bright future that can be ours if only we would stop being resigned to a grim fate. So can we fault Tomorrowland – a family film that includes children in its target audience – for being less than subtle in its delivery of its message of hope and positivity? I don’t think so. NASA doesn’t think so.
See you all in the future.
…whenever that may be.