Monday, June 15, 2015

In Defense of “Tomorrowland”

Click the arrow to watch the trailer. Video source: Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel.

WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.

Why did Tomorrowland bomb at the box office?

Opinions abound. You've probably heard the old saying that opinions are like a certain anal orifice. Everybody has one.

Some might blame the poor reviews, such as this one from The New York Times. Others might blame the Disney marketing strategy, such as this column on the Forbes web site.

A common complaint in various posts is that the story is a “mess” and generally incomprehensible.

I can only relate my own experience.

The first time I saw it, I admit I came in to the theater with a chip on my shoulder.

Here on the Space Coast, we're the “home field” so to speak for this film. Scenes were filmed at Kennedy Space Center, Titusville and other locations in the area.

Summer blockbusters in recent years have delivered a subliminal message that the United States government has ended human spaceflight, which is nonsense.

So when an early Tomorrowland scene informs theater goers that KSC's Pad 39A is being demolished, I was peeved. Casey Newton, the protagonist, tells her brother, “It's hard to have ideas and easy to give up.”

The truth is that Elon Musk, the biggest “idea” person of our generation, is spending his own money to upgrade 39A for his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that is another step towards what he hopes will lead one day to permanent human colonization of Mars.

As with many critics, I had difficulty following the film. It seemed like just so much technobabble.

I left the theater with a negative view of the film, but then found myself thinking ... I'd like to have one of those pins Casey Newton uses to visit Tomorrowland.

So I ordered one (thank you, eBay) and have been wearing it for a couple weeks now.

Why did I do that?

The Tomorrowland pin ... abundantly available from many retailers online.

The film's theme is that optimism will triumph over all.

And as I thought more about the film, I began to realize a lot more was going on than just this message.

So I went again to see Tomorrowland to give it a second chance.

And fell in love with Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland is an incredibly rich and diverse universe. One reason Lord of the Rings was so popular as a trilogy of novels (and later films) is that J.R.R. Tolkein created a rich and consistent fantasy universe.

That's what Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen did with Tomorrowland. This film requires you to pay attention.

Most summer blockbusters require little intellectual engagement. Jurassic World grossed $209 million on its opening weekend. It's a movie about CGI dinosaurs running rampant. For the fourth time. No intellectual engagement here. Sit back and enjoy the carnage.

You have to think to grasp Tomorrowland.

I think the problem with Tomorrowland is that you have to see it twice.

When you see it for the second time, pay attention not so much to the Casey Newton story line, but to the larger issue, which is Plus Ultra.

In the Tomorrowland universe, four brilliant scientists and visionaries gathered in Paris in 1889 to form Plus Ultra — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Co-writer Jeff Jensen explains the origin of the phrase Plus Ultra:

“It’s a riff off of the Latin phrase Non Plus Ultra,” Jensen says. “In antiquity, it was the warning the gods gave to man to stay away from certain regions of the world where monsters may dwell. I believe it translates as ‘nothing further beyond.’ It’s also a metaphor for hubris, and ‘Know your limits, mankind.’

“The phrase has also come to mean the very best, as in “none better.” But the term’s meaning has evolved over the ages.

“In 16th century during the golden age of exploration, the Spanish adopted Non Plus Ultra, but tweaked it. They got rid of the Non and used Plus Ultra, ‘further beyond,’ as a defiance to that ancient order from the gods, and used it as a rallying cry to push the limits and explore,” Jensen says.

That served as the inspiration for Tomorrowland’s fictional braintrust, who decided to create a utopia in a parallel dimension where only the most brilliant minds would be invited to participate.

“We loved the idea of Plus Ultra, that it would be adopted by a new era of exploration, but in a different regard, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility, and it would be adopted by the founding fathers of this organization: Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Gustav Eiffel,” says Jensen. “They formed this society at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris where the Eiffel Tower was premiered.”

It's fairly well known that Edison and Tesla hated each other, and within that lies what in my opinion is the fascination of Tomorrowland.

A fictional 1964 featurette created by Walt Disney to promote Plus Ultra. Video source: Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel.

John Dalberg-Acton wrote in April 1887, two years before the fictional creation of Plus Ultra:

Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Tomorrowland poses the question — can optimism counter the corruption of absolute power?

The film does not detail the political or economic systems of the Tomorrowland parallel universe, but it appears that Tomorrowland is not democratic. One could hardly expect those arrogant enough to assume they know better than the rest of us to allow the masses to determine Tomorrowland's fate.

A cartoonist humorously speculates about Tomorrowland's economic system. Image source: Tales of Absurdity.

The film suggests that the 125 years or so that have passed since the founding of Plus Ultra have been anything but harmonious. What would we expect of an organization founded by two people who hated each other?

If you're willing to delve further into the Tomorrowland universe, you will find that Plus Ultra has always had a struggle between the optimists and the cynics.

In April, Disney published a prequel novel, Before Tomorrowland. This is not a novelization or a merchandise gimmick. It is a rich and lush 300-page novel that takes the reader back to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where Plus Ultra intends to reveal itself to the world.

The three film writers are credited with Jonathan Case as the book's authors. Whomever did the bulk of the writing certainly did his homework, because Before Tomorrowland is firmly rooted in actual historical events. The book covers July 2-4, 1939 — not just the World's Fair, but also the first World Science Fiction Convention. The story is faithful to historical events at the convention, including those described in this 2013 essay by Andrew Liptak.

If you're an aficionado of science fiction literature and its history, Before Tomorrowland is a loving homage to its first Golden Age, generally cited as 1938 to 1946.

The Tomorrowland movie has a nod towards that age in the Houston comic book store scene. The male proprietor is named after Hugo Gernsback, who published the earliest science fiction magazines. The Hugo Award given at today's annual World Science Fiction Conventions is named after Hugo Gernsback. Yes, Hugo appears in Before Tomorrowland.

As with many fictional stories about global events in the late 1930s, the Nazis are the villains in Before Tomorrowland. Werner Rotwang is a cyberneticist who was kicked out of Plus Ultra for experiments considered too unethical even for that group. Rotwang decides to use the Nazis to fund his work, which he hopes will culminate in his consciousness being transferred into a robotic body, giving him immortality.

The risk, of course, is that Plus Ultra technology falls into Hitler's hands.

Non Plus Ultra.

(By the way, Werner Rotwang is named after the scientist Rotwang in the classic 1927 German science fiction film Metropolis.)

In the Tomorrowland film, Governor David Nix has been in charge of utopia since apparently the 1964 New York World's Fair, which is the opening scene of the film. Nix concludes by 1984 that our universe is beyond salvation, so he closes the door to Tomorrowland rather than risk us contaminating it. Thirty years later, Tomorrowland is in disrepair, but Nix can't see it's because he shut out the “dreamers” such as Casey Newton.

The Tomorrowland universe is a fertile playground. It's a shame we probably won't see any more of it.

So I urge you to see Tomorrowland while you can, and dream of what it might have been.

You can also explore the online Tomorrowland universe at

Oh ... I'm pretty darn sure that Elon Musk is Plus Ultra. Just sayin'.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to comment on your post 10 days late... I think you nailed it. I loved Tomorrowland and saw it twice. I would have seen it again but I knew I'd get it on DVD ASAP. I know far too many friends who did not "get it." I was very disappointed in the political critiques which I felt were too nit-picky (and I'm very conservative). I especially loved how the theme was a fight against dystopian movies, of which Hollywood makes far too many.