The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

I recently saw the new Disney film Tomorrowland (my review is at, and it got me to thinking about some of the themes that underlie the film. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here; I’m just talking about philosophy and the zeitgeist, not the movie.)

I suspect that Tomorrowland may be popular with different segments of the audience for different reasons. For those of us over about 50, it marks the return of a sensibility and vision that has been missing for several decades, while for younger audiences it may be a revelation of a whole new way of thinking. At least I hope so. That word, hope, is exactly what we’re talking about here.

I was born almost exactly one year after Sputnik launched. My formative years were during the twin struggles of the Cold War and the Space Race; the two were intertwined; we were told that whoever conquered space would own the future, and ultimately we (the US, and by inference, the principles of democracy and equality) won both battles, but somehow the cold bureaucratic and fatalistic future promised under the Soviets came to be the expected future anyway.

It’s amazing to me how quickly the future shifted and how little we noticed. It took us only a few years to get from the “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” of the Carousel of Progress to the heartlessly sterile dystopia of THX-1138, and barely more than another decade to leap to the apocalyptic nightmare of Skynet and T-1000 robots decimating the population. Twenty years later, the future is a cataclysmic wasteland where teenagers battle to the death and Charlize Theron blows up vehicles. For anyone born after 1970, the future has always been something to fear and dread.

In dozens of futures, from Soylent Green to Blade Runner, Brazil to Hunger Games, Silent Running, the Terminator, Divergent, and V for Vendetta to DC’s current run of over-loud, over-long, under-color-saturated fatalistic superhero films, optimism has no place. The best anyone can hope for is personal survival in the face of environmental disaster, political oppression, alien invasion and technology run mad.

Can you name a single movie made in the last 40 years that depicts a future that’s better than the present? I can get as far as one of the possible futures in Back to the Future II, and then I come up empty. If we accept that the world of “long ago in a galaxy far away” is a metaphorical future (a technologically advanced society might as well be the future), you could argue that Star Wars somewhat qualifies, but to me the Empire isn’t all that bright and cheery.

moon1I have here a copy of a book published in 1959 called “You Will Go to the Moon.” Not “you could” or “you might,” but “you WILL.” The future was a promise, something to look forward to; the world of flying cars, robot butlers, jet packs and a 2-hour work day. Machines would do all the work and provide for all of society, so that we could spend our days studying or creating, playing sports or walking in idyllic manicured parklands between gleaming towers to the sky in meticulously tidy cities with no poor, no hungry, no outcasts. That was the promise. It was not a promise made by starry-eyed naive romantics; the 1950s were a time of fear as well as hope; people were building bomb shelters in their backyards, because atomic bombs had obliterated two cities just a few years prior and a world power was openly threatening to do it again. But in the face of Mutually Assured Destruction, alleged Communist infiltration and civil rights upheaval, we still clung to the hope that we could make the world a better place, and “You Will Go to the Moon” was part of that hope.

Meanwhile, in the Superman comics, not only was Krypton a bright world of miracle and wonder, but Superboy routinely popped off to the 30th Century to hobnob with the Legion of Super-Heroes, a band of super-powered teenagers from across the galaxy who fought evil in a future Metropolis that looked not unlike the hometown of the Jetsons, all gleaming spires and friendly robots. (Of course, by 1990 the Legion was set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)

Somewhere between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the future turned ugly. It stayed ugly for decades.

Now it’s changing. The culture is shifting, and people are getting sick of hopelessness and fatalism. The exuberant energy of Guardians of the Galaxy, fueled by one-hit-wonders of the ’70s, was a declaration of this new approach, one in which cynicism and despair are challenged by an opportunity “to give a shit.” In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, [SPOILERS!] the oppressive totalitarianism of HYDRA is brought down, not just by explosions and superheroics, but also by an idealistic and impassioned speech from Steve Rogers urging the people who follow orders to act instead on conscience and be their better selves. A similar speech and call to action motivates some ex-villains to change course in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now, with Tomorrowland, the societal shift is put front and center and we are asked to make a choice: the future is only a harrowing disaster if we choose to make it one. We have the option to envision a better future and work toward it, just as we once worked toward reaching the moon.

For me, Tomorrowland was nearly a religious experience. As I watched it, I was reminded of the bright future I was directly and explicitly promised as a child, the future of Major Matt Mason, Star Trek and the Thunderbirds, and remembered how it was quietly replaced by a terrible one, and I was energized to sign on to what Spider Robinson once called “the Magnificent Conspiracy” to build the future world we ought to have. I was reminded of the words of the late Harry Chapin, in the last song of the last album released before he died. On “Remember When the Music,” he sang:

Remember when the music
Was the best of what we dreamed of for our children’s time
And as we sang we worked, for time was just a line,
A gift we saved, a gift the future gave.

Oh all the times I’ve listened, and all the times I’ve heard
All the melodies I’m missing, and all the magic words,
And all the potent voices, and the choices we had then,
How I’d love to find we had that kind of choice again.

We have exactly that kind of choice, if we make the effort to grab it. What kind of future do you want?

Now where’s my jetpack?




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1 comment

    • Chris on June 4, 2015 at 1:36 am

    Great post Jim. It was a quasi religious experience for me too. I went to Epcot center when I was 3 yrs old and never forgot it. 30 years later I returned to Epcot, and I was deeply saddened. It was the same as when I left it 30 years ago, yet all around it were messages commemorating how Disney’s purpose for it was to provide a place to build the future. A few weeks later and Tomorrowland came out.

    I liked the messages of hope and choice, but for me the most powerful message Waltzed by my consciouness so gracefully that I almost missed it. It takes place when the boy articulates some version of “I got tired of waiting for someone to build me a jetpack, so I built my own.”

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