"'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
- Noah Cross, Chinatown
I also knew if I waited long enough, the "Tomorrowland gap" would close itself, once somebody just a few years younger than I was when Tomorrowland was still "New" - young enough to see its strengths over its weaknesses in ways I couldn't - came along.
The newish blog "Progressland" has stepped up to bat and filled that void, in admirable fashion - I suggest that any and everybody read "The Future That Never Was" whether they be convinced of the greatness of the area or not. New Tomorrowland was nothing if not ambitious, in ways that Disney seems genuinely incapable of being today, and no moping and complaining from any number of Unnamed Bloggers on this very site can take that away from it. And so this article is not going to be about New Tomorrowland, but it is going to proceed directly from the notion that the area was, in the final analysis, a failure.
Maybe not an artistic failure, but it was a failure to realize its stated goal, which was to create a version of "Tomorrowland" which would not require wholesale removal within twenty years. Twenty years are coming up now, and New Tomorrowland starting to look pretty shopworn and dire.
I call this The Tomorrowland Problem: how do you keep up with the future, when Tomorrow keeps becoming Today?
It's an issue which Imagineering thought they had licked back in the early 90s. Surely the fatal flaw, that bungled line of code in Tomorrowland's essential DNA, is that it's trying to predict a realizable future. Instead, they thought, we shall predict an unrealizable future, one rooted in the ideas of the past. Surely this will add the charm back in, add the thing that the rest of the Magic Kingdom has and Tomorrowland lacks.
Conceptually, the idea is sound - in execution is where it went all pear shaped. But we shall come to that later. It's time to unpack the Tomorrowland Problem.
We ought to start, I suppose, by coming to terms with what Tomorrowland is on the basic level of visual identity. And by "Tomorrowland", of course, I mean the "white" Tomorrowland that still mostly dominates Disneyland and dominates over half of Magic Kingdom. So long as WDI isn't going to slap a new skin on the outside of the iconic white Space Mountain and significantly change its visual identity, it seems that as various "tomorrow" fads come and go - browns and earth tones, bolts and sheet metal, green lights - the area keeps backsliding to its pure "white" incarnation, even if the actual shades of white are an ever-evolving project. Space Mountain seems to always control the look of the area.
But when you go looking for descriptions of Tomorrowland, nobody really seems to even agree on what they're kind of buildings they're looking at - search online and you'll find everything from Googie, Industrial, Institutional, Streamline, Futurist, Brutalist, and every genre of "Modern" from Neo-Modern to Mid-Century Modern and Post Modern. Let's take a close look at some close contenders:
Googie - Googie architecture was a regional phenomenon of Southern California following World War II which today we would probably call "entertainment architecture": structures which sought to tap into the cultural zeitgeist by using modern shapes and construction materials made possible by the war to evoke spaceships and aerodynamic shapes. Googie appeared on coffee shops, bowling alleys, diners and all sorts of structures generally considered Suburban Blight throughout the 50s and 60s, and following the maturation of Generation X was generally considered, along with Tiki, to be desirable for its evocation of a bygone age.
"White" Tomorrowland was not Googie, although some aspects of the two styles are complimentary - both invoke space flight, moon rockets, and optimism. What's interesting is that when Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland very much was built in the Googie vernacular - and all of this was torn down and rebuilt in 1966, before Googie had even really become unfashionable.
Today Googie enjoys a very strong reputation, so it's an easy shorthand in written analysis to describe the 1967 and 1971 Tomorrowlands as Googie as a way of legitimizing them, but it is not an appropriate fit.
|NOCA, San Antonio, Texas - Vintage San Antonio|
Streamline Moderne is often mistaken for Deco or Art Deco, which is ironic because Moderne was supposed to be an architectural revolution rejecting the concepts of Deco. The idea was that Art Deco was only a mildly updated version of the Victorian and Art Noveau fads from a generation before: a style which used the iconography of the machine era but not its ideas: true Art Deco architecture still is, even after all these years, an eyeful. Streamline Moderne was supposed to strip away all that shellacked-atop layers of decorative detail, a symbol of bourgeois conservatism, and create truly modern structures. Streamline buildings are quite severe, almost plain, save for their distinctive horizontal lines and ridges, almost like aerodynamic grooves.
What's interesting is that as Victorian styles turned into Art Noveau, which turned into Deco, which turned into Streamline Moderne, which itself turned into Googie, traces of each step remained along the way, and Tomorrowland combines them all like a cocktail - keep this in mind, which we will return to eventually.
|Club Moderne, Montana - Wikipedia|
Futurist architecture, in its strictest sense, is an Italian genre with - troublingly for Americans who wish to follow Walt Disney's lead and identify Disneyland with Democratic institutions - a strong hint of fascism floating through it. Futurist manifestos will forever be written and re-written because the Future is an ever-evolving horizon-line, but the imposing, institutional quality Tomorrowland inherited in 1967 can be traced to Italy of the 1930's.
What's interesting is that the more you try to define the "Tomorrowland look" you realize that it doesn't look like anything -- except itself, and that this itself accounts for its longevity even while it dates the area immediately. There's just no nailing it down with any definable terminology we have available to us, but all you have to do is describe any building as "looking like Tomorrowland" and a host of relevant associations spring to mind. In looking for probable contemporary sources for Tomorrowland's look, besides the World's Fair of 1964, there is this:
The "Theme Building" of Los Angeles International Airport from 1961.
Not so much because it is strongly themed, at least not in the way that the Enchanted Tiki Room or Plaza Inn are themed to a specific place and time, but because the architecture itself suggests themes - futurism, dynamism, the conquest of frontiers. This is Theme Architecture, not themed architecture.
What's interesting is that as Theme Architecture combines aspects of many other styles, many examples of those disparate styles are today treasured as classic contributions to world art. Buildings that were once considered ugly and torn down en mass are today restored and preserved. It took around twenty to thirty years - about two generations - which is right about the time when Disney began to tear out their Tomorrowlands.
Is it possible that Disney tore out their Tomorrowlands just on the threshold of when those ugly buildings were about to become respectable?
The Dangers of Specificity
What, then, is the essential component that causes visions of the future to date badly? Popular culture has been generating new ones every few years, and each new edition is more or less an extrapolation of current trends and varying degrees of pessimism. "The World of Tomorrow" has always been a rich ground for social critique, given the theoretical - if always remote - possibility of that future coming true. However, one of the defining traits of visions of the future is that they inevitably get it wrong. After all, if somebody actually accurately predicted the future, say, 70 years out, it probably wouldn't be a widely digested text, because we'd see it as more of a documentary than anything we define as "Sci-Fi".
Indeed, one of the most important appeals of "futures" past is that they got it wrong. We like to look back from our privileged vantage point and see what they got wrong, what they got right, and how the fantastic predictions and obsessions of a past generation are still relevant to us today. The fact that Tomorrowland is always becoming Yesterdayland is, in fact, absolutely essential to its appeal.
And once we say that, once we float the notion that most valuable future visions have been remembered despite presenting a dated version of the future, the scope of the "Tomorrowland Problem" starts to narrow exponentially. The question becomes now how to present a future that never dates, but how to present a vision of the future which dates gracefully.
Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland of 1971/75 was never meant to last forever - in fact, it was dated the second it opened. Rocket/Flight to the Moon, a cornerstone Disneyland E Ticket, became science fact while the Florida version was still a hole in the ground, and it happened only a few miles from where Disney was building, necessitating a quick swap-out in 1975, adding some whimsy and changing the destination to Mars. And while in the 50s the Rocket to the Moon was a fairly serious depiction of what space flight could be like, by the 70s Mission to Mars hostesses were already asking viewers to bring "their imaginations", offering hopeful apology for something already so obviously old fashioned. One wonders when Walt Disney would've pulled the plug on it had he lived even, say, four more years.
|It's that darn albatross again!|
Furthermore, Disney's "Tomorrow" was weirdly narrow and specific - Carousel of Progress was a rotating furniture gallery tracing the increased automation of a dozen home furnishings like, say, ovens. Adventure Thru Inner Space, besides being a crazy head trip ride, ended up being as much about Monsanto chemicals, fabrics, and home wares. Circle-Vision only made sense when it was new, as an answer to things like Vista-Vision and Cinerama. If You Had Wings was an airline advertisement. Nobody knew just what America Sings was doing there. One of the reasons the EPCOT Center attractions dated much more slowly is because they were big picture dialogs - not about what new high-strain fiber Monsanto was brewing up, but about the history of the whole of man's technological progress. Probably the only attraction ever put into Tomorrowland that never needs anything but aesthetic updating is Space Mountain, because the scale of its concept is so abstract - Space is Weird, and Fast.
Specificity has its advantages and disadvantages, although the disadvantages outweigh the advantages the longer the product is supposed to last. In the era when films, for example, were supposed to enter and leave theaters in a year or two, then specificity could be a virtue - "torn from the headlines" tales of war feats, criminals, and social concerns were important selling points of many movies. Theme park installations, a sort of mutation of cinema, were sort of an early version of home video... the product would be preserved so long as people paid to see it. Whereas films were expected back then to retain their value for a relatively short span of time, theme park attractions can and have been running for going on three generations, assuming that their themes and ideas are universal enough to seem ever-new.
Although rights disputes kept Destination Moon off TV and video for generations, the popular appeal of it today is somewhat questionable anyway - Destination Moon is "hard" SF, without any space cruisers, wookies, or death rays. In fact, it's nearly a documentary, although one from an alternate dimension where the first space shot was made in 1950 and funded by industrialists - the government has to buy their technology to stay ahead of the Reds.
Besides the social context, however, Destination Moon is eerily similar to how it was actually done in 1969, and makes for gripping viewing. It seems to be the true inspiration for John Hench's 1955 Rocket to the Moon, for one, including the idea of making the actual count-down and lift off the dramatic center of the action. Disney's roughly similar Man in Space shows which provided the "official" televised foundation for Tomorrowland look like fairly obvious Destination Moon retreads in retrospect. And in fact, just like Destination Moon, the Man in Space shows were not available for generations - not due to rights issues this time, but because Disney probably correctly sensed that the commercial possibilities for them were limited. Both are extremely detailed, technically oriented discussions of theoretical space launches that we now know were only very close to what actually happened; that's not going to be an easy sell for audiences. Audiences kinda do need those spaceship battles and death rays to keep them interested sometimes.
Moreso than maybe any other film, Destination Moon ought to be the poster child for the Tomorrowland Problem: your product can be detailed, exciting, technically brilliant, and influential, but when you only just fall sort of predicting a realizable future, obscurity eventually follows. Audiences seem to want their Sci-Fi wrapped in weird places and technology, and being totally wrong in your "predictions" may just be the key to longevity instead of being mostly right.
Two Defining Examples
To further explore the dilemma, I'd like to pick on two widely seen, evergreen examples of Sci-Fi film making which influenced not only Tomorrowland and New Tomorrowland, but legions of films which came after.
There are, in my opinion, only about a half dozen key Sci-Fi films which permanently informed our vision of "The Future". Some of them forged new ground, others summed up the genre and set it on a new course. Two of the most influential - Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - are outside the realm of our discussion of the "Tomorrowland Problem" for obvious reasons - and Star Wars is self-consciously set in a fairy tale world anyway. The fact that there is now a Star Wars ride actually in Tomorrowland itself points more ironies than I care to elucidate.
Two other seminal films, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982) did have a measure of influence on both Old and New Tomorrowland, although that influence was largely visual. A discussion of their relative complexities and messages, especially 2001's totally abstract modern myth or the ethical limits of corporations and technology found in Blade Runner and echoed in Alien Encounter seems to demand more elaboration than the scope of this article permits. Both use a measure of real-world prediction to carry ideas of identity (personal or cosmic) in a film of primarily visual pleasure.
|Top: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Bottom: Express Monorail on Flickr|
|Top: Space Mountain Bottom: 2001: A Space Odyssey|
|Top: Blade Runner, Bottom: Tomorrowland 1994 (photo by Tom Bricker)|
Instead I'd like to look at the two granddaddies of the Sci-Fi cinema, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and H.G. Wells' Things to Come (1936). Both films are visually spectacular and dramatically ludicrous cinematic monsters which were insanely costly in their day and huge box office train wrecks. Both films rose out of relatively poor reputations to become some of the most influential films ever made. But while one is one of the most recognizable and widely seen films of its time, the other has largely been forgotten by posterity, beloved by only a small legion of admirers. I believe that by looking at these two films in detail and as representatives of the problems inherent in depicting the future, we can nail down the basic challenges facing Tomorrowland.
I'm going to summarize Things to Come in its entirely here because most people have not seen it and an understanding of its overall message is important to have on hand. This isn't really a movie you can "spoiler" - the events are less happenings and more excuses for characters to pontificate - but even so, if you insist, the next three paragraphs can constitute "spoilers":
Things to Come opens in 1940 in Everytown (London). Everytown is on the brink of war with an overseas nation, a war which many predict will never come (sound familiar?). War beaks out on Christmas Eve and Everytown is shelled nearly to rubble. The war becomes a drawn out battle of attrition which lasts twenty years and reduces most of the Western World to desolation. Near the end of the war, the unidentified enemy unleashes a toxic gas which causes a plague - The Wandering Sickness - which decimates half the world's population. By 1966, mankind is back at a point analogous to the Dark Ages.Okay, if you could read those paragraphs without laughing at several points you are a stronger willed person than I. Yet despite the absurdity of the film, both in summary and while watching it, the film is completely serious about the grave nature of these predictions. How the film ultimately loses modern audiences is that, by positioning itself as a straightforward prediction of events which we know very well did not happen, the film proves to be consistently, sometimes bizarrely wrong.
Following the end of the plague in 1966, feudal warlords take control of territories, determined to rebuild and continue hostilities. Unknown to them, in Basra (!) the surviving scientists and engineers from the old world are building airplanes to form Wings Over the World - a benevolent technocracy which removes these dictators with the harmless "Gas of Peace" and unites the world under a single flag. From there, Wings Over the World rebuilds civilization harnessing all of the earth's natural resources as a series of futuristic underground cities where war and want is eradicated.
By 2036, mankind is engaged in a fierce debate about the ethics of a moon launch, while a disgruntled artist rallies a mob to stop the manned space flight and demand a return to the old ways, where life was passionate and short. The launch is thwarted and the first living humans are shot out of a giant rifle (!) into space. The film ends with an impassioned discourse on the destiny of mankind to inherit the stars.
For example, in the terrifying and gripping opening sequences - the parts of the film which do seem spookily prescient, almost a documentary of the near future - a great deal of debate occurs about the role of war on technological progress, a concern that Wells, the great pacifist that he is, places no stock in - he introduces a buffoon who continually reassures us that there will be no war, and whose rejection by the main character is a salient dramatic point. This blustering comic character does bring up the idea that wars can be a start to great technological advancement, which the noble main character immediately rejects - this same character will soon go on to become part of Wings Over the World and rebuild society. Only the characters who take Wells' position are depicted as being remotely sensible.
Much of the unintentionally comic aspect of Things to Come rises out of the gap between the film's urgent messages of warning and our own knowledge of what did actually occur. A portentous title card looms out of the rubble of Everytown: 1966, and as the film fades to the last vestiges of humanity scrambling through the wasteland, we smile and imagine teenagers listening to Revolver in their bedrooms.
Despite this, H. G. Wells' faith in humanitarianism shines through every frame of the film, making Things to Come simultaneously absurd and exhilarating, reassuring us even as it depicts the total destruction of our way of life. This makes it prime Tomorrowland material, even if Wells was a genuine futurist while Walt Disney was more of a industrial optimist: Wells wants to tear down all national and personal distinctions while Disney believes in the power of capitalism to achieve a future utopia. Interestingly, they seem to arrive at the same place, with Wells' Everytown of 1936 bearing more than a few passing resemblances to Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. There are even moving sidewalks which remind us inevitably of Peoplemovers. And while Disney's estimation of the need to start fresh is less extreme than Wells' wiping clean of the slate, the idea of staking out virgin land in the swamps of Florida is not too different, in the end, that Wells' escape via international disaster.
|Things to Come, 1936|
|Walt Disney's EPCOT, 1966|
If it plays best as a total Buck Rogers fantasy, then the immediacy of Wells' message is lost. Once we lose Wells' message and think of Things to Come as being set "once upon a time" instead of "happening at your house tomorrow", the effect is diluted. Despite a fantastic new edition of the film by the Criterion Collection, Things to Come is likely to remain a remote and faintly ridiculous cult item, a warning from the past of a future that did not come anywhere close to reality.
But really, do we need to look any further than the very first page of the novelization of Metropolis, written by screenwriter (and Mrs. Lang) Thea Von Harbou?
"This book is not of today or of the future.
It tells of no place.
It serves no cause, party, or class.
It has a moral which grows on the pillar of understanding:
'The mediator between brain and muscle must be the heart.'"
So far as I know, the first author to propose seeing Metropolis as an allegory rather than as a Science Fiction film was Tom Gunning in his book "Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity", and when we take this tactic, a number of questions which otherwise seem unanswerable begin to fall into place. For example, the lack of traditional SF trappings beyond the robot: Metropolis' robot may have inspired C-3PO, but it has only a few minutes onscreen before it is turned into the "false Maria". Similarly, the film's overall structure counterpoints very sleek, modern visions with very ancient ones - catacombs, the Tower of Babel, the Moloch god of sacrifice (Von Harbou seems to have lifted this from Paradise Lost), a Grimm's fairy tale cottage, a church, the Biblical apocalypse itself. Metropolis combines and codifies all of the impulses of its day into one meta-text of modernity, everything from abstract sculpture to Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower.
|The Einstein Tower, Potsdam|
|"Berlin, stop and think! You are dancing with death!"|
|Metropolis, 1927: The dance of death|
This, then, is the basic root of the bulk of the complaints the film has raised over the years, including by H.G. Wells, who took offense to its ludicrous action-adventure pulp. Wells was convinced that audiences would leave the theater insulted that such a wildly improbably version of the future was being presented -- but then of course depicting any future was never Lang's goal.
It's also why 2001: A Space Odyssey seems ever relevant. Kubrick and Clarke didn't correctly predict everything - their 2001 depends on the everlasting continuation of the Cold War - but in the end, their monolith is a vision that never ages, because it's nothing but a black board, a visual placeholder for something unfathomable. Similarly, Lang's Metropolis looks like nothing else so it doesn't date. Both films deal with abstract ideas more than they do with the practical possibilities of, say, inventing new textiles or determine what a 2036 airplane would look like.
Because here's the key lesson: all the great movies set in the future aren't about the future at all. This is the Big Point that Tomorrowland keeps missing. Ideas, fashions, cool shapes, colors, all of those variables change, and even ugly buildings and politicians can, one day, become respectable. But all great Sci-Fi and any great Tomorrowland must be built on thematic concerns, not visual concerns. We can keep painting the buildings different shades to match the fashion of the moment, but if the basic buildings underneath that paint don't express something universal, the problem will just keep on renewing itself, like a mobius strip.
What Tomorrowland should really be about is people, and the problems we face as people. This is why so many of EPCOT Center attractions (the ones WDI closed in so much haste) still seem so far ahead of us while Tomorrowland always seems so far behind us. More than any other area of the "castle" style theme parks, Tomorrowland, at its core, doesn't need to be about predicting "the future" so much as the timeless and tireless human struggle. The whole "future" thing is just a shopworn literary conceit - it allows us to imagine ourselves out of the narrow space of our bodies, this theme park, our lives, and allows us to imagine ourselves as beings of the infinite. We can take a God's-Eye-View on our progress as a race.
That's why the "Theme Architecture" works so well. In a theme park which depicts diverse locations and styles, the "Tomorrowland look" is a loophole that allows us to pass easily into abstraction. It's not a British colonial boathouse, an American wild west saloon, or a medieval European village; Theme Architecture is line in motion, architecture as vision. It should challenge us to think outside of the boxes in which we place ourselves. And Tomorrowland, and Space Mountain, like any church, is white, and covered in spires, all of them pointing up.
To heaven? Or beyond the infinite? What is our destiny?