Monday, August 10, 2015

Land of Tomorrow, Myth for Today

Originally published on Tomorrowland Times.

When the structures of yesterday fail us, what of today will carry us into tomorrow?

When journalist Bill Moyers sat down to interview comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1985, he asked one of the most vital questions of our time: How do we live without myths, in a world that changes too fast for it to become mythologized?


Campbell’s answer? “The individual has to find the aspect of myth that has to do with the conduct of his life.” As ancient mythologies sought to facilitate communal harmony with their local environment, modern focus on the individual has shaped our own divided culture.


This jury-rigged assembly of mythic experiences we desperately cobble together from various pieces of popular culture leaves us with certain questions that go largely unanswered in traditional mythological structures. Chief among them: How will our ever-progressing technological prowess harmonize with the eternal human mysteries?


That question, along with its various philosophical implications, inform the thematic understructure of the feature film Tomorrowland, from filmmakers Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen. With its timeless themes born of a bold structure and the dynamic, unspoken actions of its characters, this work has earned a place on my shelf of living myths from which I can assemble some form of personal mythology. 


The deeper I dig, the further the themes reveal themselves to me, reflected in every corner of this jam-packed masterpiece.





When we meet 11-year-old Frank Walker at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he is a boy who has turned to technology when the people in his life have failed him. Appropriately, the device to which he has turned his attentions is inherently singular. What could better represent individual escape than a Jetpack? 

Boundless creation is his defining attribute. Using his technology as a conduit to seek the approval he clearly isn’t getting at home, Frank enters a competition at the fictional “Hall of Invention,” in which he is surrounded by other isolated thinkers. There, he meets his ideological opposite: David Nix, a man with an unwavering dedication to “purpose.” He rejects Frank’s purposeless invention, and it is in this conflict that one of the film’s central themes is revealed. 


Not only does Nix question the practical application of Frank’s Jetpack -- indicating a disdain for certain values of his secret society, Plus Ultra, Latin for “further beyond” -- he dismisses it whole cloth when he realizes that this frivolous device doesn’t even work. Nix’s outright dismissal and rejection of failure as a necessary process of creation defines the ideological circumstances that ultimately lead to the downfall of Tomorrowland, the city. 


Despite Nix’s rejection, a recruitment robot named Athena (in the form of a young girl) takes notice of Walker. She sees in him that which her parameters are searching for, along with something else she doesn’t yet understand. Her immediate disagreement with Nix regarding Frank’s viability as a recruit further cements his position against those who programmed her. Nix is brilliant, but bureaucratic to a fault. He represents the worst remnants of Plus Ultra through the natural evolution of human weakness, and Athena the best intentions preserved in an unchanging mechanism.


Athena’s new-found boldness leads her to gift the boy a means to gain entry to Tomorrowland, Plus Ultra's city of the future where invention could flourish outside the confines of our world’s physical and institutional boundaries. When young Frank first glimpses the city, it is under construction. A work in progress that he can, and will, help to define. A microcosm of Frank’s entire journey is glimpsed in his first interaction upon entering the would-be utopia: his invention, which failed in isolation, is brought to its full-functioning glory through the aid of another. It is not mere coincidence that the first two kindesses shown to him are from machines. Additionally, despite her insistence that it is not a “biological need” (there’s that signature purposelessness again) young Frank pledges to make Athena laugh. His understandable mistaking of Athena for human will eventually come to shape Frank’s present day predicament, casting in sharp relief that which he must still attain to become a complete character -- and only through the counterbalance of another.




Just over fifty years later, the second half of the film’s “two-hander” structure is introduced “wantonly destroying government property.” (To borrow a phrase from the film’s unifying force.) Casey Newton may be an uncommonly dedicated optimist, but she lacks the ability to form actionable ideas beyond the destruction she so ironically mounts against those destroying the individual ideas of others. This manifests throughout her interaction with Frank, first setting his tractor ablaze, leaving him to preserve it through invention. This dynamic will begin to evolve and invert as their journey progresses. 

Casey, in her isolation, represents a desire to change, a raw optimism, but with no capacity to rebuild what she attempts to destroy. She finds herself in a juvenile loop of destructing that which seeks to destruct her ideals. But to destroy that which inhibits you, that which causes your failure, is not fully embracing the lesson of the circumstances that lead to that failure. For that reason, her rebellion is stunted, and she lacks the ability to create from the necessary destruction. 


Frank, on the other hand, has turned to raw creation, even after the loss of anything resembling optimism. When people failed him, he turned to technology. He created. And just when he believed a person might connect with him, he learns she is not what she appeared to be. In that moment, even technology fails him. He is a broken man, cutting himself off from the world, isolating himself in a menagerie of his own invention. (Not unlike Plus Ultra.) Again and again, this isolating motif is shown to fail. It is only through inclusive connection and shared creation that progress can be made. This is further illustrated in the distinction between Athena’s initial proclamation “I’m the future,” which Young Frank later amends, “We are the future.”


Just as modern day Frank has literally isolated himself in a sanctuary of his own invention, (“Do not mess with my STUFF.”) Casey defiantly acts alone to solely destructive ends. They represent separate, necessary but insufficient components of the solution that will allow for the eventual salvation of the lost Tomorrowland. 


They are reluctantly brought together, kicking and screaming, by the dedicated efforts of Athena’s rogue recruitment. Further agitating Frank's disillusionment after being banished from Tomorrowland for creating “something he shouldn’t have” (more failure stigma), Athena insists the two are “Special.” Frank recognizes in her programming the values that lead to the downfall of the city he helped shape. He tries to make it very clear to Casey that these optimistic feelings of hope for the future are an illusion supported by such designations of individual exceptionalism. 


“You’ve been manipulated to feel like you’re part of something incredible. Like you were special. But you weren’t. You’re not.”


As the dejected Frank is want to do, he’s speaking of himself as much as he is about Casey. Through the tragedy of his relationship with Athena and his ensuing banishment, he has come to reflect the Earth-bound equivalent of Tomorrowland’s Nix. Despite his childhood dedication to “not giving up” (which directly mirrors Casey’s) he has become his own shadow. 


Simultaneously, Nix has risen to power and turned Tomorrowland into a dystopian extension of his core values: the inability to accept failure as a necessary part of the creative process, iterating a functional concept into perversion for lack of another solution born out of boundless imagination. Through the unfolding of this conflict, the film’s technological themes begin to come into focus. The potential for any technology to become destructive, rather than constructive, lies in the degree to which it is imbued with more than its mechanical, deterministic fate as a singular functional idea. To what degree does it service open, connective creativity? 


Any choice has the potential to evolve into an apocalyptic state. Strictly developing Frank’s probability algorithm, Nix has, literally, surrounded himself with images of the apocalypse. In this way his fatal hypocrisy is revealed. He decries the world’s resignation to a “terrible fate,” but allows them as his excuse to do the same. He is unable to accept and transcend the failings of the past in service of our present creation of the future. 


This relationship with the past runs deeply through the themes of the film, as both a celebration and condemnation of nostalgia itself. A warning against the dangers of escaping into the past. Adult Frank is stunted in his development by a bright past that was robbed of him, and Casey’s destructive inability to let go of the past’s failings (Cape Canaveral) are embodied in her inordinate insistence on keeping hold of her father’s hat. Just as her hat is climatically taken from her, so too must Frank confront his relationship with the past.




As their shared journey progresses, Frank begins to let go of the past for the sake of the future in a triumphant usage of Plus Ultra’s emergency escape rocket, “The Spectacle,” which uses the Eiffel Tower as a launch gantry. Whereas Nix’s preservative inclination decries the modern use of “an antique rocket,” Frank watches as the sculpted likenesses of the society's founders shrink into obscurity behind the rubble of the launch process. As they pull out of view, so too do their failings. Frank successfully takes their inspirational success, and leaves behind that which lead to their failure. He accepts, and transcends as the rocket ascends to transport our holy trinity into the promised land. 

But when they arrive, what are they greeted with? The crushing images of failure. A desolate Tomorrowland, left to ruin by Nix’s rule. His singularly focused development of The Monitor based on Frank’s probability algorithm has monopolized the developmental bandwidth of a once-thriving metropolis (“They’re running so much power through it now, a ham radio could pick it up.”) just steps away from opening it to the world. When an idea is locked into a singular purpose, its fate is deterministically locked into that singular future. A true pessimist, by walling off Tomorrowland to any new thinkers, new ideas, Nix has resigned its fate to those mechanisms of isolation. Even the logos adorning Nix’s militaristic guards visually convey a walled-off Tomorrowland. 


Nix’s failure stigma is best personified in his unwillingness to age and confront his mortality.  His resignation to the inevitability of deterministic iteration, in defiance of the possibility and embrace of failure or death. If there is no death, there can be no rebirth. Tomorrowland itself is on the verge of a rebirth at the end of the film, redefined by inclusive values earned by the representative leads who completed their journey from isolated individuals to an inextricably joined force, defined in their relation to one another.


This comes to a crushing blow once Frank completes his shared journey with Casey, prompted by the sacrifice of Athena. The first and only future we actually see changed from the Monitor’s projection is diverted by Athena. In that moment, she proves she is more than the deterministic set of “ones and zeros” Frank initially labelled her. In this transformative moment, the film’s central technological theme comes to maturity. 


Technology can be imbued with the raw, destructive inevitability of pure deterministic fatalism, or it can service boundless creativity in a way that defies its base potentiality. 


Athena’s sacrifice is a culminating thematic statement, a literal demonstration of the motifs that precede it: accepting failure to transcend it. She grows beyond her programming through her acceptance of death. In this moment, a classic, foundational mythological event occurs: the reconciliation of pairs of opposites. Through defining character actions, designations of man and machine melt away, leaving Athena far more human than the mechanically minded Nix.


Here, Casey moves beyond her status as a solely destructive force, and matures to a role of preventing destruction. She actively disarms a flailing Nix, and disposes of an armed explosive -- itself a thematic representation, like the Monitor, of a well-intended use of technology that corrupts past the point of repair. The destruction of the Monitor represents the only remaining way to demonstrate that recurring acceptance and transcendence of past failure. Even if Casey had found a way to invert the apocalyptic message being broadcast into the world’s minds, it would be a binary solution of equal manipulation, going totally against their ideological development toward a boundless, unrestricted imagination. Instead, her character transition has facilitated the inverse in another. 


When Frank flies above the Monitor, cradling the dying Athena, he is accepting that which has eluded him. His childhood dedication to make her laugh is jointly fulfilled. Thanks to his dovetailing arc with Casey, he is successfully able to complete a long-overdue act of necessary destruction in the face of his own destructive idea. When he lets go of Athena, he’s not only letting go of his past, he’s being reborn with Tomorrowland. This wisened return to form takes its visual conclusion in a direct framing quote: a side-scrolling jetpack crash as boy, and an exactly framed counterpart as Frank touches down in Tomorrowland after completing his defining action.


Apart, Tomorrowland crumbles, but together, they can progress. Now that the requisite cleansing has taken place, they must rebuild. But how to do so in a way that honors what they’ve learned, by taking inspiration from the past without succumbing to that which caused their endeavor to fail?


The failure and redefining of this futurist society acts as a refutation of the “Great Man” theory of history. The very concept of Plus Ultra takes those “great men” and literally removes them from the rest of us in their escape to another dimension, as history has metaphorically elevated them in their tower of exceptionalism.


In stark visual and conceptual contrast to the elite membership of Plus Ultra’s founders presented in the film, the recruits depicted at the film’s end are diverse and, more importantly, represent a broader sample of working-class dreamers in fields that would scarcely be volunteered as “genius.” The final image of the film is the pure metaphorical imagery of myth. From Casey’s isolation, alone in the field of wheat, through her shared journey we’ve arrived at an ideological evolution that places us all in the field together.


As Campbell so famously said, “dreams are private myths,” and “myths are public dreams.”


It’s not enough for us to be dreamers. We’ve got to dream together.


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