This week I want to assume you’ve already seen Back to the Future Part II. Given the year that we’re living in and all the address of the version of 2015 portrayed in that sequel, I don’t know how you can ignore it. It’s also best if you’ve seen BTTF2 before seeing Tomorrowland, Disney’s new sci-fi movie that feels like an unintentional response to all the address of the version of 2015 portrayed in that sequel. Particularly the part where people are disappointed that we don’t now have flying cars, hoverboards and dehydrated pizza, as “promised.”
As for what movies you should see after Tomorrowland, the list below is primarily focused on movies of the distant and near past that deal in optimism for the future. The kind of future that Tomorrowland thinks we don’t strive for anymore nor portray in the movies. Tomorrowland is only half right in its thinking, as it’s true that we’re generally pessimistic about the future but we were also plenty worried about war and the apocalypse and dystopia in the 1960s and going back many decades prior. And since then we’ve still remained excited about future technology (it’s what keeps Apple so popular), even if it’s just to amuse us until it all goes up in flames.
There shouldn’t be any spoilers for Tomorrowland in the selection of or comment on these dozen titles. It’s therefore not necessary for you to see the new movie before reading further, but it will help you appreciate the choices and their recommendation. The list is in chronological order so you can start with the first title and then feel like you’re moving forward in time.
Things to Come (1936)
Written by H.G. Wells, this sci-fi classic is not all unicorns and rainbows – or jet packs and monorails – as far as its positive outlook, but it’s ideas about progress towards a utopian future are quite similar to those in Tomorrowland, especially how the shiny new civilization, called “Wings Over the World,” is a technocracy conceived and founded by inventors and engineers.
Design for Dreaming (1956) and A Touch of Magic (1961)
Sponsored films like these were a staple of world fairs and Disney amusement parks and, specifically for these, branded trade shows like General Motors Motorama (a precursor to Apple’s big media events), with the optimism of the future tied into commercial products and gadgetry already being made. In addition to promoting GM and its cars, these two shorts also spotlight Frigidaire’s advances for the “kitchen of tomorrow.” The products are all about making things easier, but they were obviously also to distract bored housewives. As an aside, listen to the first few seconds of A Touch of Magic and tell me that didn’t influence part of the Back to the Future score.
1999 A.D. (1967)
Another sponsored film, this one from Philco-Ford, it looks ahead more than the previous two. You can see how home computers, music file sharing, online shopping and banking, 3D televisions, microwaves and more were predicted alongside the usual fantasies. For more of this kind of thing, check out an old slideshow at Mashable on vintage visions of the future as well as the blog Paleofuture.
Hello Down There (1969)
While not exactly set in the future, at least not far into the future, this musical comedy has always reminded me of the futurism on display at Disney parks. Tony Randall stars as a scientist who moves his family into a new kind of underwater home to test it out. Surprisingly, the idea doesn’t turn out to be a disaster. There is threat of shark attacks, though, but that’s understandable given that a young Richard Dreyfus costars (and clearly just lip-syncs) as the singer in a rock band. Also recommended: the 1971 TV movie and would-be-series-pilot City Beneath the Sea, about a, you guessed it, city beneath the sea.
Jetsons: The Movie (1990)
More than 50 years later, no movie or TV show has done a better job of focusing on a perfect utopian future than The Jetsons. It’s still the standard reference when considering possible positive outcomes, including everything from flying cars to robot maids. Earth itself isn’t all hunky dory, hence the homes being way up in the sky, but otherwise there’s no more hopeful place and time to look forward to. This is a list of movies, so instead of the iconic animated sitcom, I have to recommend this somewhat disappointing feature film version.
The Rocketeer (1991)
To an extent, this movie is only on this list because George Clooney’s Tomorrowland character builds a jet pack as a kid and his test trial scene is reminiscent of the one here. But also just jet packs are a staple of retro futurism iconography. Also, The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston and Tomorrowland director Brad Bird have a history. Longtime friends, they also both worked on *batteries not included and later Johnston helped design the title character for Bird’s animated feature The Iron Giant.
Minority Report (2002)
I kept thinking about Steven Spielberg during Tomorrowland. Not because Bird worked under Spielberg on *batteries not included and episodes of Amazing Stories, but because Spielberg has gone from making very hopeful sci-fi to making dark sci-fi, and that seemed to fit with Tomorrowland’s interest in how we’ve collectively gone from more hopeful dreams of the future to darker expectations. Anyway, Minority Report has it’s bleaker aspects, but besides the pre-crime issues and the annoyances with the advertising, its future seems pretty great for something so practically designed by experts.
Future by Design (2006)
This film by Oscar-nominated director William Gazecki (Waco: The Rules of Engagement) profiles the life and work of Jacque Fresco, an architect and futurist who also later had a prominent presence in the Zeitgeist documentaries. Like Walt Disney before him, Fresco has been trying to design and build the city of tomorrow, also in Florida, as part of something called The Venus Project. Even if he doesn’t accomplish the goal (he’s 99 now, after all), at least he left us with some incredibly visionary ideas and drawings to inspire others’ dreams.
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Disney already did a good enough job taking inspiration from its own Tomorrowland theme park land. This animated feature is much more enjoyable for children and actually not that bad for adults either – unlike Tomorrowland, which struggles to figure out what age its audience is. The future in this movie might be even more perfect a utopia than that of The Jetsons. After all, this one has genetically modified frogs who sing and play instruments.
Her (2013) or Interstellar (2014)
I’m running out of slots, so take your pick from these two recent sci-fi movies, both of them rare studio products with positive visions for the future. Her doesn’t reach too far ahead to show us a world that seems to be our likely destination, so long as the world doesn’t truly go up in flames, and aside from a new kind of heartbreak it looks pretty great. Interstellar doesn’t have much hope for our planet, but like Tomorrowland it mourns the loss of NASA’s shuttle program and ultimately has an optimistic outlook for humanity’s survival thanks to science, technology and, let’s just say a touch of magic.
Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective (2015)
I just saw this new documentary the other day, so it was fresh in my mind as I watched Tomorrowland. It’s not specifically relevant but is a great representative of the occasional issue film focused on solutions and progress and people working positively for the future, as opposed to the doom-and-gloom problem-peddling we see more often. This doc is about environmentalists and ecological designers involved with forward-thinking permaculture projects like community and rooftop gardens, rainwater harvesting, agroforestry, no-till farming and more. Unfortunately none of the subjects in the film are working on eco-friendly jet packs.