Tomorrowland is a film every future scientist should see

Posted by Eric Betz
on Friday, May 22, 2015

NASA’s man in Hollywood says the latest rash of sci-fi films show the agency still holds sway with young minds more than half a century after the launch of the Space Age.  

Disney's new film Tomorrowland attempts to bring space age inspiration to a new generation. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

“The future can be scary,” Frank Walker (played by George Clooney) tells audiences at the beginning of Disney’s latest film, Tomorrowland. He continues, “When I was a kid, the future was different.”

As I watched the film premiere in Milwaukee this week, I paid close attention to a little girl and her brother sitting next to me, jaws agape as they leaned toward the screen. Both were under 7 years old.

Understandably, the critics' reviews — like those of the people I watched Tomorrowland with — have been mixed. But plot holes and story struggles aside, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe during Tomorrowland. The visuals are stunning. And the theme is vital to humanity’s future: Scientists could fix the world if politicians would get out of the way. In this futuristic world, children are the key problem solvers.

Without giving too much away, Director Brad Bird’s premise is that human negativity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re obsessed with the end times, and so that’s exactly what we get. And truly, you don’t have to look hard to find its signs right now. Our world is a bouquet of bad news that could encourage any child to give up.

Hollywood makes the problem worse with its own apocalypse obsession. Mad Max: Fury Road had a $45 million opening weekend and is projected to crush the box office again this Memorial Day. Tomorrowland excels by rebuking such cynicism. Disney’s film tells kids that adults might be riddled with doubts about the world, but there’s no need to listen to them. I think that's a positive message every child should hear.

The film centers on the 1964 World's Fair in New York — a place and time where President John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech lifted the country to achieve more than any preceding generation imagined possible. The fair itself (though not the movie) featured a space park with elements from NASA’s early space programs.

NASA imagery abounds throughout the film. The main character is a young female science protégé named Casey Newton, and because her father is a rocket engineer, she’s inseparable from a hat featuring the space agency’s famous “meatball” logo. I took the chance to speak with NASA’s man in Hollywood, Bert Ulrich, this week about the agency’s role in Tomorrowland and how it continues to inspire young minds more than 50 years after the Space Age helped create a generation of scientists and engineers. I’ve edited our conversation for space and to avoid spoilers.

Eric Betz: What was NASA’s involvement in this movie?

Bert Ulrich: Every movie has a life of its own. So, in some cases we get involved from the very start to the very end, and in some cases we get involved right in the very end. Tomorrowland was one of those situations where we saw it from the beginning to end. There was a small NASA storyline, but NASA kind of sets up the character. You develop an affinity for Casey Newton, the main character, because her father works for NASA. She has this whole culture about her that has formed her and permeates throughout the film. Some of the values that her character has resonate very much with the agency. You have this young woman who has an interest in science and engineering, and she has these shared traits that you see a lot here at NASA — the audacity, the ingenuity, and the shear guts, especially if you’re an astronaut. And you see those shared traits with people who work here.

EB: Much of the film centers on the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and carries these Space Age themes. Can you tell me about NASA’s history there?

BU: The movie has all this sort of retro future stuff going on. And with the ‘64 World’s Fair, around that time, Wernher von Braun, who’s one of our godfathers of rocketry, he worked with Walt Disney himself on a number of television programs based around sending people to space, and sending them to the Moon and beyond. Wernher von Braun’s concepts of space exploration were discussed in these television programs. And so what’s really wild is that in the '60s, you had a commingling of NASA and Disney together, and now with Brad Bird’s vision of Tomorrowland, there’s a commingling with NASA. It’s sort of interesting. It’s a coincidence, but it’s an interesting circle where you’ve got the two cultures coming together again.

EB: Do you think NASA has as much of an inspirational role for kids today as it did 50 years ago when the agency was launching the Apollo program?

BU: I think so — even in some ways more so — and I think it’s because of two things: One is because of the geek age we’re in, sort of the tech age, and I have a 13-year-old, so I get to see it. Our social media numbers have skyrocketed. Our Twitter role alone is like 10 million. I haven’t seen this upswing in interest in sort of a cultural way before, and I’ve been with NASA for a very long time. I’ve been here 25 years. So to see this new, engaged interest in the agency is really exciting. The other thing is I think a lot of people are better educated to science and technology than they were earlier in part because of the technology age and also because of the documentaries people are making. We’ve worked on more than 100 television documentaries. So I think the audiences are smarter in a lot of ways. I think they’re more in-tune to learning things. We also definitely play a role in the dialogue of pop culture today more than ever. I think you see it in the terms of the interest we have on social media and also the interest from Hollywood. All these movies we’re working on right now, this is like a golden age for us.  We have Tomorrowland. We’re working on The Martian, we have Geostorm coming out next year. We did Transformers 3, Men in Black 3 — these are movies with major directors and major talent. It’s just incredible. 

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