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The World of Tomorrow (1984)

8.5
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Documentary featuring original materials from the 1939 New York World's Fair.

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Documentary featuring original materials from the 1939 New York World's Fair.

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7 March 1984 (USA)  »

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An Unappreciated Classic Documentary
2 June 2013 | by (Hollywood) – See all my reviews

It is a shame that one of the finest, most poignant and important film documents in history is not in video distribution. Thus, the sparse vote count. And it's shameful that, as of this writing, the average score is an absurd 6.6.

Finest, not only because it is narrated by one of our greatest actors and narrators, Jason Robards, Jr., but the source material comes largely from a home movie Robards' father made of their family visit to one of the most famous and important of all World's Fairs, the New York World's Fair of 1939. So, the history here is first-hand.

Famous, because it was a grand fair, perhaps the grandest of all, because it was the closest to how we think of fairs, not only as exhibitions but as entertainments; and being a *World's* fair, both were on a grand scale. And being in 1939, technology, the showcase of World's Fairs, was not just modern, it was beyond modern. In fact, the title of this film, The World of Tomorrow, was the title of the Fair.

Imagine yourself living in the late 1930s. You were weaned on science fiction; to live in the future -- in fact, to be a "space cadet" -- was to be cool. The old dynasties that gave us World War I were gone, and a brave new world of flight, electronics, robotics, high-speed travel -- of color! -- was out of the labs and into the grasp of ordinary people. The future was actually palpable. But just as present was the past, the folk traditions of the peoples represented at the Fair. To be there had to evoke the wonderment of being transported in time and space. And this sense of wonderment is transmitted to us by a child who was there as his father recorded it. I believe the 1939 New York Word's Fair was the template for Disneyland.

And then, there's the poignancy. This bright World of Tomorrow, as Churchill warned, was about to "sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister...by the lights of perverted science". It was an understatement. The 1939 of the happy, festive and confident New York World's fair brought the most horrible war in history. Some of the nations exhibited at the fair would no longer exist a year later. I'm reminded of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. By 2001 the human race had colonized the moon and was sending a mission to "Jupiter and Beyond". And in 1968, when the film came out, 2001 seemed like a perfectly plausible future, given that we were in the midst of the Apollo mission. But just like 1939, 2001 became a milestone of human depravity.

In the important ways, our civilization has usually fallen woefully short of optimistic prognostications. I say, "in the important ways" because who cares if the instrumentation of Flash Gordon's spacecraft was quaintly non-digital -- it got them to the planet Mongo, didn't it?

Finally, The World of Tomorrow poses the most important question for the human race: Will we ever measure up to our promise?


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