Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Different America With Different Entertainment: Disney's Adventure Through Inner Space

Speaking as a former Southern California mall rat, one of my favorite experiences from childhood was riding the "Adventure Through Inner Space" ride at Disneyland. They shut it down in the mid-80s to replace it with Star Tours - albeit, also a great attraction. But not the same. And it marked the point of cultural sea change in the United States between its peak and its decline. Here is the Yesterland page mourning its passing.

ATIS was a science fiction ride. In it, we use the excitement of cutting-edge (for the time) science to instill a sense of wonder, through the fantasy element of entering a magic microscope which makes you smaller. The cheery 1950s' song "Miracles From Molecules" greets you as you exit the ride - literally, the message is that the road to future Utopia was paved with scientific progress.

Star Tours is just about the Star Wars franchise and - there will be no way to avoid angering fans so I'll just say it - Star Wars is NOT science fiction. Star Wars is space opera, a Western cowboys-and-indians shoot-em-up set in space. Gone is the enthusiasm for science and the inspiration to look to a better tomorrow; instead the story, set "a long long time ago" is a Gothic post-modern fairy tale. What a poignant indicator to mark the shift in US culture! We gave up on getting into space ourselves - here, here's a fairy tale about how space politics would be just as messed up as US politics anyway. Enjoy your sour grapes.

ATIS sounds incredibly lame to modern kids, sounding more like a hyperthyroid science fair project than a ride, and that just goes to show how our modern culture has broken the present and new generations. To a six-year-old, years before the era of CGI effects, ATIS was scary. As you waited in line, they make it look like shrunken passengers were proceeding to the end of the microscope phasing into nothing. It was a stunningly realistic effect. The cars look like they go right up there. Near the end, a huge human eye peers down on you. The ride is mostly in darkness, with bright flashing lights all around you simulating thrilling interactions on the atomic level.

But all of this would be pretty pedestrian without the hypnotic voice of Paul Frees. As the narrating scientist, he commands your attention and shapes your thoughts with lines like "I am the first person to make this fabulous journey!" and "What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?" and "No, I dare not go on. I must return to the realm of the molecule, before I go on shrinking...forever!" Frees could sit down to the breakfast table and describe his bowl of cereal and make it sound too epic for mere mortal minds to face.

Sadly, no actual video footage of this iconic and original ride exists, since it was shut down before the age of cheap video recorder cameras. But one fan, name of Steve Wesson, has devoted eight years to recreating it in 3D computer-modeling animation, and it is very close to my memories of the ride:

The architecture around the ride itself was a feast of googie nostalgia. Read that carefully, that's "googie" not "Google". "Googie" is the style of retro-futurist pop-art style, common around the general Disneyland area of Southern California. Check the definitive page on the Googie style here.

Can there be any more compelling argument that the United States gave up its dreams than that rides like ATIS and styles like googie now seem quaintly outdated? We used to look forward to the future - it was filled with exciting things and it made all the kids want to be scientists so we could get there as soon as possible and have out flying cars and robot maids. But our attitude towards the future changed from optimism to pessimism right about in the mid-80s. Cyberpunk came along, and with it came the cynical attitude that now said, "It wouldn't matter how much technology we invent; humans would be the same degenerate garbage anyway."

Right here in Iowa, we had yet another march in protest of a proposed bill that would allow exploration of building nuclear power facilities. Protesters dressed as zombies and marched on the state capitol.

I cried when I saw that story. Those zombies are no joke to me. The zombies want us to be governed by books that are thousands of years old. The zombies hate science and learning and love backwardness and repression. The zombies can't deal with sex or education or a president of a different race. The zombies will be here soon to snatch this computer out of my hands and take away my car, forcing us all back to the iron age to trod barefoot through the mud building pyramids while zombies crack a whip over our backs. The zombies are in power. The zombies own America, and the few remaining humans are scrambling to throw off their oppression or escape to a free land.

The United States has become a nation of zombies, dead things shambling forth to steal away the space-age, atomic-powered future promised to me in my childhood by Paul Frees and his Adventure Through Inner Space.