vol 8, issue 8

Stanley Kubrick's prophetic vision of future technologies

12 August 2013
By Piers Bizony
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2001 space station

With a nod to future commercial implications, the ‘2001’ space station was operated by the Hilton hotel chain

2001: A Space Odyssey still showing something that looks like a tablet computer

Kubrick envisaged tablet computers long before the likes of Apple and Samsung

2001: A Space Odyssey still showing a women making a call from a computer

Skype makes this communications prediction look a little clunky, but it could just pass for a 2001 model...

Stanley Kubrick looking at the HAL 9000 computer

Stanley Kubrick (left) looks on at the HAL 9000 computer

Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was an almost documentary vision of how engineers and scientists saw the future. As time goes on, more and more of Kubrick’s designs are becoming reality.

The set designs of most movie and TV space dramas from the 1960s look quaint today. Blinking lights and clockwork dials edging towards the danger zone are museum relics, long since replaced by electronics.

The charming cardboard props and polystyrene planets of the original 'Star Trek' series would not be adequate today. Similarly, a comparison between the first episodes of 'Doctor Who' and his most recent adventures show how far modern audience expectations have evolved. This doesn't spoil our fun. We simply suspend our disbelief while enjoying vintage science fiction. However, one classic space movie stands out from the crowd by looking as convincing today as when it was first made.

In 1968, film maker Stanley Kubrick and his screenwriting colleague, IEE alumnus and noted futurist Arthur C Clarke, presented '2001: A Space Odyssey', an almost documentary film of how engineers and scientists envisioned the future of space flight, the prospects for artificial intelligence and the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrials.

The famous opening scene shows prehistoric apemen struggling for survival. An alien monolith implants in their minds the idea of bone tools and weapons, which transform their prospects. A triumphant ape hurls his new bone cudgel into the air and Kubrick dismissively skips four million years of human history as the bone becomes an orbiting satellite of the 21st century.

Unaware of these ancient connections, modern scientists discover another monolith on the Moon, which beams a powerful radio signal towards Jupiter. A giant spaceship, the Discovery, is sent to Jupiter space carrying two astronauts, three hibernating scientists and a sentient computer, HAL 9000. Hovering above Jupiter, a third alien slab is waiting for whichever intelligence, human or artificial, survives Discovery's voyage.

The film's authentic designs thrilled Kubrick's audiences. Douglas Trumbull was just one among dozens of young effects artists recruited for the production, which took four years to complete. "When you walked onto the sets, everything was as real as it could be. No one had ever done anything so convincing up to that time. Special effects now are dependent on computer graphics. I think a lot of depth and impact has been lost in the process."

Sets instead of stars

For the interior of the Discovery spaceship, Kubrick represented artificial gravity using a spectacular 'centrifuge', a spinning drum 12m in diameter, weighing some 30 tonnes, and fitted with control consoles, space food dispensers and astronaut couches.

According to lead actor Keir Dullea, who played astronaut Dave Bowman: "There were certain shots when we would lean forward and turn on the camera ourselves, because there was nowhere safe for the cameraman to go, or he'd be in the frame. Then we'd get into position and they would start up the centrifuge wheel, and you'd have an everlasting tracking shot. You would just walk, or jog, and the wheel would revolve around you."

Perhaps for the first time in a major fiction film, Kubrick introduced the idea of futuristic props and sets as principal performers in the drama, in some ways more important than his human actors. "There's a deep emotional relationship between man and his machines, which are his children," he said at the time. "We have always worshipped beauty, and I think there's a new kind of technological beauty in the world." Nearly half a century later, '2001' provides us with a unique opportunity to measure his well-informed predictions against actual outcomes.

Kubrick's exploration of our place in the universe was informed by the best industrial expertise of the time. His technical advisor, Frederick Ordway, had worked with Nasa's Future Projects Division before being lured to the more glamorous world of film. Now in his late 80s, he has no difficulty recalling that "Stanley was a maniac for detail. Everything had to be justified scientifically".

Ordway and his colleague, production designer Harry Lange, visited countless British and American aerospace and computer companies in search of realistic hardware ideas. Ordway was glad of the work. "Nasa was already running out of steam, and there wasn't anything left for us back at Future Projects."

In fact, the film's vision of a spacefaring culture was becoming redundant even as it was released. Nasa's tax funding could not be sustained and bold plans for lunar colonisation and missions to Mars were put on hold or cancelled. In this light, some of Kubrick's predictions do look wide of the mark. We are a long way short of building a settlement on the Moon, let alone the giant underground complex seen in the film. More painfully, the lack of non-white characters or significant women in commanding roles seems unimaginative today.

Flat screens on screen

Despite all this, the film's technical quality'still inspires many engineers, scientists and designers. It even provides ammunition for patent lawyers. In August 2011, Samsung launched a defence against Apple's claim of patent infringement. Who, exactly, invented the touch-sensitive tablet computer? Apple claimed that its first generation iPad was a true original. Samsung thought that the concept was more general, and therefore not subject to patenting. As evidence, Samsung presented a frame from '2001'. "Two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers", Samsung noted. "As with the design claimed by Apple, the tablet in '2001' has a rectangular shape with a display screen, narrow borders, a flat front surface and a thin form factor."

'2001' did indeed predict tablets. In an age long before portable computers of any kind, Kubrick's special effects team rigged hidden film projectors to enliven the displays. Although Samsung's gambit was just one element in a complex legal battle with Apple, it illustrates that Kubrick got many things right about the early 21st century, including the problematic effects of technology on our communications skills. As our machines get smarter, we become dumber, he suggested. Human dialogue in '2001' is deliberately banal, and HAL gets all the best lines.

Where the film made technical errors, it did so in ways that turned out to be flawed rather than plain wrong. Those flat screens are a case in point. Kubrick's people didn't anticipate that most of the buttons, too, would vanish, and we are being left now with'just the screens and touch-sensitive control panels. One scene, not used in the final cut, shows Dullea playing an electronic version of Pentominoes, a game where shapes built from arrays of little squares are slid around and fitted against other shapes. Trumbull and the animation team mocked up the moves, and Dullea conveyed the impression that his touch was causing the changes.

Kubrick went as far as faking electronic magazines. Only the need to tighten the film's running length prevented this news story from appearing on the featured tablets: "The last known specimen of Ursus horribilis, the Grizzly Bear, died in the Cincinnati Zoo yesterday. The bear's story was one of a losing battle against the increasing power of the hunting rifle and the insistent demands of cattle farmers and fish stock men that the species be eliminated."

The Discovery spacecraft is plausible, although the lack of airtight docking ports worries some modern observers. Once again, this incorrect extrapolation is a worthy failure rather than a mistake. When '2001' first went into production in the early 1960s, airtight docking had not yet been perfected. On the other hand, Discovery's three single-seater repair and exploration pods look so superbly designed, it seems incredible that they do not exist in real life.

Far from being outpaced by subsequent developments, Kubrick presented a vision of a spacefaring culture that has yet to be matched. Arthur C Clarke once wrote: "No achievement in human affairs was ever so well documented before the fact as space travel." Lange, Ordway and Kubrick's army of advisors read most of those same documents while conceiving '2001''s vehicles, and in the heat of their technological optimism they failed to ask an essential question. How was deep space exploration supposed to be funded? As we know, Nasa still hasn't solved this problem.

Inspired by art

Today a new generation of entrepreneurs are inventing alternatives to Nasa's way of working. For these aerospace pioneers, '2001' is not merely a beautiful piece of fiction but a manifesto, a blueprint around which a commercial space industry can be founded. Kubrick and Clarke knew that private corporations would play just as great a role as government space agencies in our celestial future. The film's giant space station was operated by the Hilton hotel chain, a winged Pan Am space shuttle delivered the guests, and Honeywell and IBM built the control consoles.

According to Peter Diamandis, a leading'figure in the commercial space sector: "We all saw '2001: A Space Odyssey'. People began to dream that they could travel into space. As time passed, that dream began to disappear. We saw a string of horrendous accidents, including the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion." Diamandis and his allies believe that private industry can take up the slack. Entrepreneurs are accustomed to generating innovations over the course of months, not decades. The slow and bureaucratic habits of government space agencies do not appeal to them. A business movement, known as Altspace or NewSpace, has emerged.

The Dragon capsule, built by SpaceX, is already servicing the International Space Station, while Orbital Science's Cygnus cargo craft is almost set to go. Among the more glamorous enterprises, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company has recently lit the blue touch paper and pushed'its passenger carrying rocket plane toward the edge of space. Branson is among those who see Kubrick's film as a call to arms. "I think '2001' is magnificent, and I hope that one day Virgin Galactic will be going a lot further than just suborbital flights."

The most famous of Kubrick and Clarke's inventions was, of course, HAL 9000, with his red camera eye and deceptively reassuring voice. Kubrick was not alone in believing that "by the year 2001, computers will have the same emotional potentialities as human beings". This prediction may have been optimistic, but we may not have to wait much longer for fact to catch up with '2001: A Space Odyssey''s clever fictions.

Piers Bizony's new book on the making of '2001: A Space Odyssey' will be published by Taschen Books in 2014

Further information

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Predictions: No Big Wheel

One prediction that overshoots slightly ahead of reality is '2001''s enormous rotating space station. Rocket pioneers in the 1930s, such as Robert Goddard in America, or Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley in Germany, understood the potential of such a design. The first detailed engineering proposal was conceived by Hermann Noordung in 1928. We know little about Noordung, except that he was an Austro-Hungarian army officer and that he died young of ill health. Fortunately, his station proposal survives. He described a "Living Wheel" whose gentle rotation provides its crew with artificial gravity.

Noordung predicted that weightlessness would play havoc with the human balance system. His design influenced a generation of astronautics engineers, including Wernher von Braun, whose wheel-shaped station designs were an obvious influence on '2001'. The primary purpose of a space station would be as comfortable accommodation for humans in orbit. Artificial gravity must surely be required to keep them healthy, everyone supposed.

The International Space Station exploits, rather than counteracts, weightlessness in order to conduct experiments that are impossible on Earth. The station in '2001' is "wrong" therefore, but for an interesting reason. Maybe one day it will be matched by a similarly grand real-life equivalent.

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