Submitted by Tim Mack on
[Editor’s note: See also “On Reading 2001 for the First Time” by Cindy Wagner]
In contrast to science fiction novels and short stories, movies have increasingly been a team effort. Accordingly, various futurists have been able to work in partnership with production staff, providing content and design advice for landmarks of science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey had Arthur C. Clarke on board from the beginning, which produced a vision which continues to be quite persuasive 50 years after its release in 1968. The most out-of-sync relationship was with IBM, which in the 1960s was still seeing computers as room-sized objects you walk through versus a desk-sized object you walked around. Ultimately, however, giving a ship-wide presence for the HAL 9000 added another character to the plot: the villain.
NASA’s Future Products Division handled the look and feel of the spacecraft and spacesuits, and while MIT’s Marvin Minsky was then exploring computer-generated graphics (now CGI), they were not even in what is now called the beta stage. However, a number of new techniques were created during filming (such as projecting painted screens onto the set), and this produced satisfactory results. An interesting subtext for the production of the movie was a space race with NASA, to see who got to the moon first. Happily for director Stanley Kubrick, the movie won, hitting the theaters in April 1968, 15 months before Apollo 11 landed in July 1969.
In later years, the range of foresight talent available to advise movie makers had expanded. For Minority Report (2002) the development of matrix organizations like Global Business Network, the MIT Media Lab, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) allowed access to ideas that were not even in the conception stage when the details for 2001 were being developed. And with the accelerating rate of change in the new millennium, the production challenge became not how to look far enough ahead into the future, but how to dial down the imaginations of the advisory teams so that audiences would recognize and believe what they saw on the screen.
Although the Phillip K. Dick 1956 short story was set “somewhere” in the future, the film script concept was initially set in 2080, then moved back to 2050 and finally ended up around 2030—far enough ahead to excite with its imaginative innovation but not too far to be unrecognizable. As a result, a balance was reached and the movie was a success. In this case, the translation from written form to film was a substantial improvement, as this commentator has always found Dick rather tedious and difficult to read. And like Star Trek, a number of its conceptual visualizations ultimately ended up as commercial products down the road.
“The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey” by Margaret Rhodes, Wired (August 19, 2015).
“Inside Minority Report's 'Idea Summit,' Visionaries Saw the Future,” Wired (June 12, 2012).
Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. and former president of the World Future Society (2004-2014).