Watch the 1960 Documentary that Inspired Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
Before Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos', there was Canada's 'Universe'
This article is part of The Motherboard Guide to Cinema , a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
When Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968, it was rightfully hailed as a masterpiece. It was technically and thematically unprecedented, and thanks to Kubrick's collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, it was also the most scientifically accurate film ever made about space travel (based on what was known about the universe at the time).
But this cinematic marvel may owe its very existence to a relatively obscure short documentary released eight years earlier called Universe.
Sponsored by Canada's National Film Board and directed by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low, Universe feels like the artistic forerunner to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which would be released 20 years later. The film stars astronomer Donald MacRae, who gazes through his telescope, wondering "beyond star shine and moonbeam, what will the first men to leave Earth find?"
What follows is a half an hour animated odyssey throughout the solar system that is based on MacRae's nightly work, which would go on to be nominated at the 33rd Academy Awards for the best Documentary Short Subject in 1961. Although it didn't win the category, it did win a jury prize at Cannes for animation, and NASA was so impressed that it ended up ordering over 300 prints of the film for educational purposes.
It also made quite an impression on Kubrick, according to his biographer Vincent Lobrutto.
"As the film unspooled, Kubrick watched the screen with rapt attention while a panorama of the galaxies swirled by, achieving the standard of dynamic visionary realism that he was looking for," Lobrutto said in an obituary for Universe's co-director, Colin Low. "These images were not flawed by the shoddy matte work, obvious animation, and poor miniatures typically found in science fiction films. Universe proved that the camera could be a telescope to the heavens."
Indeed, Kubrick would end up hiring Wally Gentleman, who worked on optical effects in Universe, to assist him in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also enlisted the narrator of Universe, Douglas Rain, to be the voice of HAL 9000, the artificially intelligent computer system in the film. Even the opening music of Universe is highly reminiscent of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which is used to such great effect in Kubrick's masterpiece.
So grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy a ride to the edge of the universe as understood by astronomers 57 years ago, a time when Venus was a "total mystery" and it was "reasonably certain" that Mars harbored vegetative life.
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