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2001 NO SPACE ODYSSEY
FAMOUS YEAR IN FICTION IS HERE, BUT SCIENTISTS ARE LEFT TO MARVEL ONLY AT MOVIE

Keay Davidson   San Francisco Chronicle Page A8 Monday, January 1, 2001

Some years possess a mythic aura -- years like 1914 and 1929 and 1939. Mention them, and one's mind fills with images of apocalypse, of global war and economic collapse.

The year 1984 has a chilling resonance based on fiction -- on George Orwell's novel "1984." Seventeen years have transpired since 1984 came, passed unmemorably, and left; yet to this day, its very mention sends a shiver up certain spines.

Today (Jan. 1) dawns another year famed in fiction, thanks to a motion picture that packed movie houses a third of a century ago. Countless moviegoers attended "2001: A Space Odyssey" and gasped at its wide-screen vision of the future of space travel.

Munching their popcorn, Baby Boomers -- including many future scientists, and at least one future science writer -- assumed that they were seeing the future ... that by the time 2001 rolled around, passenger flights to orbit would be routine, nuclear-powered ships would ply the darkness between the planets, alien civilizations would be discovered.

Of course, it hasn't worked out that way. Not yet, anyway.

But will it? Some day?

"One of the appeals of '2001' was that it predicted all sorts of nifty, although potentially quite disruptive, developments -- routine space travel, exploration of the moon, manned trips to Jupiter, artificial intelligence -- within a mere 33 years," says Seth Shostak, author of the 1998 book "Sharing the Universe: Perspectives on Extraterrestrial Life." He also works at the Mountain View-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, where scientists listen via radiotelescopes for signals from aliens.

"The disappointing thing," Shostak adds, both sadly and whimsically, "is that the real 2001 will have none of these things. Did we take the wrong exit on the Hollywood Freeway, or what?"

"2001" was the brainchild of director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The budget was steep for its day -- more than $10 million. That cash bankrolled some of the most dazzling special effects ever seen.

Nowadays, far more costly digital effects make it possible to envision anything on screen, no matter how fantastic. Yet modern filmmakers continue to imitate Kubrick's imagery, almost to the brink of plagiarism.

"2001" began with a prehistoric primate brawl and ended with astronaut Dave Bowman's encounter with his transcendental fate. Sandwiched in between was a very realistic-looking depiction of future space flight: passenger rockets to orbit, ferries to the Moon (complete with stewardesses), underground lunar cities, piloted missions to the giant planet Jupiter.

The Jupiter-bound spaceship was operated by a super-intelligent computer named HAL. The crew's mission: to learn the meaning of a mysterious black slab,

which astronauts had unearthed on the Moon. After they had uncovered it, it transmitted a signal toward Jupiter -- a wake-up call, perhaps, for its builders?

"The movie was the future I wanted to create," John Pike recalls wistfully. He's the former space policy analyst for the Federation of America Scientists in Washington, D.C.

As a teenager, Pike watched "2001" 's anticipation of the space shuttle -- a "Pan Am" rocket that ferried passengers to orbit. There, they docked with a space station that resembled two great wheels with a central spoke. Inside was a Hilton Hotel and a Howard Johnson's Restaurant.

Now a private consultant, Pike looks back wistfully on his teenage enthusiasms. "The future ain't (cq) what it used to be," he admits. "Pan Am went bust, there are no bases on the Moon, and the (International) Space Station doesn't have a Hilton."

The Chronicle contacted numerous scientists, science popularizers and an eclectic assortment of cultural figures, and asked them: What did "2001" mean to you?

None credited the film with changing their lives. Yet many saw it as a benchmark in their personal histories.

Scott Hubbard now runs NASA's Mars Program in Washington, D.C. But in 1968, when he was a 19-year-old physics student at Vanderbilt University, " '2001' was a welcome relief from thinking about studies, the Vietnam War and the draft."

More importantly, the film reinforced Hubbard's decision to become an astronomer.

"2001" was "a titanic leap from the visual effects of even good early sci- fi like 'Forbidden Planet,' " says Hubbard, who until recently was associate director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View. He has seen the movie "approximately six times" and still regards it as "a milestone in movie making, with timeless philosophical overtones."

True, the film's visions of lunar bases and piloted missions to Jupiter remain visions -- nothing more. But it hasn't lost its cinematic power to inspire: With Clarke's enthusiastic support, NASA has christened a forthcoming robotic probe to Mars the "2001" mission. The name is a deliberate allusion to the movie, Hubbard says.

The filmmakers' crystal ball was murkiest regarding computer technology. "Despite the fact that computer technology has progressed by leap and bounds, we see no signs of HAL on the immediate horizon," observes Robert Naeye, editor of Mercury, the journal of the San Francisco-based Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

But "in other ways, '2001' underestimates technological progress," Naeye adds. "For example, I don't think Clarke oranyone in the 1960s anticipated the Internet."

On the one hand, "as prophecy, like most detailed accounts of the future, ('2001') fell short because manned exploration ended at the Moon, and still has for now," says Steve Maran, author of "Astronomy for Dummies" and spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society.

On the bright side, HAL's descent into murder also remains fiction. "Computers are operating all of our interplanetary spacecraft," Maran notes, "and thus far, none has rebelled."

Early in "2001," audiences relished the sight of a space station spinning in Earth orbit. In the distance, a small, sleek ship approached. On its side was the logo of Pan Am. In the background played Strauss' "Blue Danube."

Veteran space scientist Don Clayton of Clemson University says that even today, his heart stirs "when I hear the lilting cadence of the 'Blue Danube' .. . My mind is frozen in space, twirling in rhythm with Newton's laws of mechanics."

But the film's space station resembles its real-life descendant -- the International Space Station, now under construction in Earth orbit by U.S. and Russian crews -- about as much as the Sistine Chapel resembles an oil refinery.

"This International Space Station is such a boondoggle," says a leading figure in the pantheon of space pioneers, Frederick Durant III. "The Russians are milking us on this."

Durant, 84, ran the American Rocket Society in the early 1950s and helped start the International Astronautical Federation. He is also one of "2001" 's admirers: It's "probably the finest science-fiction film made to date," he attests.

Sadly, he said, the film's dramatic agenda is missing from today's space program.

"I personally we should go back to the Moon (with astronauts) and have a base and work on it, and we'll learn a lot. And 40, 50 years after that, we can be on Mars," said Durant, of Raleigh, N.C.

"We're a long ways still from a manned planetary mission -- at least, I won't be around to see it ... This damn (space) shuttle is an accident waiting to happen. Everyone's going to be so startled when one of these blows up again. "

Henry Gee is senior editor of Nature, perhaps the world's leading scientific journal. "In the rearview mirror, we can see that '2001' has cast a long shadow," Gee says. "It opened up clear blue water between real (science fiction) and genre space opera such as 'Star Wars' and 'Independence Day,' which are really pulp westerns with different props."

But, despite seeing the movie two or three times, Gee admitted, "I still don't understand that darned ending."

It's a sentiment shared by many other filmgoers, who still puzzle over the movie's final image: A giant fetus looming over Earth. Was the image meant to be taken literally? Was it a metaphor?

Science-fiction films aim to depict the future. But they often end up revealing less about the future than their own anxious times. According to some analysts and interviewees, the social tensions of the Sixties can be glimpsed behind "2001" 's surface polish.

" '2001' was no doubt partly responsible for my early Luddite reaction to computers," claims avante-garde cartoonist Bill Griffith ("Zippy") of San Francisco. "I didn't touch a computer for any reason until the mid-Nineties. I blame this on HAL."

Or consider the film's human characters: have more arid souls ever been depicted on the silver screen? The homicidal HAL is practically a bon vivant compared to the astronaut who indifferently watches a televised message from his parents on faraway Earth, and to the scientists who engage in bland small talk within the sterile white interior of the "2001" space station. In his 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove," Kubrick had warned that technology might destroy our planet; in "2001," he seemed to say that it would destroy our souls.

Ironically, many filmgoers of 1968 treated "2001" as an opportunity for unprecedented emotional highs -- with help from drugs. The odor of marijuana pervaded many a "2001" matinee.

"For better or worse, '2001' is inextricably married to a generation's experimentation with LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and other mind-altering chemicals," observes Dennis Stacy, former editor of the journal of the Morrison, Co.-based Mutual UFO Network. He ranks himself among the many who were "stoned out of their gourds when they first saw it .... I still think it's one of the great films of all time."

David DeVorkin, a noted historian of space science at the National Air & Space Museumin Washington, recalls seeing "2001" as a teen. After the movie, he sat there "stunned" (cq) by the experience. Then another audience member, a local social activist, shouted: "But there weren't any blacks in the movie!''

Hearing those words, DeVorkin recalls, "I came crashing back to Earth" -- the Earth of mid-1968, on which Martin Luther King had been assassinated only weeks before.

One of the film's messages is that technology drives human evolution -- "in other words, with a timely alien intervention here and there, we bootstrap ourselves up the tree," says Paul Preuss, an East Bay writer of science and science fiction who has co-authored novels with Clarke.

The film's philosophy of technological evolution is "a nice thought, but a rotten prediction," Preuss adds. "There is no evidence humanity is evolving, and even less evidence that technology is doing anything for us except to give us slightly longer lives and a constantly changing playground in which to dabble."

E-mail Keay Davidson at kdavidson@sfchronicle.com


2001 San Francisco Chronicle