Sparks of imagination

When I was young, probably around the age of thirteen or fourteen (far too many years back to be comfortable to admit!), I had the chance to see 2001; A Space Odyssey for the first time. I’d already read the Arthur C. Clarke novel and read about the making of the movie in various sci-fi magazines, so I’d wanted to see it for quite a while. Unfortunately, by that time, the film was not exactly “current” and was considered somewhat old and out of date.

Star Wars hadn’t appeared back then (shock! horror!), and science fiction movies were in the doldrums. There were some older movies shown now and then on TV (in my case, a refurbished black-and-white set that the entire household shared) and a few TV shows, mostly aimed at kids, but nothing that really matched the visions that the books I was reading conjured up in my head.

Cinema tickets were expensive, so the “big” cinema in town was a very rare treat, but there was another option: the “Princess” Cinema, housed inside an amazing old wool merchant’s warehouse that’s still standing as far as I know. The Princess was a budget movie theater that played older movies, at cheap rates, and included a dance hall in the basement. The screens weren’t big, but this was the days before the giant multiplexes we have now, and the difference didn’t seem much, but the cheaper price sure did.

The Princess Cinema

When I heard that 2001 was going to be shown, I had to go and see it, and even at the low ticket price it still cost a fair chunk of my pocket money. No one wanted to go with me, so I went on my own, taking in an afternoon showing, which reduced the price further. (I’m still just as tight with my money now 🙂 )

When I went inside, the cinema was almost empty (as I said, it wasn’t a popular movie at this point), which was perfect for me as I could pick the best seat in the house, right in front of the screen to maximize the view.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it starts with a shot of the sun rising over the Earth, to the soundtrack of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, then switches to the “Dawn of Man” scene showing the ancient hominid ancestors of humans (incredible makeup for the time) and their first encounter with the mysterious “monolith.” At the end of the scene, the same soundtrack is used as the primitive apes learn how to use tools, and yes, how they can also be used as weapons, to kill.

Powerful stuff. I still remember how glued I was to the screen, the powerful Zaruthustra music pumping through the sound system and trembling up through the floor to make my entire body seem to vibrate. Sonorous and subtly threatening, the drums threatening, the orchestral stabs seeming to speak of fears as old as humanity.

I was in heaven. This was science-fiction. This was what it meant. These were the feelings it was supposed to evoke, not silly shows with cardboard sets (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!)

Then, in one of the most incredible transitions in cinema history, a bone flies into the air, tumbling and spinning, then switching to the image of a satellite orbiting the Earth, seen from space. And then you hear it: the first few notes. Plink. Plonk. Followed by deep, mellow strings, beautiful and yet also somehow full of awe.

Several different shots of satellites appear, floating over the Earth as the orchestral score lifts and builds to a crescendo. And the planet? It’s so blue, so beautiful, the music almost seems to cry bittersweet at the images. The strains of the music rise, and then we see it. The shot of Space Station V, spinning far above the planet, and the music becomes the swirling roll of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube.

I think my heart must have stopped at that point. Maybe I stopped breathing. The Orion Space Clipper comes into view, lining up with the twirling space station. Then the space plane starts to turn to match the rotation as it approaches. And it’s as though you’re watching ballet. In space. With spaceships!

Orion III spaceplane

The whole scene lasts around five minutes, with almost no dialog or anything else to move the story along. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just so damn beautiful. Douglas Trumbull was in charge of the special effects (no CGI back then!), and his work was captivating.

If I wasn’t completely hooked on science fiction at that point, I think that scene cemented the deal. Sure, if you’ve not read the books, the film is hard to understand. Sure, I can look at the scene again with my thoroughly jaded modern eyes and note how the visuals look a little flat now and then, but none of that matters.

Most depictions of space at that point showed it as cold, daunting, dangerous. An obstacle to be overcome, or avoided. But nothing before then had shown me not only those things but also how beautiful it could be at the same time. It was like a glimpse of heaven.

Not only that, it portrayed the idea of space travel not as something to be dreamed about but as something achievable, almost routine. Not just something we could do, but we would do. The Orion was operated by PanAm. They ran regular scheduled flights to the station. With regular journeys to the moon as well. It made space – normal. Humans belonged there and worked there, like anywhere else. Anyone could go–all you needed was the price of a ticket.

I remember leaving the cinema with my head spinning like the space station. It locked in my love of science fiction as solidly as if I’d been to space myself (in fact Stanley Kubric once said that he believed the only way to make a more realistic space movie would be to film there!). It also generated a huge interest in music, and I developed a love of classical music that I’ve carried ever since.

So, here I am, all these years later, and I’m driving to a medical appointment, listening to the radio, when what comes on? The Blue Danube. And my mind immediately fills once more with whirling space ships, and space stations, and the wondrous awe of the universe. The fact that I now write science fiction is partly because of those images. Spaceships dancing in the beauty of of space. Thank you, Arthur, Stanley, and Douglas.

How about you? Has anything inspired you so much that even after many years, just the sight or sound of it can transport you back to that original inspiration?

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