For All 2001: A SPACE odyssey’s advances in big-screen sci-fi, Stanley Kubrick’s cold heart proposed that mankind would always be in thrall to technology, ill-equipped to control our own destiny. yet one of 2001’s pioneers felt differently. young FX genius Douglas Trumbull might have been ahead of the curve technically, but as a child of the ’60s he was a hippie at heart.
So when Easy Rider’s success prompted Universal to gamble on a string of $1m features, he seized the chance to “say something about the future that was very human and very real, to take the sterility and the mechanisation out of it.” Trumbull’s debut is as spare and simple as 2001 is vast and complex.
Global warming has killed off Earth’s vegetation; a fleet of ships bulging with eco-domes is launched into space to survive the catastrophe. but when cutbacks hit hard – sound familiar? –the crew is ordered to nuke its floating forests.
Only Bruce Dern’s misfit eco-warrior Lowell, a space-age Noah in a biblical tabard, can see the bigger picture. Forced to take drastic action, he flees aboard spaceship Valley Forge to preserve his environmental treasure.
Big themes are miniaturised as delicately as bonsai. Trumbull saved on set design by filming aboard the real-life Valley Forge, a decommissioned aircraft carrier whose below-decks vibrations helped feed Trumbull’s intuition (pre-empting Star Wars and Alien) of grungily industrial space travel.
And then there are Lowell’s only companions, three box-shaped but oddly personable maintenance drones – brought to life by a cast of teenage amputees – which provide both superb comic timing and, come the ending, heart-rending pathos.
Yes, the counter-cultural credentials aren’t subtle, and a soundtrack of Joan Baez folk ballads dates the film to more innocent times. But while few nowadays dare to ape Kubrick’s monolith, Trumbull’s joyous jumble of hi-tech and heart grows in influence, inspiring sci-fi dreamers from Andrew Stanton to Duncan Jones. Aptly, this 40th anniversary re-release coincides both with the dismantling of America’s space shuttle programme and Trumbull’s comeback supervising the FX on nature fable The Tree Of Life. Science fiction needn’t always mean travelling beyond the infinite. Sometimes, it’s more important to look after our own backyard.