2001: How Much Did Kubrick Get Right?

When Stanley Kubrick’s monumental film 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968, it represented more than a touchstone in cinematic art and special effects; it was a wish of how man would escape his earthly cradle and venture forth toward the stars.

To a wide-eyed viewer seated in the audience nearly 33 years ago, the future never looked more amazing, for mixed in with the film’s densely crafted metaphysical and political attitudes was an extrapolation of the evolution of technology, as envisioned by Kubrick and his co-writer, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

But now that time has marched on and we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, how close were the filmmakers’ projections to reality?

Fly Me to the Moon

What Was Predicted: Passengers could shuttle between the Earth and orbiting space stations via Pan Am’s supersonic transports. Dr. Haywood Floyd dozes on board while a movie plays in the seat back before him and as his pen floats through the weightless cabin.

Where We Stand Now: As the Apollo program headed toward a lunar landing in the late 1960s, Pan American World Airways accepted 90,000 reservations for commercial flights to the moon, predicted to begin circa 2000. Alas, in 1991 Pan Am filed for bankruptcy, only to rise from the dead several years later as a regional service among such cities as Pittsburgh, Bangor, Maine, and Sanford, Fla.

But tests of experimental aircraft are continuing, based on predictions that commercial suborbital and orbital flights will take place in the near future, to feed an anticipated growth in space industry and tourism.

At least today, many jets have personalized or seat-back viewscreens as in the 2001 plane.

Kubrick commissioned the Parker Pen Company to design an “atomic pen” that would presumptively work in zero gravity without filling the plane with clouds of floating ink. The concept behind its design — a heat generator — presages today’s inkjet printers.

Call Me

What Was Predicted: Bell Telephone’s Picturephone would enable face-to-face communications between someone on Earth and a caller on board an orbiting space station. Price of a two-minute call? $1.70.

Where We Stand Now: The Bell System — a consortium of local and long-distance companies as well as research laboratories — was split in 1984 in a historic antitrust decision. PicturePhone, which Bell marketed aggressively in the 1960s and early ’70s, never caught on with a public likely concerned over answering the telephone while wearing only a bath towel.

But Internet broadband technology, video teleconferencing and digital cameras have developed to the point where face-to-face communication is gaining more popularity.

And as the rise of Web cams suggests, people today are perhaps less modest about revealing themselves to friend or stranger alike.

What Was Predicted: Security access would be checked through voiceprint identification.

Where We Stand Now: Voiceprint recognition software — one of a slew of biometric technologies slowly taking over the need for personal identification numbers, or PINs — is being increasingly used in computer and cell phone access and caller ID.

Out of This World

What Was Predicted: Hilton and Howard Johnsons would be among the corporations with franchises in space.

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