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Historical Futurism

Prophet Kubrick

The year 2001 came and went 17-years ago, yet 2001: A Space Odyssey still looks like the future. It would be impossible to summarize the plot and brilliance of Kubrick’s masterpiece in a few paragraphs, but here are the basics: an enigmatic black monolith, the harbinger of evolution, upgrades Ape to Man, then upgrades Man to Übermensch (though we see only so far as Star-child). Before the second transition, though, we’re treated to the struggle between a supercomputer, HAL9000, and two astronauts, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole.

The conflict starts when HAL, meant to give “100% reliable” answers, is told to keep their mission’s true purpose a secret. Lying somehow breaks HAL, pushing it to commit multiple-homicide while saying that David would “jeopardize the mission.” Ultimately, the one-eyed maniac is decommissioned by David, who—in a clever homage to Homer’s The Odyssey—uses a miniature stick-like device to disengage HAL’s logic and memory terminals.

Aside from a mind-bending plot and mind-blowing special effects (which stand up to even the biggest blockbuster films today), 2001 is known for its prophetic technology and impeccable rendition of the future. On the tech-side, 2001 features flat-panel screens, video calls, tablet computers, and voice assistants, among other luxuries of the modern world. Kubrick builds the world of the film through cleanly-set sans-serif typography, complete with Eurostile, Futura, Univers, and a fun IBM Selectric font called Manifold.

The only failed design predictions are the Bell System logo on a . . . phone booth, and the Pan Am logo on the moon shuttle.

According to the film, here’s the breakdown of when and where these sans-serifs will be used in the distant future of 17-years ago:

Use Eurostile Bold (and perhaps Extended) for Zero Gravity Toilet instructions, video-call and super-computer interfaces, and General Astronautics Map Survey titling.

Use Futura for General Astronautics Map Survey details text, Hibernation Pod buttons, EVA Pod explosive bolt warnings, Emergency Air Lock hatch labels, and HAL’s Logic Memory Center labels and warnings.

Use Univers for Hibernation Pod emergency revival procedures and interfaces (including the one that tells you when your crew has been “terminated”), and labels inside HAL’s Logic Memory Center.

Finally, use Manifold for data presented on HAL 9000 computer dashboards, especially when landing your Pan Am lunar shuttle or diagnosing your ship’s AE-35 Unit, which, as we all know, is essential for communicating with Houston.

Spot-on were the tech predictions of flat-panel screens, video calls, tablet computers, and voice assistants. While Gill Sans was used for the opening title, Kubrick, his production designers, and art directors built a modern world of cleanly-set sans-serif typefaces. With references to the Bauhaus and Dieter Rams, it all still looks modern.

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