How Scrapped VFX From '2001' Helped Influence 'Alien' And 'Star Wars'

How Scrapped VFX From '2001' Helped Influence 'Alien' And 'Star Wars'

Visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull passed away this week at the age of 79, leaving behind a staggeringly impressive filmography, including the jaw-dropping work seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He also, incidentally, directed the footage that formed Universal Studios’ Back to the Future: The Ride. Yes, if it wasn’t for Trumbull, none of us would truly know what it feels like to pilot a flying DeLorean past spewing lava and toothy dinosaurs, all in pursuit of a thieving 1950s teenager.

His first feature film as a director was 1972’s Silent Running, starring Bruce Dern as one of the crew members of the Valley Forge, a giant spaceship housing geodesic domes containing the last remnants of Earth’s extinct plant life – all set in the future year of 2008.

The deeply odd, environmentally conscious story takes place in orbit near Saturn, which seemingly came about, in part, thanks to the artistic whims of Stanley Kubrick. The original climax of 2001 did involve visiting Jupiter – but for a time, Kubrick became obsessed with an illustration of Saturn’s rings and decided to change the film’s interplanetary destination. After months of trying to crack faking Saturn and its rings, the visual effects department eventually convinced Kubrick to go back to using Jupiter, following an “altercation” between the director and his team. 

When it came time to make Silent Running just a few years later, which some see as a “reaction” to 2001according to writer Arthur C. Clarke, Trumbull “used the expertise he had acquired filming the ringed planet” during the 2001 production to create a new, vividly convincing depiction of Saturn, not unlike what Kubrick had envisioned.

It’s not hard to see the vast influence that Silent Running had on later, more famous sci-fi movies, from Wall-E to Moon to another film about working-class astro-grunts who get into trouble: Alien. But the biggest influence it had was on a little movie called Star Wars – the whole “adorable subservient robot sidekick” thing? That came from Silent Running. Art director Norman Reynolds was specifically instructed by George Lucas to watch “Silent Running for the robots.” And artist Ralph McQuarrie, again at Lucas’ suggestion, patterned R2-D2 off of Trumbull’s creations (named “Huey, Dewey, and Louie”) but since they were boxy, McQuarrie “decided to make Artoo round.”

Silent Running’s distinct influence on Star Wars wasn’t without consequence, either. When Fox sued Universal in 1978 over their extremely Star Wars-y new show Battlestar Galactica, Universal countersued, alleging that Star Wars had ripped off an old Buck Rogers serial they owned and Silent Running, which was a Universal production. Both cases eventually fell apart. Still, Silent Running is inarguably the best movie featuring grisly murders in outer space nature preserves.

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Top Image: Universal


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