Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I had an sci-fi coffee-table art book when I was a kid. It was photorealistic drawings of non-existing things, like flyings cities and whatnot. When I saw this documentary about Chesley Bonestell, I thought, “I wonder if that’s the guy who did that book?” Turns out it’s not, by a country mile. (I still don’t know who did my book. Looks a little like McQuarrie—except it’s not Star Wars—but I couldn’t find it online anywhere and I don’t recall it being in my library.)

Paprika next!

Mining the distant moon of Curry Powder.

Bonestell made his bones on “hard” science-fiction: Realistic (per the science of the time) landscapes of the surface of the moon and mars and, famously, Titan. And now we have a documentary about him, which is good because he led a life with some interesting high points and ended up being very influential in the field of speculative art, let’s call it.

Bonestell was born in San Francisco in 1888 and pursued art as teen, providing little drawings for magazines, and making his first painting of Saturn after visiting a local laboratory in 1905. In 1906 San Francisco got hit by the old shake-n-bake, with a magnitude 7.9 (approximately) quake followed by the whole damn city burning to the ground, including Bonestell’s artwork. Later in life, Bonestell would do a lot of apocalyptic stuff that the movie speculates was informed by this early experience.

The first part of the movie is a little weak as far as that goes. There’s a lot of “Chesley might have…” and similar weasel-words that let you know the filmmakers are just making stuff up. It’s not out of whole cloth but it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because I’m always thinking “Or he might NOT have…” I also tend to be suspicious of “Well, I talked to Chesley on the phone 30 years ago and…” which makes up another part of the interviews.


Tragically, the moon is not nearly as dramatic. And nary a cat woman to be found.

Anyway, the facts as reported are that Chesley’s dad was leery of the bohemian lifestyle artists in SF led back in 1906 and sent him off to be an architect. He dropped out of architect school soon, however, because he was more into art and less into math. Not long after, though, he went back into architecture apparently inspired by the devastation and rebuilding that would have to be done in San Francisco, and ended up contributing to some famous buildings both there and in New York City—most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler building.

He gained national attention in 1944 for a series of paintings he made for Life magazine, depicting Saturn as seen from the surface of Titan. This led to a career in space art, which in turn led to a career in Hollywood matte painting and technical consultancy. The space art is interesting, however, because it’s very much part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. That era of Science Fiction was primarily concerned with keeping Man from blowing himself up by presenting visions of a future that could be and that would be, culminating in a book co-written by Chesley called Conquest of Space.

Now, realistically, if today we look at the ’50s and we look at space, we could’ve told all those guys they were never gonna make it. Space is too big. Too hostile. And you need a computer the size of an 18-wheeler to calculate the square root of four. Today, realistically, we have a much better shot in terms of computing power, manufacturing power and sheer wealth.

And yet.

They were the ones that believed they could do it, and they were the ones that actually did do it, with the 1969 moon landing. There’s a lesson here not expressed by this documentary, which is not just that Bonestell’s vision of space and the clarity of that vision (shared and expressed by all kinds of artists and writers), combined with the confidence of the time made something impossible happen. (And I still believe that the moon landing, while it did happen, was basically impossible.)

Pooh-pooh artists at your own peril. The subsequent 50 years of, well, Gerald Goode put it best: “Maybe there’s a downside to the constant drumbeat of apocalyptic defeatism.”

That's where I hide my porn.

All the worlds are yours, save Europa.

Anyway, cool stuff followed Conquest of Space and some of his mattes still survive. He did mattes for Destination MoonWhen Worlds Collide and consulted on War of the Worlds. His mattes were used and/or re-used in some classic bad cinema, such as house favorite Cat Women Of The Moon. And he painted metric tonnes of space art, mostly realistic but some not because money is money and sometimes money wants a winged space worm for the cover of “Wow! Space!” magazine, or whatever.

You get the idea, in other words, that Bonestell was a professional. He had an artistic vision but he was about making good product that people wanted to consume. Some of the interviews have the artist ascendant, which are of course the most charming parts.

Special Effects legend Douglas Trumbull is interviewed—the movie and/or he really wants you to know he’s also a director, but his most famous films are the cult classic Silent Running and Natalie Wood’s last film, Brainstorm, whereas he did the special effects on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and he talks about an early job he had for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had figured out the moon would be smooth, and he made a large model of it, climbed up on a ladder and dropped rocks and things on to it. Kubrick said, basically, “Nah, we’re going with Bonestell’s look” and Trumbull still seems a little prickly about the fact that it’s the one aspect of 2001 that isn’t realistic.

In a recorded interview after the moon landing, Bonestell seemed pretty disgusted with the moon being so artistically boring. I’m guessing Titan isn’t going to map that closely, either, once we get a real look at it.

And it may have been.

You could totally see this being the cover for “R is for Rocket” or “Have Space Suit—Will Travel”.

The doc falls apart a little at the end, doing what The Boy describes as “Jesus 2.0”, where the filmmakers feel compelled to go beyond ordinary imagination and ascribe to their subjects things that aren’t really there. Bonestell was an agnostic and, as far as was described here, a materialist, but this takes on spiritual dimensions in the minds of others here. And he got some things right, we now know, and the movie harps on this while stating just as plainly (while somehow downplaying) all the things he got wrong. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

On the three point scale:

  1. It’s a worthy subject matter. Bonestell hit some interesting touchstones in his life and his vision of alien worlds was important to generations.
  2. The presentation is…it’s pretty meh. The interviews are mostly good, some of the graphic work is nice, but the scene transitions make it feel like this was made for the History channel. Needlessly cheap, IOW.
  3. There’s not really a slant, except for the one we expect from someone who makes a movie about a person. It’s not a hagiography, except the ending attempts to elevate an interesting life into a divine one.

On that last point, it turns out that Bonestell was pals with Werner von Braun, and this is simply a factor of Bonestell being interested in space travel and (former Nazi) von Braun being the expert in rockets. The movie doesn’t go into depth much beyond that, and I’m fine with that. I was okay with The Wind Rises, too, of course, so your mileage may vary. Bonestell’s very ’50s-style rockets were accurate to von Braun’s designs and precisely the right dimensions, which is cool.

The Boy and I liked it!

But this is cool.

Titan’s not gonna look anything like this, you realize.

6 thoughts on “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

    • That looks in the right ballpark! I don’t see the stuff I’m remembering but it’s definitely in that color palette.

  1. I have a signed print of the last image, “Saturn as Viewed from Titan” I think is the title. I got it from an Astronaut Scholarship auction (I think), about a decade ago. Love Bonestell’s work! My husband’s dad collected Sci-Fi pulp mags, and we have about eight bins full of them – some of the art is just stunning; sexy or starling or just weird. Really was a golden age for that style of art.

    • It might have been, but it turns out it was Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority, specifically the book Spacecraft 2000-2100AD!

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