In 1960, humanity was on the cusp of achieving something momentous. After centuries of stargazing – and two decades of flying some airplanes very high – our species was finally preparing to blast through Earth’s atmosphere. The first manned space flights launched in 1961, and the first probe to fly by another planet – Mariner 2 – reached Venus in 1962.
The extraordinary film Universe (1960) presents scientists’ grasp of our solar system, and the cosmos beyond, just before we took flight. From the vantage of today, much of the information is outdated – it’s no longer ‘reasonably certain’ that there’s vegetation on Mars, for instance. But the film provides remarkable insights into how far science and space exploration have taken us in just two generations, while serving as a reminder that paradigms will inevitably continue to shift in the decades to come.
Beyond its history-of-science appeal, Universe also altered the course of cinema’s evolution: the film’s masterful cinematography and groundbreaking animation inspired Stanley Kubrick when he was researching his own space-traversing masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick even borrowed the voice of Universe’s narrator, Douglas Rain, for the iconic role of HAL 9000.
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