The Lunar Illusions of Stanley Kubrick

Did the Creater of 2001: A Space Odyssey Lend His Skills to NASA?

It was supposed to be “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as astronaut Neil Armstrong reached the surface of the moon. Instead, as some would have us believe, it may have been a massive fraud on the American public and the world as two men actually, it is alleged, were hopping around in a Nevada desert pretending to be on the moon. And the “small step,” some conspiracy theorists will tell you, was actually an amateurish Stanley Kubrick production—in contrast to his “giant leap” into the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There are still some who believe that the July 20, 1969, moon landing could not have happened the way Americans saw it on television. There was, they say, no crater on the surface where the landing craft touched down. Nor were there footprints or dust kicked up as the astronauts made these steps. The American flag billowed in the wind, they say, although the moon has no wind. Where there should have been stars in the background, there are none (even a novice astronomer would have been able to detect the deception). Shadows appear to point in different directions and even intersect. Hotspots that could only be caused by lighting appear, while there is light reflecting off the faceplate of one astronaut even though the sun is behind him. For the conspiracy theorists, even the lack of computing power of the sixties calls the whole landing and takeoff into question. A modern iPhone, they point out, has more capability than Apollo 11.

NASA has put forth explanations to counter the critics and, in fairness, it is true that no such computing power was needed for the advances made during the war. Among the skeptics, most believe that no matter what happened during the first attempt, subsequent attempts to reach the moon were indeed successful. It is the first landing, and specifically the filming of the landing, that leaves some in doubt.


The Motive

The biggest question is still, why, actually, would NASA have gone to the great trouble of faking the moon landing? Interestingly, there was a possible motive. John Kennedy as President had made a speech in September of 1962 declaring America would be on the moon before the decade was out. After all, the Russians were leading the race to space, and the country was still competing for dominance in the Cold War. Having hired a work force of 400,000 and well on the way to burning through 30 billion dollars (which today would be about 135 billion dollars) NASA in 1964 was no closer to reaching the moon. On April 20, 1964, the Department of Defense, in a candid moment declared the Air Force had 13 consecutive failures with Atlas rockets and F-1 rockets designed to carry humans. And it would only get worse. After a couple of spacewalks were accomplished, disaster struck.

Then on Jan 27, 1967, an explosion took the lives of three astronauts: Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chafee. Grissom had become an outspoken critic of just how the moon project was going, and he was apparently upset with having to take the blame for the sinking of his own Mercury spacecraft on splashdown. Aerospace writer Bill Kaysing would go so far as to claim Grissom was killed because he was about to expose the project’s waste and official incompetence. While it may seem preposterous, safety inspector Thomas Baron, who worked for North American Aviation, the company that built the command module, also made some very critical charges against NASA. While not coming to the same conclusion as Kaysing, Baron claimed the fire was a result of serious safety violations. One week after giving his report to a congressional committee, Baron’s car was struck by a high-speed train, killing him, his wife, and his stepdaughter.

Even before the tragedy, according to this line of thought, it had already been decided that the landing on the moon would not happen on the schedule that had been planned. So to salvage NASA, the moon landing would have to be faked. For that purpose, NASA needed a filmmaker.

Why Kubrick? As the story goes, there were two reasons. He had mastered the art of what is called front screen projection. Long before computers would do the job, Kubrick would take one scene for a backdrop and in a sound stage create another, entirely different scene. With one being filmed over another, the process could make characters appear to be somewhere else than where they really were. Kubrick had started his career as a photographer who graduated to making short films. His movie Spartacus was made in 1960. Besides a huge budget and a cast of 10,000, his ability in using 70mm Super Technorama film allowed him to get ultra-high definition, unusual staging, lighting and effects. He outdid his own cinematographer who threatened to quit.

Kubrick also displayed an anti-establishment bias. Of note, his film Paths of Glory was decidedly anti-war. The Pentagon, not surprisingly, viewed him as an enemy but at the same time respected his ability.

In 1964, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a critical and financial success. While he made his audience laugh, his fans did not include those he attempted to satirize. Nuclear war was a taboo subject, and friends warned that spoofing the military would end his career. In fact, he was warned that his original depiction would not be released unless it could be considered a comedy. This movie was originally scheduled to be released on November 22, 1963, but that fateful day saw the President assassinated. Release was pushed up to 1964, not long after Lyndon Johnson took office. The country was divided. There was a Cold War going on. The Pentagon did not like its generals portrayed as madmen. Kubrick’s cast included Brig. General Jack Ripper, Col. “Bat” Guano, Major “King” Kong and General “Buck” Turgidson. Dr. Strangelove himself may have been based on Werner von Braun, the designer of the Nazi V-2 rockets, who America brought back to work on its own rocket development. A mission called Operation Paperclip had brought many Germans to America. Von Braun, the rocket scientist, went to NASA while Luftwaffe Major General Dornberger went to Bell Aircraft. For many in the military, it was a way to keep ahead of the impending Soviet threat. If the Americans didn’t save the scientists their advanced ability of rocketry might fall into the hands of the Soviets. Others, like Kubrick, didn’t agree. He was an important critic and his movie was a soapbox. More than a few objected. Even the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther declared the movie to be a “discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment.”

However, at the same time, military experts were impressed. They knew they had refused him access to the B-52 bombers, yet he had managed to create very accurately his own B-52s  from only photographs.


The Means

So in 1964, the purported saga of Kubrick and the Moon Landing begins. The government, particularly NASA, though not fond of Kubrick, at the same time decided he might be the only one who could save the space agency. So, it is said, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Kubrick, the story goes, was offered his life, as some in the military would be much happier if he wasn’t around, and financial backing for 2001, and possible future projects. Apparently he didn’t refuse the offer.

From 1964 to 1969, Kubrick is purported to have worked both projects simultaneously. The faked moon landing and 2001: A Space Odyssey both helped Kubrick perfect his filming techniques. The apes in the beginning of Space Odyssey were shot on a sound stage, indoors, over a backdrop of rocks from an area in Spain. The astronauts also were on a soundstage with the backdrop being the Nevada desert.

Fred Ordway, one of NASA’s top scientists, had worked with Werner von Braun and others who had been spoofed in Dr. Strangelove. This did not stop Ordway from working with Kubrick. For four years he served as a consultant both to NASA and to Kubrick. Together, they perfected their moon landing filming in the deserts of Nevada. The astronauts themselves, according to Bill Kaysing, author of We Never Went to the Moon, were even allowed breaks for recreation that included trips to Las Vegas and parties with clerks and secretaries.


The Skeptics

The American public, or at least 80% according to polls, believed what they saw on the television despite the grainy images. It was later that the cynics, including even Bill Clinton, made their voices heard. They were helped along by the media and at least two notable films. In the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, our hero runs through a soundstage where the moon landing is being filmed. In 1978, the movie Capricorn One showed three astronauts being told their space trip to Mars had to be faked in order to keep NASA’s immense budget intact. The astronauts, played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson, are told at the last minute the life support system is not working. To prevent NASA from losing the support of Congress, their mission would have to be faked. They staged the landing, as required, but soon realized they would not be allowed to live. The film has the three running for their lives in a hostile desert while the military hunts them down.

According to filmmaker Jay Weidner, it was Stanley Kubrick himself who had the toughest time reconciling with what he had done. His guilt would cause him to attempt to square things by putting messages in plain sight for those who knew where to look. In a DVD documentary, Kubrick’s Odyssey, Weidner portrayed a conflicted Kubrick confessing to his trickery with bits and pieces hidden in his films. He also desired to get the message across to his public that there existed a secret group of individuals who actually controlled America and even the world.

In the second “chapter” of 2001, he has a scene where the American military is discussing the strange monolith they have discovered. They decide the public cannot be allowed to learn about this odd artifact. Like the possibility of a faked moon landing, the monolith would become ‘above-top-secret.’ In other words, the government was declaring it had the right to lie to the public.


Kubrick’s Guilt

The Shining was adapted from a novel of the same name by Stephen King. Kubrick, it is said, embedded numerous secret messages and hidden meanings throughout. The Hotel Overlook came to represent the powers that be. Designs were in red, white, and blue; symbols of American-like eagles would be prominent. One comment was that, like America, he Overlook was built over the graves of dead Indians.

The conflicted Kubrick became the main character, Jack Torrance, as played by Jack Nicholson. Jack (like Kubrick) made a deal with the powers that be to preserve the Overlook (as Kubrick made a deal to save NASA and avoid discredit to the country). As his deal makes him a bit crazy, Jack sits and types over and over again: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Weidner says the word ‘All’ actually stands for Apollo 11. Before the reader scoffs, it is worth remembering that Jack’s son Danny wears a sweater that says Apollo 11, which becomes damaged.

In Stephen King’s book, Danny is threatened by two sisters. In the movie, the sisters are twins, representing perhaps the dead Gemini program that was replaced by the Apollo program. Stephen King created Room 217 as the source of evil in the hotel, which Kubrick changed to Room 237. Notably, the Moon is 237,000 miles from Earth.

At a serious juncture in the film, Jack is in a storeroom and in back of him is a large supply of Tang.

Four years of filming Space Odyssey and the Moon Landing had Kubrick looking as disheveled as Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. Somewhere along his post-Space Odyssey career, Kubrick had a falling out with the military and NASA. The early prints of 2001 showed acknowledgments to many in various agencies, but later these were cut out.

Stanley Kubrick might have been given his due in the 1997 movie, Wag the Dog. Dustin Hoffman plays the main character, also named “Stanley,” who is also a Hollywood producer called upon to fabricate a fake war to divert the country’s attention from a presidential scandal. He invents a war with Bulgaria and creates scenes of a battle that never took place. Hoffman’s character Stanley is later found dead of an apparent heart attack. The implication is that he was killed to shut him up. Kubrick suffered a similar fate.

Over the length of his career, Kubrick made 13 films. His final work was Eyes Wide Shut, which he considered his most important. Why? It is believed that this film exposed the ruling class with the power to do anything from taking lives to using other humans as their playthings. A well-to-do Manhattan physician, played by Tom Cruise, caters to the city’s very wealthy. The rich really are different, discovers the doctor. He attempts to invite himself into one of their affairs, a ritualistic orgy, at a Long Island mansion, only to find out that they are aware that he is not one of the elite. Before the film is over, at least one and possibly two of his acquaintances are killed to warn him off going public with what he has seen. Only through the intercession of one of the elite, for whom the doctor had done a favor, was he himself spared.

The rites and rituals of such secret high society make up the most important third of the film. Kubrick shows the elite not as glamorous people but as gluttons, not as successful but as exploitive—at best immoral and at worst murderers.

Kubrick would die suddenly four days after turning in the prints.

By Steven Sora