Chesley Bonestell

Drafting the final frontier: A spacescape still from the documentary

Documentary, not rated, 96 minutes, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles

Chances are, you’ve never heard of visionary space artist Chesley Bonestell, but Douglass M. Stewart Jr.’s new documentary on the prolific artist makes a strong case that you’ve encountered his work in some form or another. The film is a compelling chronology of Bonestell, a pioneer whose visions of worlds in the far reaches of space, and some closer to home, influenced science, culture, and historical events throughout the 20th century.

Bonestell had a hand in creating some of the most iconic architectural monuments in the United States, long before he embarked on a career as a space artist. He painted images that fired the imagination and helped bring classics of science-fiction cinema and literature to everlasting life.

Bonestell (1888-1986) honed his ability to create expert compositions by drafting architectural renderings for various firms during the first half of his career. He helped design San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s Chrysler Building — even the Filoli Estate in California, famously used as the Carrington family home in the 1980s TV series Dynasty.

While his architectural career was impressive, his passion was in envisioning outer space. He anticipated, often correctly, what other planets would look like decades before Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth.

It’s a thorough documentary. Part of its strength lies in its portrayal of Bonestell as a man of lasting influence, whose realistic renderings of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, viewed from the vantage points of its many moons, sparked the imaginations of generations of space artists to follow. He influenced Lynette Cook and Don Davis, as well as visual-effects artists like Craig Barron, who would go on to work on several films in the Star Wars franchise. All of them are interviewed in the film.

Bonestell himself served as a technical advisor on Destination Moon (1950), The War of the Worlds (1953), and the televised series Men Into Space (1959-1960). He also created matte paintings for Citizen Kane (1941), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), among other pictures from Hollywood’s golden age.

The documentary’s downside is a tendency toward hagiography. We never really get a clear idea of the man himself. Even a description of a controversial friendship with former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun is glossed over.

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the exploits of this near-forgotten polymath. Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future is a fine tribute.

The film screens at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 27, and Sunday, April 28, only. A Q&A with Douglass M. Stewart Jr., co-producer Melvin Schuetz, and architect Robert E. David follows both screenings. A mini-exhibition of Ron Miller’s space art is on view at Jean Cocteau.