Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future’

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future tells the story of a trained architect who blended futurism with precise scientific detail to create some of the most inspiring (and amazingly predictive) drawings and paintings of the post-war era.

An otherworldly name like ‘Chesley Bonestell’ sounds like it should belong to someone, or something, living in a galaxy far, far away. In reality, it was the name of an extraordinary human who became one of the most visionary graphic artists of the 20th century — a trained architect who blended futurism with precise scientific detail to create some of the most inspiring (and amazingly predictive) drawings and paintings of the post-war era.

Born in San Francisco on New Year’s Day 1888, Bonestell is the subject of a terrific new documentary, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future, opening at the Roxie Theater on Friday, Feb. 22 (no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled).

If you’re at all familiar with the name, it’s probably because of Bonestell’s association with fantastic cinema (he contributed to films such as Destination Moon, Conquest of Space, and one of my favorites, When Worlds Collide), but there’s a great deal more to his story.

Rejecting his grandfather’s wish that he join the the family paper business, young Bonestell instead committed himself to art and got a job illustrating for Sunset Magazine in 1904. Shortly after the Great Quake of 1906 he moved to Berkeley, then went East to study architecture at Columbia University. After dropping out, he returned home and was hired by Willis Polk to help rebuild San Francisco.


You might think that someone who helped design such iconic landmarks as the Hallidie Building and the Hobart Building, and who played a crucial role in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, would have accomplished enough for one life, but in the case of Chesley Bonestell you’d be wrong. In 1938, he moved to Hollywood and contributed glass matte paintings to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the shot he conceived has always amazed me — now I know how it was accomplished), Citizen Kane, and The Fountainhead.

It was only after this chapter in his life that Bonestell finally began the work for which he is best remembered. ‘The Conquest of Space’ was a pre-Space Age publication that featured dozens of Bonestell illustrations, firing the imagination and intellect of countless Baby Boomers — including David Aguilar, who became an astronomer after serving as singer for San Jose garage rockers The Chocolate Watch Band in the 1960s. Aguilar is one of the film’s most enthusiastic talking heads, his awe and wonder still evident as he explains Bonestell’s impact on America’s nascent space program.

There are a few nits to pick with A Brush With the Future — Mike McKay’s narration is a bit fulsome, and writer-director Douglass M. Stewart, Jr.s decision to elide over the Nazi-era crimes of Bonestell collaborator Wernher von Braun is understandable but troubling. Nits aside, however, this is a lovely tribute to a genuine visionary.

Footnote: Bonestell designed and built his own home in Berkeley, where he lived until 1968: the house is shown, but its location isn’t pinpointed. I’m hoping a Berkeleyside reader will see the film, recognize the house, and let us know where it is!