50 Years of ‘2001’
A Look Back at the Epic Sci-Fi Film
In the entire history of cinema, there are a handful of science fiction movies and properties that loom larger than all the rest. The first would be Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent German expressionist, Metropolis. It was the first time audiences would see sci-fi taken seriously. Treated with high production values and given an original score, it also came with a message that was encompassed in the movie’s final intertitle: “The mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart.”
1969 gave us Star Trek: The Original Series, which presented a utopic vision about traveling through the stars, and why it was important for us to do so. 1979s Alien was the nightmare flip side of Star Trek, which warned us about why we should stay the fuck at home.
1982 brought us Blade Runner from the same director of Alien, which mediated on what it meant to be human. In 1999, the Wachowski’s gave us The Matrix, which caused us to question an overreliance on machines and AI. That theme had also been brought up briefly in The Terminator in 1984, but it was explored more in depth in The Matrix.
Star Wars, as much as I would like to include it on this list of sci-fi movies, it can’t rightfully be called sci-fi. It is more of a Western set in space borrowing some heavy elements of Eastern philosophy. Though it does earn the right o be brought up in this discussion.
However, there is one film that I have not yet touched upon; one that galvanized a new age of filmmakers and transformed the way we look at science fiction films forever after.
That film is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As seen in the video above, the image of sun and the crescent moon aligned with each other is a symbol of Zoroastrianism— an ancient Persian religion that predated Buddhism and Christianity, and was based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). This particular alignment symbolized the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Appropriately enough, the famous “2001: A Space Odyssey Theme” is from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (thus Spake Zarathustra) the symphonic poem by Richard Strauss that is based on a book by Friedrich Nietzsche; which contained his famous declaration “God is dead.” Given Kubrick’s working methods, one can assume none of this was accidental.
Inspired by a short story called “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke (though Mr. Clarke never liked it when people made the distinction), 2001 traces the story of humankind beginning with apes all the way through an adventure to Jupiter in order to meet with an alien intelligence; whereby an astronaut named Dave Poole is transformed into “The Star Child.”
Released fifty years ago, on April 3, 1968, 2001 bucked the trend that had been prominent in so many sci-fi drive-in horror movies during the ’50s (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing From Another World, Them, The Blob, etc), and treated the Universe as not something to be feared, but as something awesome and wondrous. 2001 took its science seriously. Watching it, you can see that Kubrick and Clarke really sat down to think long and hard about how you might achieve artificial gravity on a space station, what it would be like to travel on an extended trip though the stars, and how an alien intelligence might choose to communicate to us lesser beings.
After finishing Dr. Strangelove, a black humor comedy that ends bleakly enough with all of humankind blowing themselves up in WWIII. Kubrick became fascinated with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and he resolved to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” To that end, Kubrick eventually was led to a meeting with Arthur C. Clarke, who told Mr. Clarke that he wanted to make a film about “Man’s relationship to the Universe.” In Clarke’s words, Kubrick was “determined to create a work of art which would arouse emotions of wonder, awe … even, if appropriate, terror.”
The meeting between the two was preceded by a cable (sort of like a telegram— a technology that has come and gone since) because at the time Clarke was living in Ceylon. Clarke got a cable from an executive at MGM who would release 2001: “STANLEY KUBRICK DR STRANGELOVE PATHS OF GLORY ETC INTERESTED IN DOING FILM ON ETS STOP ARE YOU INTERESTED QUERY THOUGHT YOU WERE RECLUSE STOP” Clarke replied with the following cable: “FRIGHTFULLY INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH ENFANT TERRIBLE STOP CONTACT MY AGENT STOP WHAT MAKES KUBRICK THINK I’M A RECLUSE QUERY.”
Ultimately, Kubrick would take inspiration for the title from Homer’s Odyssey. Kubrick said, “It occurred to us (he and Clarke) that for the Greeks, the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation.”
Kubrick worked on the movie right up until its release. He didn’t like to fly so he took his own Odyssey across the Atlantic on a ship and edited 2001 along the way. Once in New York, he took a trans-continental train to LA and edited it even further.
Upon 2001‘s premiere, several people walked out of the audience, including actor Rock Hudson, who was heard to say, “Will someone please tell me what the hell this is about?” To which Clarke responded, “We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.”
After its premiere, Kubrick would cut another 17 minutes from the movie, bringing its final running time to 148 minutes.
“Kubrick’s universe and the space ships he constructed to explore it, are simply out of scale with human concerns,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1968 review of the film. “The ships are perfect, impersonal machines, which venture from one planet to the other, and if men are tucked away somewhere inside them, then they get there too. But the achievement belongs to the machine. And Kubrick’s actors seem to sense this; they are lifelike but without emotion, like figures in a wax museum. Yet, the machines are necessary because man himself is so helpless in the face of the universe.”
Even the structure of the film does not lend itself to easy viewing. It is divided into four acts: ‘The Dawn of Man,” “TMA-1,” “Jupiter Mission,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” So, there aren’t any characters you can become attached to that take you through the movie. Roger Ebert would write in a 1997 “Great Movie” essay about it, “The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.”
Continuing, “What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it — not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.”
2001 is a very interesting film— a very important film, but there is a reason why I use the term film and not movie when discussing 2001. It’s the same term I would apply to Citizen Kane. Whereas movies move us and affect us on a gut level, films affect us on a more intellectual level.
Ridley Scott made a visceral movie with Alien. He followed it up with an intellectual film that meditated on what it meant to be human with Blade Runner.
Yet, I cannot deny how important of a film 2001 is.
Beyond the “Big Questions” of science fiction (where did we come from and why are we here, etc.), there are smaller details that Kubrick and Clarke got right: a realistic depiction of microgravity, highly specialized spacecraft, astronaut exercise requirements, limitations and hazard of space travel, no sound in space (something which we would all forget about when Star Wars premiered), predicted technology like self-aware Artificial Intelligence, nonverbal storytelling (yes, there are a lot of silent passages in 2001— something which adds to it being a movie that is not always easy to watch), and finally, it’s suggestion of what lies beyond the infinite (i.e. the functional travel through a star-gate/wormhole in the monolith at Jupiter).
“Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie,” George Lucas said in 1977, “and it is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I am concerned. On a technical level, it can be compared, but personally I think 2001 is far superior.” If you can’t guess, Lucas was talking about similarities between his own Star Wars and 2001.
The influence of 2001 on filmmakers is almost immeasurable. No doubt we can see its influence on Star Wars (Lucas called this movie “hugely inspirational” and labeled Kubrick as “the filmmaker’s filmmaker”), but also in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg also calls 2001 his film generation’s “Big Bang.” James Cameron echoes that sentiment when he credits this film with making him want to be a director. Ridley Scott says that 2001 is the unbeatable film that killed science fiction.
Almost immediately, 2001 opened itself up to philosophical analysis and interpretation. Another thing that makes this film hard to watch, is that it does not have a clear-cut black and white ending. The ending is very ambiguous. What you see is what you get, and the movie makes no bones about it.
Kubrick told Playboy in an 1968 interview, “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”
Another thing Kubrick did that might have a distancing effect for the film was to give it a score made up of classical music, instead of a traditional score that would have underlined the action in some of the scenes. The classical melodies take you out of the scene, in a way, but you also can’t deny that there is a symmetrical beauty in the slow, precise notes of the music pieces and the slow; precise movements required by the pilots to steer their spacecraft. While all the action of the film happens in the cold of space, and when it is hard to find any warmth in the human characters on the screen, you can feel the human emotion in the music. (When I hear the music, there are notes that to me stand out as being borrowed by James Horner for his Aliens‘ score, and I wonder if that is the case. It would certainly make sense.)
The novel is much more straightforward than the film, and it would be my recommendation for the person who has to sit through 2001 at least once in their life without falling asleep— to read the novel and then watch the film. To be sure, it is not a novelization. Clarke and Kubrick worked side by side when writing the film. Clarke did not merely expand upon what he had already written in “The Sentinel.” In fact, Clark once said, “I am continually annoyed by careless references to ‘The Sentinel’ as ‘the story on which 2001 is based;’ it bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak. (Considerably less, in fact, because ideas from several other stories were also incorporated.) Even the elements that Stanley Kubrick and I did actually use were very considerably modified. Thus, the ‘glittering, roughly pyramidal structure… set in the rock like a gigantic, many faceted-jewel’ became—after several modifications—the famous black monolith. And the locale was movie from Mare Crisiu to the most spectacular of all lunar craters, Tycho—easily visible to the naked eye from Earth at Full Moon.”
So, Clarke gets annoyed when people make comparisons to “The Sentinel” and 2001 because the details get changed between the two. The overall story remains the same. In both, the story deals with an artifact on Earth’s moon left behind eons ago by ancient aliens.
You can decide for yourself, but the germ of the story that drew Kubrick to the idea is still there in the movie.
When 2001 was released, it polarized critics. It would be decades before 2001 got the critical reception it deserved. None of this mattered to Kubrick. He made his movie, and he was ready to move on to a new idea. His next film would be A Clockwork Orange.
Kubrick didn’t envision any sequels to 2001. He didn’t even want to give the opportunity for his material to be exploited and recycled in other movies. To that end, he ordered all sets, props, miniatures, production blueprints and prints of unused scenes destroyed.
Arthur C. Clarke did not quite feel the same way about sequels, and would go on to write three more novels (2010: Odyssey Two, 2063: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey). Of those three novels, only one would be made into a movie.
Released in 1984, it would be retitled 2010: The Year We Make Contact. It featured a much more straight-forward plot, and though you might think that it was kept from polarizing critical opinions, but it was not. Roger Ebert gave 2010 three out of four stars, but wrote that “It doesn’t match the poetry and the mystery of the original film, but it does continue the story, and it offers sound, pragmatic explanations for many the strange and visionary things in 2001.”
Which kind of makes 2010 sound like what the Star Wars prequels did to the original Trilogy— it removed the air of mysticism from the Force and replaced with a tangible, physical thing called midi-chlorians.
It is likely that we will never see another science fiction film in our lifetime that will match or even come close to matching 2001. It will be hard, if not impossible, to watch it in the mindset of someone from 1968— the year before we landed on the moon, and the year when everything that was so mind-blowing about 2001 started to become a reality.
Indeed, 2001 was the last movie made about men on the moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked there in real life. Given this fact, there are still conspiracy theorists who insist that this is not a coincidence, claiming that all footage of Armstrong’s voyage was a hoax film directed by Stanley Kubrick using leftover scenes and props from this movie. If there is one detail the film might have got right, it’s that all the characters walk around on the moon completely normal. Armstrong, Aldrin, and the others involved in the Apollo would find out that a loping gait was required in the Moon’s 1/6 gravity.
Put that conspiracy theory out of your head. Put all that you know out of your head. Put yourself in the mind of the 1968 person. Put down your phone, turn off the lights, sit in front of the biggest screen you can find and turn up the volume (because yes, the classical music is definitely a big part of this movie, and you will never hear “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” in the same way ever again)— enjoy.
Roger Ebert finishes his 1997 essay on 2001 with this, “Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.”
My suggestion: go watch 2001 now, and be sure to have something ready for the “Star Gate” sequence.