Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a rarity in the history of Hollywood movies: one of the few films that appears regularly on lists of the all-time greatest that was appreciated right from the start (and appreciated by virtually everybody). It was an enormous box office success that was largely well-reviewed; a few influential New York critics didn't care for it (a fact that is largely responsible for the misconception that it was poorly received), but they were in the minority. The movie was embraced in its time, and its reputation only improved with every passing year – by 1972, just four years after its release, it was already polling among the top twenty-five films ever made in Sight & Sound magazine. Five years after that, its influence changed the American cinema forever in the form of two films made by Kubrick disciples (George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Some literal-minded viewers may complain that it’s too open to interpretation – Pauline Kael once compared it to the experience of watching a blank screen – or even “difficult,” but it wasn’t too difficult for mass audiences in 1968, and its influence can be felt in many of the most successful movies of all time – not just the aforementioned Star Wars and Close Encounters, but The Terminator, E.T., and Avatar.
That such an ambitious, audacious, and uncategorizable film could have so permeated popular culture is something of a miracle, though one to which producer-director Kubrick aspired right from the beginning; after his wickedly funny but deeply cynical and unsettling satire Dr. Strangelove, he made a conscious effort to go in the opposite direction and make a hopeful film that would appeal to children as well as adults. To that end, in March 1964 Kubrick wrote a letter to science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, who soon began collaborating with the director on what would become 2001. It was an unusual process, in that the two men were essentially working on two projects simultaneously: Kubrick’s film, and Clarke’s telling of the same story in novel form. Yet it was precisely this dual mission that led to 2001’s evolution from a more traditional family film (a kind of cross between earlier Cinerama spectacles and Disney adventure movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to the more abstract, metaphysical epic of spiritual inquiry that it became.
Kubrick was interested in making a sci-fi movie long before he contacted Clarke; at one point he even considered a framing device for Dr. Strangelove in which the movie would be narrated by an extra-terrestrial telling the story of the earth’s demise. Kubrick scuttled that idea, but the notion of exploring alien life stayed with him and he invited Clarke’s collaboration because the author was one of the leading voices in optimistic science fiction at the time. The idea was that Kubrick and Clarke would write a novelistic treatment in order to secure financing, and then develop both a film and a book from that. The completed treatment, titled “Journey Beyond the Stars,” was promising enough to get MGM to fork over a hefty sum for the budget (somewhere in the range of $6 million, a fortune at the time given that few sci-fi movies had come even close to grossing that much at the box office), and Kubrick was off and running.
|Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke|
The story of 2001 is divided into roughly three parts – I’ll keep the synopsis short, so as not to bore readers who are familiar with the film and not to spoil it for those who are not. In the first section, “Dawn of Man,” we see prehistoric man encountering a black monolith that presumably has been sent by alien visitors – maybe it even IS an alien visitor. In one of the most extraordinary leaps forward in the history of cinema, Kubrick then cuts to the year 2001 – or is it? The third section takes place eighteen months later, so perhaps this first cut takes us to 1999 or 2000. In any case, the movie shifts focus to follow a man named Dr. Heywood Floyd as he travels to the moon on a secret mission, leading to another encounter with the monolith. The third and most substantial section of the movie revolves around a pair of astronauts on a trip to Jupiter who come to realize that their all-controlling onboard computer, HAL 9000, may be malfunctioning. This leads to one of the most visually arresting and philosophically provocative climaxes in the history of Hollywood cinema, one which has encouraged debate and interpretation since the film’s release in 1968.
Initially the movie was intended to be much clearer, yet as Clarke worked on his novel concurrently with the screenplay, Kubrick began to feel a sense of liberation – he realized that he could save the literal explanations for the book and strip them out of his film. As the movie became more and more specific in terms of its visual design and physicality (Kubrick employed an army of researchers and consultants to make his film as scientifically accurate as possible), it became more and more mysterious at the level of plot – to the point that even the connections between the three sections are difficult to find on first viewing. What’s fascinating about 2001 is that somehow the ideas that Kubrick excised remained embedded in the fabric of the movie, so that even if you can’t fully understand or articulate them, you can still feel them. It’s as hypnotic and engaging as movies can be, and it works that way even on the youngest possible viewers – maybe even more so on them, because their minds are open to the singularity of Kubrick’s approach.
What ultimately gives the movie a great deal of its power is its core contradiction: that it’s a cautionary tale about technology that was realized by the most state-of-the-art technology of its time. The visual effects work in the movie is beyond compare – it still holds up at a time when digital work from even a few years ago looks hokey and dated, and when Spielberg made Close Encounters he made a conscious decision to hire 2001’s Douglas Trumbull to create his effects. There’s a mystical tension in the movie between the money being spent and the technology being implemented and the result of all that money and technology. As a spiritual, humanist journey for both the characters and the audience it stands for the opposite of commerce and technology, yet it wouldn’t be possible without them. It’s a contradiction that continues in many of the pictures influenced the most by 2001, such as James Cameron’s Avatar or The Terminator, another triumph of technology that warns of technology’s dangers. Echoes of Kubrick’s masterpiece continue to reverberate in the Hollywood film industry – Arrival, in theatres right now, is unthinkable without 2001 as a precedent. Yet at the end of the day, 2001 is one of those movies like Citizen Kane or The Searchers that retains all of its power no matter how many times it’s imitated. It’s still, as posters at the time proclaimed, the ultimate trip.
Jim Hemphill is the award-winning screenwriter and director of The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.