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How Carl Sagan helped Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke resolve a problem with '2001: A Space Odyssey'

The late astronomer Carl Sagan was one of the most prominent thinkers on all things extraterrestrial. From Venus as an example of the greenhouse effect to assembling the Voyager Golden Record, Sagan changed how we view the universe and man’s role in it, and for that, he will never be forgotten. 

Famously, in 1997’s film Contact, which was based on Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name, some of Sagan’s thoughts on extraterrestrial life were popularised. Without ruining it for those who haven’t seen it, when the protagonist comes into direct with an alien, it takes on the human form of a dead relative, a thought-provoking supposition. 

The story of the movie contact is an interesting one. Instead of going from book to film, Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan wanted the project to be a film first, and went to the length of writing a dense script before publishing it as a novel. What resulted is one of the most important pieces of hard science fiction ever made. 

As our friends over at OpenCulture have pointed out, Sagan is connected to another sci-fi classic that was conceived in an equally as unconventional way. 

Exploring the photography of Stanley Kubrick

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Nearly 30 years prior to Contact being made, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey saw the auteur and sci-fi author, Arthur C. Clarke, team up to work on an idea for a film directed by the former and a novel written by the latter. Notably, the collaboration was tumultuous, and one of the biggest difficulties the pair ran into was how to bring their concept of mankind’s future to a close that satisfied them both. 

Sagan, who was gaining traction as a prominent thinker at the time, was then invited into the fold to give his thoughts on how they should end the story. “My friend Arthur C. Clarke had a problem,” he recalled in his book The Cosmic Connection in 1973. “He was writing a major motion picture with Stanley Kubrick”, which at the time was called Journey Beyond the Stars, but “a small crisis in the story development had arisen.” 

In the film, the crew of Discovery One “was to make contact with extraterrestrials. Yes, but how to portray the extraterrestrials?” Kubrick wanted to follow a more orthodox narrative, with the aliens “not profoundly different from human beings” as well as being portrayable by humans in suits. 

Sagan disagreed with Kubrick’s idea. He explained: “The number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve again anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials.” 

Eventually, Kubrick chose this artistic path and it led to the iconic ending where protagonist David Bowman meets his older selves in a neoclassic bedroom. Sagan never made his thoughts clear on the scene, nor if Kubrick followed his suggestions fully, but he did thank the film for “expanding the average person’s awareness of the cosmic perspective”.

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