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(Credit: MGM)

How Carl Sagan influenced Stanley Kubrick masterpiece '2001: A Space Odyssey'

2001: A Space Odyssey is a convention-defying classic by Stanley Kubrick. Although it was not an instant hit upon the first release, the sci-fi epic has now grown to be widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. Even legendary director Steven Speilberg has weighed in on the discourse, labelling the film “the big bang of his film making generation”.

After the success of the 1964 picture Dr Strangelove, a pioneering film in its own right, Kubrick would spend the next four years developing its follow-up. The screenplay was written by Kubrick and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. The majority of the film was inspired by Clarke’s short stories, taking a particular degree of influence from 1951’s The Sentinel.

The film’s iconic plot follows a human voyage to a lunar crater, accompanied by the sentient computer HAL, following the discovery of an alien monolith. The narrative’s themes include existentialism, human evolution, technology, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The film is also hailed for its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight.

The stature of the movie can also be attributed to its ambiguous nature. Dialogue is sparing, and the long sequences are accompanied solely by musical scores. The soundtrack includes a host of classical composers, including Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian and György Ligeti.

In looking for a new film to make, Kubrick had become fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. A significant part of this newfound fascination stemmed from the director’s long-term interest in Japanese tokusatsu films. These were pieces of live-action cinema that dealt with science-fiction, fantasy and horror, of which 1954’s Godzilla is a part, as is the whole Kaiju genre. However, Kubrick had become entranced by one film, in particular; 1956’s Warning from Space.

This led Kubrick on an extensive search for a collaborator from within the scene fiction community. Luckily, a mutual friend who worked for Columbia Pictures advised that he talk to Arthur C. Clarke, who was residing in Sri Lanka, following his interest in scuba diving.

Initially, though, Kubrick was convinced that Clarke was a “recluse, a nut who lives in a tree”, and in turn, Clarke was “frightfully interested in working with (that) enfant terrible“. In what would become history, the two would meet for the first time at Trader Vic’s in New York on 22nd April 1964 and put the all-encompassing project in motion.

In his diary from the time, Clarke revealed that Kubrick told him that he wanted to make a film about “man’s relationship to the universe”. In his own words, Clarke states that Kubrick was “determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe… even, if appropriate, terror”.

This anecdote is one of many that shows that Pop Culture has always been full to the brim of convergences between unlikely actors. However, it is not Clarke who assumes this role here.

Kubrick had started the initial production of the film without knowing how to effectively convey the majority of the film’s key scenes – the biggest issue came from the ending where Dr Bowman makes contact with extraterrestrial life. Kubrick did not know how to depict the alien life forms, as his ideas were too abstract, and he had a limited budget after all.

In response, Kubrick turned to none other than famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan for help. This was to be a pivotal turning point for the film. In Sagan’s book, 1973’s The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan recalled: “I argued that 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 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.”

The meeting Sagan talks about was a dinner with Kubrick and Clarke. However, the irony is that the cantankerous director disliked Sagan a lot. Allegedly he told Clarke, “Get rid of him. Make any excuse; take him anywhere you like. I don’t want to see him again.” 

Subsequently, over the rest of the film’s production, Kubrick would ignore Sagan’s advice. He would experiment with literal ways of depicting aliens, including hiring a ballet dancer in a special polka-dotted suit filmed against a black background.

It is unclear just as to why Kubrick felt so much disdain towards the noted cosmologist. However, Kubrick would settle on Sagan’s suggestion of insinuating extraterrestrial existence as he saw something in it in the end. This decision would greatly affect the ambiguity of the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, making it one of the greatest films of all time.

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