2001: A Space Odyssey, the pioneering 1968 science fiction film produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. The screenplay, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, was so advanced that a novel of the same name and written concurrently with the screenplay was published soon after the film was released.
The film, which follows a voyage to Jupiter delves deep into subjects such as human evolution, existentialism, technology and artificial intelligence and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The film synopsis reads: “An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future in this enigmatic adaptation of a short story by revered sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission, their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behaviour, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time.”
After completing work on Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial lifeforms and promised himself that he would make “the proverbial good science fiction movie”. Of course, he achieved far more than he thought was possible at the time but that initial objective led him to seek the help of accomplished sci-fi writer Clarke even though Kubrick thought he was “a nut who lives in a tree”.
Selecting Clarke’s 1951 short story The Sentinel as a starting point, Kubrick and Clarke formulated the screenplay for the film together while Clarke also worked on a novelisation of their collaboration. It is important to note that there are several differences between the novel and the film, as is often the case when masters of different mediums choose to tell the same story in their respective ways. Clarke’s text outlines the motives of the extraterrestrial species, gives adequate context to the iconic black monolith and rationalises the cosmic absurdities.
Kubrick, on the other hand, constructs a vision that relies on the combination of pioneering imagery and a beautiful score that consists of works like Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (an allusion to Kubrick’s interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy) as well as Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube. “2001,” Kubrick explained in an interview, “Is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalisation and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting… I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension.”
The making of the film suffered multiple setbacks and delays as Kubrick maxed out the budget on his obscenely ambitious project. He and Clarke went back and forth with radical re-writes, and the film was finally released on April 2, 1968, at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C, 2001: A Space Odyssey split opinion across the board. Celebrated columnist Pauline Kael famously (and quite vapidly) labelled 2001 as a “monumentally unimaginative movie” while others considered it to be an altogether spiritual experience. It was so popular among college students who consumed psychoactive substances before entering the theatre that the marketing team decided to call it “the ultimate trip”.
However, addressing poor reviews, Kubrick described those critics as “dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound.” Arguably his work years ahead of its time, those mixed reviews will now all be converted to five stars. In 1991, the film was labelled “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Divided into four parts, the scope of Kubrick’s vision is ambitious to put it lightly. Starting from “The Dawn of Man”, 2001 shows us fleeting vignettes of the primitive lives of our hominid ancestors in the prehistoric African veldt. They live relatively simple lives, sticking to their own clans and surviving on natural resources. Suddenly, Kubrick presents us with the protagonist of his film: a giant black monolith with sharp edges that sticks out like a surreal anachronism. It causes some sort of awakening in the monkeys who came before us, making them aware of their own capabilities. The only caveat is that humanity’s capacity has a dangerous duality – the act of creation also holds the cynical potential for destruction. If Dr. Strangelove was an allegorical satire about the precariousness of our future due to nuclear weapons, 2001 shows us the origin of the arms race. We see the first ape in history to arm itself (with a bone) and beat others into submission, feasting on the flesh of vanquished animals and triumphantly standing over the corpse of a defeated sibling.
Filling up ‘greatest films of all time’ lists across the globe, 50 years on and Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is still influencing modern cinema. Here, in some behind-the-scenes pictures, you can see how he did it.