2001: A Space Odyssey

Year: 1968

Production: Stanley Kubrick

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Keir Dullea,Gary Lockwood

Screenwriter: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke

Loosely based on Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel (1951)

160 minutes, cut to 141 minutes; Color


This was the most ambitious sf film of the 1960s and perhaps ever. Kubrick's unique production, which received a 1969 Hugo, takes several traditional sf themes - including the idea, derived from Charles Fort, that "we are property" - and spins from them a web of pessimistic metaphysics. In prehistoric times the mysterious arrival of an alien artifact, a black monolith, triggers primitive ape people into becoming tool-users; the first tool is a weapon. The transition to AD2001 sequence - marked by the resonant image of a bone weapon thrown (in slow motion) into the air and becoming a space station - suggests that, for all the awesome complexity of our tools, humanity itself is still in a primitive stage. The idea of human deficiency in the 21st century is reinforced by the deliberate banality of the dialog and the sterility of the settings; ironically the most "human" character is a neurotic computer, itself subject to Original Sin, HAL 9000. A second monolith discovered on the Moon beams a signal at one of the moons of Jupiter and a spaceship, the Discovery, is sent to investigate, but, through HAL having a nervous breakdown, only one of the astronauts (Dullea) survives to reach the area. These he embarks (through a "Star Gate") on a prolonged, disorienting trip through what appears to be inner time and inner space, pausing to meet his dying self in an 18th-century bedroom, and becoming the foetus of a Superbeing, an optimistic apotheosis - with its suggestion of a transcendent evolution, directed by never-seen aliens, or perhaps God - in an otherwise dark film.

Aside from its intelligent audacity, 2001: A Space Odyssey is remarkable for a visual splendor that depends in part on astonishingly painstaking special effects. Conceived by Kubrick - notoriously a perfectionist - and achieved by many technicians (pointing forward to the huge teams that would work on the special-effects blockbusters of a decade later), these mostly employ traditional techniques. Instead of such modern automatic matteing processes as the blue-screen system, hand-drawn mattes were produced for each effects frame at the cost of two years' time and much money, which is why this method is now rarely used. Innovative in another way is the setting of romantic music by Richard Strauss and Gyorgy Ligeti against much of the technological action, giving the paradoxical feeling of a cool romanticism and reinforcing the film's amibiguities. The present 141min version, cut from the 160min version preview length, should be viewed in the full wide-screen 70mm format.

The tension between Kubrick's love of oblique allusion and Clarke's open rationalism is resolved in the latter's book of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which - written after the film's completion - provides clear explanations in Clarke's usual manner. He describes his connection with the film in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972), which also prints alternative script versions of key scenes. The film sequel, based on another Clarke's novel, was 2010.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

2001: A Space Odyssey was undoubtedly the most influential sf film of the 1960s. Henceforth, for better or worse, sf cinema would have a truly speculative aspect to it, in the manner of sf writing. Significantly , Clarke, on whose novella it was based, is like Robert Heinlein who co-scripted the landmark film Destination Moon (1950), a noted sf writer. Henceforth good special effects and big budgets became the norm. Moreover, the film quite literally changed our concept of space and spaceships. Where before the pencil-based rocketships of Destination Moon formed the grid of our assumptions about the look of a spaceship, henceforth the building blocks of spaceships would be more akin to the angularity of Lego pieces and their size more commensurate with the vastness of deep space, as in the sequence where the Discovery slowly crosses the Cinerama screen for what seems an eternity (a scene that quickly became one of the cliche shots of post-2001 sf).

It's worth stressing these features of 2001, for, though in retrospect it was the film that re-introduced a sense of spectacle to sf, it has been usually celebrated in terms of its (ambiguous) meanings and attacked for the pretentiousness and sterility of its views; in short, it has been hailed as a film of ideas rather than the visual conceit it is. For above all, 2001 is a matter of logistics, the giant space station being matched by the most minor details of costume and decor (including such notables as the space toilet), the purpose of which Kubrick has often stated was to show the everyday nature (or ordinaryness) of space travel in a near future when it was possible. Similarly the "star gate" sequence (also called the "cosmic ride") which precedes astronaut Dullea's rebirth as a "transcended man" was celebrated for its hallucinogenic-like effects long before the film was re-issued, billed as "The Ultimate Trip".

This is not to say the film has no ideas, merely to momentarily sidestep the statements the film makes. A comparison of a single frame of 2001 with ones from Dark Star (1974) and/or Solaris (1971) clearly reveals very different views of the future, space travel and man: the simple mess of Dark Star's spaceship compared to the sterility of Kubrick's Discovery speaks volumes. However, the more telling comparison is with Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Kubrick's film explains man's development in terms of the monolith, most explicitly in the adventurous jump cut that takes us from primitive man to space-age man. For Kubrick, man, though ingenious (as in the sequence where Dullea outwits the murderous supercomputer, HAL), is essentially led by the mysterious force that the monolith represents. This passive view of man's role explains both the view of space travel of the film's decor and the formal qualities of the narrative which constantly opposes inhuman circles and rectangles. In Kubrick's film, the never-seen aliens are clearly man's superiors, indulgently helping him along; in Spielberg's man meets the aliens on equal terms. For Kubrick, man is little more than the property of the unseen aliens, for Spielberg man achieves his own destiny.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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