'2001: A Space Odyssey' Is Still Breathtaking 50 Years Later

Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s enduring classic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ released on April 2, 1968.

Stanley Kubrick made almost every genre his own. Historical epic? Spartacus. Romantic drama (albeit skewed)? Lolita. Satirical black comedy? Dr. Strangelove. Future dystopia? A Clockwork Orange. Period piece? Barry Lyndon. Horror? The Shining. War movie? Full Metal Jacket. Psychological thriller? Eyes Wide Shut. See what I mean?

But Kubrick’s best film (in my opinion) is his take on science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not just a science fiction film — it’s the science fiction film. If you were to trace the DNA of nearly every sci-fi movie since 1968, you’d discover that 2001 is the common ancestor. And with good reason: 2001 is a masterpiece. Even though it’s now 50 years old, and the year 2001 has come and gone, the movie’s big ideas, stunning visuals and immaculate craft hold up.

Story

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most sprawling epics ever told. It begins millions of years ago with the dawn of humanity, leaps to a near-future world in which humans work alongside artificially intelligent machines, and finally reaches a place “beyond the infinite,” where the next step of humankind’s evolution plays out in a subtle and chilling sequence.

Space Odyssey

Early man confronts the unknown. The hominids in 2001 were played by costumed mimes who studied the movement of apes. MGM

Along with British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for 2001 based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.” While working on the script with Kubrick, Clarke wrote the novel version, which was published shortly after the film’s release. Because Kubrick kept changing his mind and developing the story in his own way, the novel has some key differences, including the ending, but it also answers some of the questions posed by the movie’s bewildering visuals, making it an essential companion for confused viewers and those wishing to delve deeper into the story’s philosophical implications.

The original script featured a narrator who explained what was going on in the film, similar to Clarke’s narration in the book, but Kubrick wisely scrapped it in favor of letting his visuals speak for themselves. The result is a movie of almost mythological proportions, open to many interpretations, all of them correct — or, at least, none of them incorrect.

Visuals

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey tells its story largely without words. Within the 149-minute movie, fewer than 40 minutes contain dialogue. Not a single syllable is spoken in the first 30 minutes of the film. George Lucas called it “a silent movie in the sound era.” He also said, somewhat cryptically, “The whole movie is like watching a sunset.”

Space Odyssey

Astronauts on the moon investigate a mysterious monolith. MGM

In a 1968 interview with Playboy, Kubrick asserted that “2001 is a nonverbal experience.” He said he set out to “create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content” that “reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does.”

Without the use of CGI, Kubrick created some of the most seamlessly realistic special effects of all time, partly because he secured a team of NASA advisors to ensure that every detail of the sets, models and costumes was as accurate as possible. In fact, Kubrick’s depiction of space was so convincing that many conspiracy theorists still believe he helped fake the moon landing in 1969, approximately a year after the release of 2001.

Music

When Kubrick began editing 2001, he inserted temporary tracks, classical compositions like Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” and Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” At that time, he hired distinguished film composer Alex North to score the movie. But Kubrick was not satisfied with the results. In an interview, he stated that Alex North wrote and recorded a score that, in Kubrick’s opinion, was “completely inadequate.” Kubrick explained his logic by saying, “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart, or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?”

In the end Kubrick jettisoned Alex North’s score, opting instead to use the classical compositions he’d originally inserted during the editing process, and North wouldn’t discover that his score was cut until he watched the premiere screening of 2001.

This was only one of many ruthless moves Kubrick made throughout his career, but it was arguably the right thing to do artistically. The iconic pieces of music Kubrick chose for 2001 match the gravitas of the film’s lofty imagery and ideas.

Space Odyssey

Kubrick said he edited the space footage as if it were a “mechanical ballet.” MGM

On a musical side note, the closing sequence of 2001 is said to sync up to the Pink Floyd song “Echoes” (much as The Wizard of Oz is said to sync up to The Dark Side of the Moon). Pink Floyd has denied that this was intentional. But I synced them up in college and can assure you it’s pretty cool, even though the perceived synchronization is surely enhanced by confirmation bias.

Impact

Kubrick’s influence on science fiction and filmmaking in general is undeniable. Without his work, we would not have Alien, Contact, Moon, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and many other great films. 2001 had a huge influence on George Lucas; and other sci-fi titans, including Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, cite the movie as a seminal inspiration.

Space Odyssey

Kubrick on the set of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” MGM

A sequel titled 2010 directed by Peter Hyams was released in 1984. It was based on a novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke, who also went on to publish two additional novels in the series: 2061 and 3001. Seeing the sequel and reading the novels by Arthur C. Clarke will answer many of the questions Kubrick posed in his film, particularly surrounding the mysterious black monoliths, so if you prefer speculation to knowledge, you may want to avoid these.

Beyond the Infinite

2001: A Space Odyssey was released to mixed reviews and a lukewarm reception by audiences, but it soon caught on with the countercultural psychedelic movement in the late ’60s and is now almost universally recognized as a classic. In an excellent review, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape.”

For 50 years Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been discussed, debated, taught, written about and pondered. Some say it’s a symbolic retelling of Homer’s Odyssey or Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche. Others think it’s just a damn good science fiction movie. But one thing no one can deny is that 2001 is an awe-inspiring film unlike any other.

I was going to give the last word to Stanley Kubrick, but since he set out to tell his story not with words but with images, I leave you instead with one of the film’s most striking visual sequences. Have a nice trip! end

 

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