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2001: A Space Odyssey

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Film.

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1. Film (1968). Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Written by Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, based very loosely on Clarke's "The Sentinel" (Spring 1951 10 Story Fantasy as "Sentinel of Eternity"; vt in Expedition to Earth, coll 1953). Cast includes Keir Dullea, Leonard Rossiter, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain and William Sylvester. 141 minutes, cut from 160 minutes. Colour. Originally in Cinerama.

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 ambivalently optimistic Metaphysics which would become the seminal cinematic treatment of Uplift. In prehistoric times primitive ape people – Kubrick was prevented from making them more like hominids because if they were naked and had human faces American censors would have given the film an X rating – are triggered by the arrival of a black monolith, an Alien artefact that mysteriously causes them to become tool-users; the first tool is a Weapon. The transition from Prehistoric SF to the 2001 CE sequence – marked by the resonant image of a bone weapon thrown (in slow motion) into the air and becoming a piece of space hardware – suggests that, for all the awesome complexity of our tools, humanity itself is still in a primitive stage. (In fact the thrown bone morphs into a Space Station which, according to The Making of Kubrick's 2001 [anth 1970] edited by Jerome Agel, is meant to be an orbiting nuclear weapons platform.) The idea of human deficiency in the twenty-first century is reinforced by the deliberate banality of the dialogue and the sterility of the settings; ironically the most "human" character is a neurotic Computer, itself subject to Original Sin, HAL 9000 (voiced by Rain). 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. The active crew comprises astronauts Dr David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr Frank Poole (Lockwood), with others in Suspended Animation. After HAL has a kind of a nervous breakdown, killing Poole and the cold-sleepers and almost stranding Bowman in space, only Bowman survives to reach the destination zone, by which point the film – dialogueless for its first twenty-five minutes – is again silent, except for the music. There, via another monolith, he embarks through a "Star Gate" (see Stargates) on a prolonged, disorienting special-effects trip through what appears to be inner time and Inner Space, pausing to meet his dying self in an eighteenth-century bedroom, and becoming the foetus of a Posthuman Superbeing, an optimistic apotheosis – with its suggestion of a transcendent Evolution, directed by never-seen Aliens, or perhaps God – in an otherwise dark film. It may be noted that the darkness – which can seem stifling – is at no point lessened by any hint of any female involvement in this rewriting of Homo sapiens destiny. Clarke and Kubrick's foetal superman – the mother of the race to come – is male.

The film's uniqueness owes much to its unusual genesis. Kubrick's plan was to commission a novel from Clarke which the pair would simultaneously develop into a co-written screenplay, with the storyline for both novel and film devised in collaboration. The resulting script drafts were very strange, and barely cinematic in any recognizable sense; the film was written around heavy Clarkean voiceover narration throughout, only for Kubrick to strip this entirely out during a frenzied last-minute editing period in the three weeks before the press screening. This bold eleventh-hour dismantling of the diegetic scaffolding is the source of the film's eerie narrative obliquity. (Even such dialogue as remained in the Discovery sequence was largely unscripted, and devised on set between Kubrick and the actors.) The extraordinary final section, after Bowman passes through the stargate, in effect attempts to convey the experience of Transcendence through a found visual grammar that discards narrative altogether for a more essentially cinematic experience of the transhuman incomprehensible. Audiences were mostly baffled; the final moments, especially, are entirely unintelligible without Clarke's text, which during the first three months of release was not even available as a novel, though it had been written alongside the screenplay and finished two years before the film's release, only to be embargoed by Kubrick (to Clarke's frustration). Only with its belated appearance as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a major work of its author in its own right, and providing clear explanations in Clarke's usual manner (and voice) – was the tension resolved between Kubrick's allusive visual suggestion and Clarke's open rationalism. This peculiar symbiosis of novel and film remains key to the appreciation of both as finished texts; it is doubtful whether either work would seem as impressive without the other.

Aside from its intellectual audacity, 2001 is remarkable for a visual splendour 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) under the overall supervision of the young Douglas Trumbull, these mostly employed 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 was rarely used afterwards. Innovative in another way was the setting of classical recordings – originally a temp score which Kubrick felt unable to discard – of works by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Johann Strauss Jr (1825-1899) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) against much of the technological action, giving the paradoxical feeling of a cool romanticism and reinforcing the film's ambiguities (see SF Music), though the virtuoso introductory fanfare to Strauss's Also Sprache Zarathustra (1896) – over and above opening the door to unwise assertions that either Clarke or Kubrick had meant to invoke the radically anti-sublime anti-transcendental Friedrich Nietzsche to support their profoundly un-Nietzschean Godgame – is anything but cool. The present 141-minute version, cut from individual cinema prints of the 160-minute original release when it was already playing in cinemas, should be viewed in the full wide-screen 70mm format (2001 was one of the early films designed for Cinerama). Clarke described his connection with the film in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (coll 1972), which also prints discarded alternative versions of key scenes in the script drafts.

An arguable thematic predecessor, though only in part, is Space Men (1960; vt Assignment Outer Space). The sequel to 2001 was 2010 (1984; vt 2010: The Year We Make Contact), directed by Peter Hyams from Clarke's novel 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) – itself a sequel to the film rather than to the earlier novel. Kubrick had no involvement with either; both are worthy but distinctly lesser works. For the Comics adaptations see 2001: A Space Odyssey. [PN/JB/NL/DRL]

see also: Conceptual Breakthrough; Gods and Demons; History of SF; Intelligence; Linguistics; Mecha; Origin of Man; Space Flight.

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