Since its debut in 1968, science-fiction enthusiasts and fans of great films have been debating the meaning of the epic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a joint project from renowned movie director Stanley Kubrick and famed novelist Arthur C. Clarke.
That’s why many of them were hoping with the 2018 release of his book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, which celebrates the enigmatic film’s 50thanniversary, author Michael Benson would finally provide definitive answers to their questions.
However, despite years of researching, Benson readily admits he still isn’t certain exactly what Kubrick and Clarke were trying to say in their “implicit rather explicit” film.
“It is a masterwork of oblique visceral and intuited meanings which permits every viewer to project his or her own understanding on it. And that’s an important reason for the film’s enduring power and relevance,” Benson says.
In 1968, Kubrick claimed he wanted audiences “to pay attention with their eyes” as they viewed his epic, evolutionary journey of humans from “ape to angel.
”The director likened his and Clarke’s work more to a painting than a regular film, an idea solidified by the fact the 142-minute film contains less than 40 minutes of dialogue. The dialogue-free imagistic story telling is a non-verbal, more akin to a musical masterpiece than a typical film” Benson writes in the forward to his 497-page opus.
When it was released 50 years ago, the film was initially dismissed as incomprehensible. But it quickly found favor with hipper elements of the Baby Boom generation, who were looking to drugs and ancient Eastern philosophies to take them on an inner journey and viewed the film as a similar attempt to grasp the complexities of an even more mind-boggling universe.
Soon it began receiving critical praise as well. Today, it is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. 2001 was named the number 1 science fiction movie of all-time by the American Film Institute (AFI). It was also listed as number 15 on the AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list. In 1991, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on 2001, but I have seen the film a half-dozen times in my life, first as a 16-year old when it was released and most recently as a 66-year-old at a recent viewing at the Smithsonian Museum of American History which was followed by an engaging, thought-provoking talk by Benson.
So, after five decades, what do I feel certain in saying about the film?
First, as its title implies, it is a saga about a journey, one loosely informed by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, a sequel to his equally famous The Iliad. While The Iliadis about the fall of Troy, The Odysseyconcerns the 10-year, action-packed journey of one of the greatest surviving Greek warriors, Ulysses, as he struggles to return to his kingdom in Ithaca. But while Homer’s tale was bound by the limited knowledge of the ancient world, 2001tackles the vastness of interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space with a fantastic adventure encompassing 400 million years of human evolution from howling apes discovering that bones could be weapons of death to the fictional rebirth of a sole surviving space explorer as a new superhuman “star child.”
Other borrowings from Homer abound in the film. For example, the astronaut hero is named Dave Bowman, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact the Ulysses used a bow and arrows to vanquish the suitors for his wife Penelope when he finally made it home.
But the greatest homage to Homer is the fact that the eerily calm-speaking, yet decidedly evil rogue super-computer Bowman must “kill” in the film is represented by a glaring single eye, echoing the central characteristic of the mighty, one-eyed Cyclops Ulysses must overcome in his journey.
There is no question that Kubrick and Clarke were determined to offer their story of human evolution in mythic terms and were steeped in the ideas of author Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In his book, Campbell contends that rite of passage for any mythological hero encompasses “separation-initiation-return,” a sequence which perfectly captures the tale of both Ulysses and Bowman.
Much of the mystery of the movie comes from the giant black monoliths – the first seen in the opening scene with the apes. Another black monolith, later discovered buried on the moon, proves the finding that launches Bowman and his fellow astronauts (who like Ulysses’ men do not survive) on their incredible journey to Jupiter and beyond. Here, I concur with the belief the monoliths are the creations of a super-alien race, which like the overlord gods of ancient Greek legend, has continued to have a hand on affairs on Earth.
Of course, the biggest impact of the film rests in its visually spellbinding scenes, which can still astound today. From the disturbing appearance of the murderous apes to the various spaceflights to the lobotomization of HAL-9000 (‘I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”) to the final strange, abstract “Star Gate” sequence where Bowman ages, only to finally materialize as an ethereal, floating fetus, the film offers an experience which has yet to be duplicated even with our modern technological advances.
There is no question 2001deals with some of the major issues of modernity including evolution, the benefits and perils of technology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and the concept of God. However, the film poses more questions than it answers.
In fact, the lasting brilliance of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s creation is it allows us to make our own decisions of meaning, much as in our actual lives we must weigh the possibility of human transformation through technology against the warnings of the dangers of that same technology.
Therein lies much of the disagreement about the film. Some viewers regard the film – especially its ending – as an optimistic statement of humanity. Others argue the film is a pessimistic account of human nature and humanity’s future.
But in the end, this is exactly what Kubrick desired from his masterpiece.
In 1968, he told a Playboy magazine interviewer: “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level – but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”
And so, if its first 50 years are an indication, it appears that unlike Ulysses’ travels in the ancient Odysseywhich did finally conclude, the journey depicted in 2001: A Space Odysseywill continue as long as there are questioning humans on Earth, enticing planets to visit, and bright stars to light the sky.
If you have seen 2001: A Space Odysseywhat do you think of the film – is it optimistic about the future of humanity or a warning about the dangers of technology? What impact did it have on you as a viewer?
15 Facts About 2001You May Not Know
- During the development of the movie, Kubrick and Clarke humorously referred to their project as How the Solar System Was Won, a play on the title of the 1962 western epic How the West Was Won.
- The first working title of the film was Project: Space. Other temporary titles included Across the Sea of Stars, Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, Earth Escape, Jupiter Window, Farewell to Earth, Planetfall, andJourney Beyond the Stars.
- Just before NASA’s Mariner 4spacecraft passed Mars in July 1965, a worried Kubrick attempted to take out an insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London – in case the actual discovery of extraterrestrial life ruined the plot of his movie.
- Stanley Kubrick and lead actors Keir Dullea and Garyn Lockwood were all afraid of flying, with each traveling to England for the filming by ship.
- Kubrick couldn’t come up with a way to depict his concept of how the film’s hero should make contact with extraterrestrial life, so he contacted noted author/astrophysicist Carl Sagan for help. Sagan said the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly display, the alien beings.
- Initially, for the opening scene with the apes, Kubrick auditioned actors and dancers to portray the chattering band. Finally, he decided to recruit 20 mimes for his apes. Two live chimpanzees were also used.
- To portray as much reality as possible, Kubrick hired German-born designer Harry Lange, who had previously worked at NASA as the head of its futures projects section and Frederick Ordway, NASA’s former chief of space information systems and a scientist who helped develop the Saturn V rocket.
- The scene where Bowman deactivates HAL, who is singing “Daisy Bell” was inspired by a visit Clarke made to Bell Labs in the early 60’s to see a demonstration of an IBM 704 computer singing the same song.
- There has long been a belief that HAL is a sly reference to IBM, since each letter in the malevolent computer’s name is one alphabetical letter away from the letters in the computer company’s name.
- HAL 9000 is often quoted as saying “Good morning, Dave,” but he never actually says that in the film.
- Due to Kubrick’s perfectionism, 2001would up being $4.5 million over its original budget and was completed 16 months behind schedule.
- Reactions to the premieres in Washington, D.C. and New York City were so negative that 241 people walked out of the New York showing, an exodus that reduced co-creator Clarke in tears.
- Famous science fiction writers of the time were divided over the movie. Ray Bradbury and Lester Del Ray felt it lacked humanity, while Isaac Asimov and Samuel B. Delaney were greatly impressed.
- Special photographic supervisor Douglas Trumball has said the total footage shot was about 200 times the length of the one-hour-and-42-minute film.
- Some conspiracy theorists who believe the 1969 Apollo moon landing was faked contend that the footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was actually directed by Kubrick using leftover filmed scenes from