“2001: A Space Odyssey”: What It Means, and How It Was Made
Analysis by Dan Chiasson April 16, 2018 in The New Yorker
Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke set out to make a new kind of sci-fi. How does their future look now that it’s the past?
Fifty years ago this spring, Stanley Kubrick’s confounding sci-fi masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” had its premières across the country. In the annals of audience restlessness, these evenings rival the opening night of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in 1913, when Parisians in osprey and tails reportedly brandished their canes and pelted the dancers with objects. A sixth of the New York première’s audience walked right out, including several executives from M-G-M. Many who stayed jeered throughout. Kubrick nervously shuttled between his seat in the front row and the projection booth, where he tweaked the sound and the focus. Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s collaborator, was in tears at intermission. The after-party at the Plaza was “a room full of drinks and men and tension,” according to Kubrick’s wife, Christiane.
Kubrick, a doctor’s son from the Bronx who got his start as a photographer for Look, was turning forty that year, and his rise in Hollywood had left him hungry to make extravagant films on his own terms. It had been four years full of setbacks and delays since the director’s triumph, “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” From the look of things, the Zeitgeist was not going to strike twice. A businessman overheard on his way out of a screening spoke for many: “Well, that’s one man’s opinion.”
“2001” is a hundred and forty-two minutes, pared down from a hundred and sixty-one in a cut that Kubrick made after those disastrous premières. There is something almost taunting about the movie’s pace. “2001” isn’t long because it is dense with storytelling; it is long because Kubrick distributed its few narrative jolts as sparsely as possible. Renata Adler, in the Times, described the movie as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Its “uncompromising slowness,” she wrote, “makes it hard to sit through without talking.” In Harper’s, Pauline Kael wrote, “The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world to a consoling vision of a graceful world of space.” Onscreen it was 2001, but in the theatres it was still 1968, after all. Kubrick’s gleeful machinery, waltzing in time to Strauss, had bounded past an abundance of human misery on the ground.
Hippies may have saved “2001.” “Stoned audiences” flocked to the movie. David Bowie took a few drops of cannabis tincture before watching, and countless others dropped acid. According to one report, a young man at a showing in Los Angeles plunged through the movie screen, shouting, “It’s God! It’s God!” John Lennon said he saw the film “every week.” “2001” initially opened in limited release, shown only in 70-mm. on curved Cinerama screens. M-G-M thought it had on its hands a second “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) or “Ben-Hur” (1959), or perhaps another “Spartacus” (1960), the splashy studio hit that Kubrick, low on funds, had directed about a decade before. But instead the theatres were filling up with fans of cult films like Roger Corman’s “The Trip,” or “Psych-Out,” the early Jack Nicholson flick with music by the Strawberry Alarm Clock. These movies, though cheesy, found a new use for editing and special effects: to mimic psychedelic visions. The iconic Star Gate sequence in “2001,” when Dave Bowman, the film’s protagonist, hurtles in his space pod through a corridor of swimming kaleidoscopic colors, could even be timed, with sufficient practice, to crest with the viewer’s own hallucinations. The studio soon caught on, and a new tagline was added to the movie’s redesigned posters: “The ultimate trip.”
In “Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece,” the writer and filmmaker Michael Benson takes us on a different kind of trip: the long journey from the film’s conception to its opening and beyond. The power of the movie has always been unusually bound up with the story of how it was made. In 1966, Jeremy Bernstein profiled Kubrick on the “2001” set for The New Yorker, and behind-the-scenes accounts with titles like “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001” began appearing soon after the movie’s release. The grandeur of “2001”—the product of two men, Clarke and Kubrick, who were sweetly awestruck by the thought of infinite space—required, in its execution, micromanagement of a previously unimaginable degree. Kubrick’s drive to show the entire arc of human life (“from ape to angel,” as Kael dismissively put it) meant that he was making a special-effects movie of radical scope and ambition. But in his initial letter to Clarke, a science-fiction writer, engineer, and shipwreck explorer living in Ceylon, Kubrick began with the modest-sounding goal of making “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie.” Kubrick wanted his film to explore “the reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life,” and what it would mean if we discovered it.
The outlines of a simple plot were already in place: Kubrick wanted “a space-probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.” (The finished product opts for Jupiter instead.) But the timing of Kubrick’s letter, in March of 1964, suggested a much more ambitious and urgent project. “2001” was a science-fiction film trying not to be outrun by science itself. Kubrick was tracking nasa’s race to the moon, which threatened to siphon some of the wonder from his production. He had one advantage over reality: the film could present the marvels of the universe in lavish color and sound, on an enormous canvas. If Kubrick could make the movie he imagined, the grainy images from the lunar surface shown on dinky TV screens would seem comparatively unreal.
In Clarke, Kubrick found a willing accomplice. Clarke had served as a radar instructor in the R.A.F., and did two terms as chairman of the British Interplanetary Society. His reputation as perhaps the most rigorous of living sci-fi writers, the author of several critically acclaimed novels, was widespread. Kubrick needed somebody who had knowledge and imagination in equal parts. “If you can describe it,” Clarke recalls Kubrick telling him, “I can film it.” It was taken as a dare. Meeting in New York, often in the Kubricks’ cluttered apartment on the Upper East Side, the couple’s three young daughters swarming around them, they decided to start by composing a novel. Kubrick liked to work from books, and since a suitable one did not yet exist they would write it. When they weren’t working, Clarke introduced Kubrick to his telescope and taught him to use a slide rule. They studied the scientific literature on extraterrestrial life. “Much excitement when Stanley phones to say that the Russians claim to have detected radio signals from space,” Clarke wrote in his journal for April 12, 1965: “Rang Walter Sullivan at the New York Times and got the real story—merely fluctuations in Quasar CTA 102.” Kubrick grew so concerned that an alien encounter might be imminent that he sought an insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London in case his story got scooped during production.
Clarke was the authority on both the science and the science fiction, but an account he gave later provides a sense of what working with Kubrick was like: “We decided on a compromise—Stanley’s.” The world of “2001” was designed ex nihilo, and among the first details to be worked out was the look of emptiness itself. Kubrick had seen a Canadian educational film titled “Universe,” which rendered outer space by suspending inks and paints in vats of paint thinner and filming them with bright lighting at high frame rates. Slowed down to normal speed, the oozing shades and textures looked like galaxies and nebulae. Spacecraft were designed with the expert help of Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway, who ran a prominent space consultancy. A senior nasa official called Kubrick’s studio outside London “nasa East.” Model makers, architects, boatbuilders, furniture designers, sculptors, and painters were brought to the studio, while companies manufactured the film’s spacesuits, helmets, and instrument panels. The lines between film and reality were blurred. The Apollo 8 crew took in the film’s fictional space flight at a screening not long before their actual journey. nasa’s Web site has a list of all the details that “2001” got right, from flat-screen displays and in-flight entertainment to jogging astronauts. In the coming decades, conspiracy theorists would allege that Kubrick had helped the government fake the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Kubrick brought to his vision of the future the studiousness you would expect from a history film. “2001” is, in part, a fastidious period piece about a period that had yet to happen. Kubrick had seen exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair, and pored over a magazine article titled “Home of the Future.” The lead production designer on the film, Tony Masters, noticed that the world of “2001” eventually became a distinct time and place, with the kind of coherent aesthetic that would merit a sweeping historical label, like “Georgian” or “Victorian.” “We designed a way to live,” he recalled, “down to the last knife and fork.” (The Arne Jacobsen flatware, designed in 1957, was made famous by its use in the film, and is still in production.) By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.
Much of the film’s luxe vision of space travel was overambitious. In 1998, ahead of the launch of the International Space Station, the Times reported that the habitation module was “far cruder than the most pessimistic prognosticator could have imagined in 1968.” But the film’s look was a big hit on Earth. Olivier Mourgue’s red upholstered Djinn chairs, used on the “2001” set, became a design icon, and the high-end lofts and hotel lobbies of the year 2001 bent distinctly toward the aesthetic of Kubrick’s imagined space station.
Audiences who came to “2001” expecting a sci-fi movie got, instead, an essay on time. The plot was simple and stark. A black monolith, shaped like a domino, appears at the moment in prehistory when human ancestors discover how to use tools, and another is later found, in the year 2001, just below the lunar surface, where it reflects signals toward Jupiter’s moons. At the film’s conclusion, a monolith looms again, when the ship’s sole survivor, Dave Bowman, witnesses the eclipse of human intelligence by a vague new order of being. “2001” is therefore only partly set in 2001: as exacting as Kubrick was about imagining that moment, he swept it away in a larger survey of time, wedging his astronauts between the apelike anthropoids that populate the first section of the film, “The Dawn of Man,” and the fetal Star Child betokening the new race at its close. A mixture of plausibility and poetry, “real” science and primal symbolism, was therefore required. For “The Dawn of Man,” shot last, a team travelled to Namibia to gather stills of the desert. Back in England, a massive camera system was built to project these shots onto screens, transforming the set into an African landscape. Actors, dancers, and mimes were hired to wear meticulously constructed ape suits, wild animals were housed at the Southampton Zoo, and a dead horse was painted to look like a zebra.
For the final section of the film, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” Ordway, the film’s scientific consultant, read up on a doctoral thesis on psychedelics advised by Timothy Leary. Theology students had taken psilocybin, then attended a service at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel to see if they’d be hit with religious revelations. They dutifully reported their findings: most of the participants had indeed touched God. Such wide-ranging research was characteristic of Clarke and Kubrick’s approach, although the two men, both self-professed squares, might have saved time had they been willing to try hallucinogens themselves.
The Jupiter scenes—filled with what Michael Benson describes as “abstract, nonrepresentational, space-time astonishments”—were the product of years of trial and error spent adapting existing equipment and technologies, such as the “slit-scan” photography that finally made the famous Star Gate sequence possible. Typically used for panoramic shots of cityscapes, the technique, in the hands of Kubrick’s special-effects team, was modified to produce a psychedelic rush of color and light. Riding in Dave’s pod is like travelling through a birth canal in which someone has thrown a rave. Like the films of the late nineteenth century, “2001” manifested its invented worlds by first inventing the methods needed to construct them.
Yet some of the most striking effects in the film are its simplest. In a movie about extraterrestrial life, Kubrick faced a crucial predicament: what would the aliens look like? Cold War-era sci-fi offered a dispiriting menu of extraterrestrial avatars: supersonic birds, scaly monsters, gelatinous blobs. In their earliest meetings in New York, Clarke and Kubrick, along with Christiane, sketched drafts and consulted the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst. For a time, Christiane was modelling clay aliens in her studio. These gargoyle-like creatures were rejected, and “ended up dotted around the garden,” according to Kubrick’s daughter Katharina. Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures of thinned and elongated humans, resembling shadows at sundown, were briefly an inspiration. In the end, Kubrick decided that “you cannot imagine the unimaginable” and, after trying more ornate designs, settled on the monolith. Its eerily neutral and silent appearance at the crossroads of human evolution evokes the same wonder for members of the audience as it does for characters in the film. Kubrick realized that, if he was going to make a film about human fear and awe, the viewer had to feel those emotions as well.
And then there is hal, the rogue computer whose affectless red eye reflects back what it sees while, behind it, his mind whirrs with dark and secret designs. I.B.M. consulted on the plans for hal, but the idea to use the company’s logo fell through after Kubrick described him in a letter as “a psychotic computer.” Any discussion of Kubrick’s scientific prescience has to include hal, whose suave, slightly effeminate voice suggests a bruised heart beating under his circuitry. In the past fifty years, our talking machines have continued to evolve, but none of them have become as authentically malicious as hal. My grandfather’s early-eighties Chrysler, borrowing the voice from Speak & Spell, would intone, “A door is ajar,” whenever you got in. It sounded like a logical fallacy, but it seemed pleasantly futuristic nonetheless. Soon voice-command technology reached the public, ushering in our current era of unreliable computer interlocutors given to unforced errors: half-comical, half-pitiful simpletons, whose fate in life is to be taunted by eleven-year-olds. Despite the reports of cackling Amazon Alexas, there has, so far, been fairly little to worry about where our talking devices are concerned. The unbearable pathos of hal’s disconnection scene, one of the most mournful death scenes ever filmed, suggests that when we do end up with humanlike computers, we’re going to have some wild ethical dilemmas on our hands. hal is a child, around nine years old, as he tells Dave at the moment he senses he’s finished. He’s precocious, indulged, needy, and vulnerable; more human than his human overseers, with their stilted, near robotic delivery. The dying hal, singing “Daisy,” the tune his teacher taught him, is a sentimental trope out of Victorian fiction, more Little Nell than little green man.
As Benson’s book suggests, in a way the release of “2001” was its least important milestone. Clarke and Kubrick had been wrestling for years with questions of what the film was, and meant. These enigmas were merely handed off from creators to viewers. The critic Alexander Walker called “2001” “the first mainstream film that required an act of continuous inference” from its audiences. On set, the legions of specialists and consultants working on the minutiae took orders from Kubrick, whose conception of the whole remained in constant flux. The film’s narrative trajectory pointed inexorably toward a big ending, even a revelation, but Kubrick kept changing his mind about what that ending would be—and nobody who saw the film knew quite what to make of the one he finally chose. The film took for granted a broad cultural tolerance, if not an appetite, for enigma, as well as the time and inclination for parsing interpretive mysteries. If the first wave of audiences was baffled, it might have been because “2001” had not yet created the taste it required to be appreciated. Like “Ulysses,” or “The Waste Land,” or countless other difficult, ambiguous modernist landmarks, “2001” forged its own context. You didn’t solve it by watching it a second time, but you did settle into its mysteries.
Later audiences had another advantage. “2001” established the phenomenon of the Kubrick film: much rumored, long delayed, always a little disappointing. Casts and crews were held hostage as they withstood Kubrick’s infinite futzing, and audiences were held in eager suspense by P.R. campaigns that often oversold the films’ commercial appeal. Downstream would be midnight showings, monographs, dorm rooms, and weed, but first there was the letdown. The reason given for the films’ failures suggested the terms of their redemption: Kubrick was incapable of not making Kubrick films.
“2001” established the aesthetic and thematic palette that he used in all his subsequent films. The spaciousness of its too perfectly constructed sets, the subjugation of story and theme to abstract compositional balance, the precision choreography, even—especially—in scenes of violence and chaos, the entire repertoire of colors, angles, fonts, and textures: these were constants in films as wildly different as “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). So was the languorous editing of “2001,” which, when paired with abrupt temporal leaps, made eons seem short and moments seem endless, and its brilliant deployment of music to organize, and often ironize, action and character. These elements were present in some form in Kubrick’s earlier films, particularly “Dr. Strangelove,” but it was all perfected in “2001.” Because he occupied genres one at a time, each radically different from the last, you could control for what was consistently Kubrickian about everything he did. The films are designed to advance his distinct filmic vocabulary in new contexts and environments: a shuttered resort hotel, a spacious Manhattan apartment, Vietnam. Inside these disparate but meticulously constructed worlds, Kubrick’s slightly malicious intelligence determined the outcomes of every apparently free choice his protagonists made.
Though Kubrick binged on pulp sci-fi as a child, and later listened to radio broadcasts about the paranormal, “2001” has little in common with the rinky-dink conventions of movie science fiction. Its dazzling showmanship harkened back to older cinematic experiences. Film scholars sometimes discuss the earliest silent films as examples of “the cinema of attraction,” movies meant to showcase the medium itself. These films were, in essence, exhibits: simple scenes from ordinary life—a train arriving, a dog cavorting. Their only import was that they had been captured by a camera that could, magically, record movement in time. This “moving photography” was what prompted Maxim Gorky, who saw the Lumière brothers’ films at a Russian fair in 1896, to bemoan the “kingdom of shadows”—a mass of people, animals, and vehicles—rushing “straight at you,” approaching the edge of the screen, then vanishing “somewhere beyond it.”
“2001” is at its best when it evokes the “somewhere beyond.” For me, the most astounding moment of the film is a coded tribute to filmmaking itself. In “The Dawn of Man,” when a fierce leopard suddenly faces us, its eyes reflect the light from the projection system that Kubrick’s team had invented to create the illusion of a vast primordial desert. Kubrick loved the effect, and left it in. These details linger in the mind partly because they remind us that a brilliant artist, intent on mastering science and conjuring science fiction, nevertheless knew when to leave his poetry alone.
The interpretive communities convened by “2001” may persist in pockets of the culture, but I doubt whether many young people will again contend with its debts to Jung, John Cage, and Joseph Campbell. In the era of the meme, we’re more likely to find the afterlife of “2001” in fragments and glimpses than in theories and explications. The film hangs on as a staple of YouTube video essays and mashups; it remains high on lists of both the greatest films ever made and the most boring. On Giphy, you can find many iconic images from “2001” looping endlessly in seconds-long increments—a jarring compression that couldn’t be more at odds with the languid eternity Kubrick sought to capture. The very fact that you can view “2001,” along with almost every film ever shot, on a palm-size device is a future that Kubrick and Clarke may have predicted, but surely wouldn’t have wanted for their own larger-than-life movie. The film abounds in little screens, tablets, and picturephones; in 2011, Samsung fought an injunction from Apple over alleged patent violations by citing the technology in “2001” as a predecessor for its designs. Moon landings and astronaut celebrities now feel like a thing of the past. Space lost out. Those screens were the future.
An earlier version of this story suggested that a single monolith appears at different times in the film.