Why 2001: A Space Odyssey was a masterpiece so ahead of its time
An excerpt from a new book on the making of Kubrick's classic reveals the film's true brilliance, as well as Hollywood's initial hostility toward it
The following is an excerpt from Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson, a book which reveals the making of the classic Kubrick film and analyzes its impact on popular culture. The book will be released by Simon & Schuster on April 3; pre-order it here.
Prologue: The Odyssey
The twentieth century produced two great latter-day iterations of Homer’s Odyssey. The first was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which collapsed Odysseus’s decade of wandering down to a single city, Dublin, and a seemingly arbitrary day, June 16, 1904. In Ulysses, the role of Ithaca’s wily king was played by a commoner, Leopold Bloom—a peaceable Jewish cuckold with an uncommonly fascinating inner life, one the author effectively allowed us to hear. Serialized from 1918 to 1920, it was published in full in 1922.
The other was Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the islands of the southeastern Mediterranean became the solar system’s planets and moons, and the wine-dark sea the airless void of interplanetary, interstellar, and even intergalactic space.
Shot in large-format panoramic 65-millimeter negative and initially projected on giant, curving Cinerama screens in specially modified theaters, 2001 premiered in Washington, DC, on April 2, 1968, and in New York City the following day. Produced and directed by Kubrick and conceived in collaboration with Clarke, one of the leading authors of science fiction’s “golden age,” the film was initially 161 minutes long. Following a disastrous series of preview and premiere screenings, the director cut it down to a leaner 142 minutes.
Where Joyce’s strategy had been to transform Odysseus into a benevolently meditative cosmopolitan flaneur, and to reduce ten years of close calls and escape artistry to twenty-four hours in proximity of the River Liffey, Kubrick and Clarke took the opposite approach. Deploying science as a kind of prism, which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries entirely transformed our sense of the size and duration of the universe, they vastly expanded Homer’s spatiotemporal parameters. 2001: A Space Odyssey encompassed four million years of human evolution, from prehuman Australopithecine man-apes struggling to survive in southern Africa, through to twenty-first-century space-faring Homo sapiens, then on to the death and rebirth of their Odysseus astronaut, Dave Bowman, as an eerily posthuman “Star Child.” In the final scene, the weightless fetus returns to Earth as Richard Strauss’s 1896 composition Thus Spoke Zarathustra pounds cathartically on the soundtrack.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the meddlesome gods of the ancients have become an inscrutable, prying alien super-race. Never seen directly, they swoop down periodically from their galactic Olympus to intervene in human affairs. The instrument of their power, a rectangular black monolith, appears at key turning points in human destiny. First seen among starving man-apes in a parched African landscape at the “Dawn of Man,” 2001’s totemic extraterrestrial artifact engenders the idea among our distant ancestors of using weaponized bones to harvest the animal protein grazing plentifully all around them. This prompting toward tool use implicitly channels the species toward survival, success—and, eventually, technologically mediated global domination.
After vaulting into that happy future in a match cut that has deservedly acquired the reputation of being the single most astonishing transition in cinematic history, 2001 leads us to understand that a lunar survey team has discovered another monolith, this one seemingly deliberately buried under the surface of the Moon eons before. When excavated and hit by sunlight for the first time in millions of years, it fires a powerful radio pulse in the direction of Jupiter—evidently a signal, warning its makers that a species capable of space travel has arisen on Earth. A giant spacecraft, Discovery, is sent to investigate.
While parallels with The Odyssey aren’t as thoroughly woven into the structure of 2001 as they are in Ulysses, they certainly exist. Seemingly prodded into action by flawed programming, a cyclopean supercomputer named HAL-9000—represented by an ultracalm disembodied voice and a network of individual glowing eyes positioned throughout Discovery—goes bad and kills off most of the crew. The sole surviving astronaut, mission commander Dave Bowman, then has to fight the computer to the death. Apart from dueling a cybernetic Cyclops, Bowman’s name references Odysseus, who returns to Ithaca, strings the bow of Apollo, shoots an arrow through twelve axe shafts, and proceeds to slaughter his wife’s suitors. A nostos, or homecoming, was as necessary to Kubrick’s and Clarke’s Odyssey as it was to Homer’s.
Much like Joyce and in keeping with their expansive vision, 2001’s authors took parallels with Homer as a starting point, not a final word. When they started work in 1964, one initial motivation was to study the universal structures of all human myths. They were aided by Joseph Campbell’s magisterial study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which provided them with a template for the conscious creation of a new work of mythology. Early in their collaboration, Kubrick quoted a passage to Clarke concerning the universal rite of passage of any mythological hero, which Campbell suggested invariably encompasses “separation–initiation–return.” This tripartite structure “might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth,” Campbell wrote—a term he borrowed from Joyce, who’d coined it in his last major work, Finnegans Wake.
Campbell’s research helped Kubrick and Clarke delve into the archetypal workings of human mythological yearnings, expanding that template to encompass not just one story and hero, and not even just one species, but rather the entire trajectory of humanity—“from ape to angel,” as Kubrick put it in 1968. In this, they also overtly referenced Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1891 philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra, with its concept of mankind as merely a transitional species—sentient enough to understand its animal origins but not yet truly civilized. It was an idea both could get behind, Clarke with his innate optimism about human possibilities, and Kubrick with his deeply ingrained skepticism. It was this seemingly contradictory mesh of worldviews that gave 2001: A Space Odyssey its exhilarating fusion of agnosticism and belief, cynicism and idealism, death and rebirth.
In Clarke, Kubrick had found the most balanced and productive creative partnership of his career. While the director made all the critical decisions during the film’s production, the project started out—and in important ways remained—a largely equal collaboration between two very different, singularly creative characters. Like Joyce, both were expatriates, with the Kubrick family finally settling for good in England during the making of 2001, and Clarke being a resident of Ceylon—later Sri Lanka—from 1956 until his death in 2008.
At 2001’s release in 1968, Kubrick was thirty-nine, the same age as Joyce when Ulysses was being serialized. He was at the pinnacle of his abilities, having already made two of the twentieth century’s great films. Each was a devastating indictment of human behavior as expressed through the military mind-set. Released in 1957, Paths of Glory served as a comprehensive indictment of the hypocrisy of the French general staff during World War I—though its meanings were by no means limited to any one army or conflict. And his 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove, written in collaboration with Peter George and Terry Southern, cut to the core of the Cold War nuclear arms race, equal parts savage critique and caustic black comedy. A resounding critical and commercial success, it set the stage for the large-scale studio support necessary to realize 2001.
Kubrick’s method was to find an existing novel or source concept and adapt it for the screen, always stamping it with his own bleak—but not necessarily despairing—assessment of the human condition. A self-educated polymath, he was in some ways the ultimate genre director, switching virtuosically between established cinematic categories and forms with a restless analytical intelligence, always transcending and expanding their boundaries. During his career, he reinvented and redefined the film noir heist film, the war movie, the period costume feature, the horror flick, and the science fiction epic, each time transforming and reinvigorating the genre through extensive, time-consuming research followed by an uncompromising winnowing away of clichés and extraneous elements.
Kubrick treated every film as a grand investigation, drilling down into his subject with a relentless perfectionist’s tenacity as he forced it to yield every secret and possibility. Once he’d decided on a theme, he subjected it to years of interrogation, reading everything and exploring all aspects before finally jump-starting the cumbersome filmmaking machinery. Having concluded his preproduction research, he directed his pictures with all the authority of an enlightened despot. Following a stint as hired-gun director on Spartacus in 1960, he conceived of a personal kind of slave revolt, never again working on a project he didn’t produce himself. While in practice, studios such as MGM footed the bills and exerted some influence, this gave him near-complete artistic independence. (Still Spartacus, which Kirk Douglas both produced and starred in, marked Kubrick’s definitive induction into big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. The picture, which dramatized the bloody trajectory of a Thracian gladiator as he led a successful uprising against Rome, won four Oscars and a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture Drama.)
As the ne plus ultra example of Kubrick’s methods, 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t just rooted in extensive preproduction fieldwork, it continued throughout—an uninterrupted, well-funded research project spanning its live-action filming and extending across its postproduction as well (which, given the importance of its visual effects, was actually production by another name). All the while, the director and his team pioneered a variety of innovative new cinematic techniques. Highly unorthodox in big-budget filmmaking, this improvisatory, research-based approach was practically unheard of in a project of this scale. 2001 never had a definitive script. Major plot points remained in flux well into filming. Significant scenes were modified beyond recognition or tossed altogether as their moment on the schedule arrived. A documentary prelude featuring leading scientists discussing extraterrestrial intelligence was shot but discarded. Giant sets were built, found wanting, and rejected. A transparent two-ton Plexiglas monolith was produced at huge expense and then shelved as inadequate. And so forth.
Throughout, Kubrick and Clarke remained locked in dialogue. One strategy they’d agreed on in advance was that their story’s metaphysical and even mystical elements had to be earned through absolute scientific-technical realism. 2001’s space shuttles, orbiting stations, lunar bases, and Jupiter missions were thoroughly grounded in actual research and rigorously informed extrapolation, much of it provided by leading American companies then also busy providing technologies and expertise to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. In late 1965, George Mueller, the czar of the Apollo lunar program, visited 2001’s studio facilities north of London. Apollo was then still flight-testing unmanned launch vehicles, while NASA launched the precursor Gemini program’s two-man capsules in an ambitious series of Earth-orbiting missions. After touring the film’s emerging sets and viewing detailed scale models of its centrifuges and spacecraft, the man in charge of landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth—the ultimate Odyssean voyage yet accomplished by the species—was impressed enough to dub the production “NASA East.”
Clarke was fifty when 2001 came out. When Kubrick first contacted him early in 1964, he had already enjoyed an exceptionally prolific career. Best known as a formidably imaginative science fiction novelist and short-story writer, he was also a trenchant essayist and one of the twentieth century’s leading advocates of human expansion into the solar system. Apart from his fictional and nonfictional output, he had played a noteworthy role in the history of technology. Clarke’s 1945 paper on “extraterrestrial relays,” published in the British magazine Wireless World, proposed a global system of geostationary satellites, which, he argued, would revolutionize global telecommunications. While some of the ideas he presented had already been in circulation, he synthesized them impeccably, and the paper is regarded as an important document of the space age and the information revolution.
Clarke’s fictions were greatly influenced by the work of British science fiction novelist Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950), whose seminal Last and First Men and Star Maker encompassed multiple phases of human evolution across vast timescales. Clarke’s early novels Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956) likewise encompassed sweeps of time so expansive that monumental civilizational changes could be examined in great detail. Still considered his best work, Childhood’s End closed with the human race being shepherded through an accelerated evolutionary transformation by a seemingly benevolent alien race, the “Overlords.” In it, humanity is depicted as obsolete—destined for replacement by a telepathically linked successor species composed, oddly, of children. Clarke’s strange vision of mankind outgrowing its childhood was also influenced directly by the great Russian rocket scientist and futurist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who, in an essay published in 1912, stated, “Earth is the cradle of the mind, but humanity can’t remain in its cradle forever.” As the central utopian credo of the space age, Tsiolkovsky’s pronouncement would find direct expression in 2001’s final scenes.
As with Ulysses, 2001 was initially greeted with varying degrees of incomprehension, dismissal, and scorn—but also awed admiration, particularly among the younger generation. Its first screenings were a harrowing ordeal, with audience reactions at the New York premiere including boos, catcalls, and large-scale walkouts. Most of the city’s leading critics dismissed the film, some in personal and humiliating terms. And as with Joyce, some of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s peers went out of their way to disparage the film. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, possibly the greatest filmmaker of the twentieth century, found 2001 repellant. Calling it “phony on many points,” he argued that its fixation on “the details of the material structure of the future” resulted in a transformation of “the emotional foundation of a film, as a work of art, into a lifeless schema with only pretensions to the truth.” Soon after its release, Clarke’s friend and fellow science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a negative review decrying 2001’s slow pace and banal dialogue. He had a solution, though: it should be “run through the chopper, heartlessly.”
In retrospect, these initial waves of hostility and incomprehension can be understood as a result of the film’s radical innovations in technique and structure—another similarity to Ulysses. They were followed by grudging reappraisals, at least on the part of some, and a dawning understanding that a truly significant work of art had materialized. 2001: A Space Odyssey is now recognized as one of the exceedingly rare works that will forever define its historical period. Put simply, it changed how we think about ourselves. In this way, too, it easily withstands comparison to James Joyce’s masterpiece.
In both of these modernist Odysseys, audiences were asked to accept new ways of receiving narrative. While Joyce didn’t invent stream of consciousness and interior monologue as literary devices, he brought them to new levels of proficiency and complexity. Likewise, Kubrick didn’t create oblique auteurist indirection and dialogue-free imagistic storytelling—but by transposing it into the science fiction genre and setting it within such a vast expanse of space and time, he effectively kicked it upstairs. 2001 is essentially a nonverbal experience, one more comparable to a musical composition than to the usual dialogue-based commercial cinema. An art film made with a Hollywood blockbuster budget, it put audiences in the unaccustomed position of “paying attention with their eyes,” as Kubrick put it.
Joyce’s tidally impressionistic portrait of provincial Dublin allowed us to sample previously inaccessible internal currents of human thought and feeling. Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a disturbing vision of human transformation due to technology, positioning all our strivings within a colossal cosmic framework and evoking the existence of extraterrestrial entities so powerful as to be godlike. Each was highly influential, with innumerable successor works striving to equal their philosophical breadth and technical virtuosity. Neither has yet been surpassed.
Benson, Michael.Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece. Copyright 2018 by Michael Benson. Reprinted with permission.
2001: A Space Odyssey