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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: MGM


2001: Clarke and Kubrick’s Odyssey of Discovery

What more can be said about 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is there anything left to analyze, to inspect, about one of the most hailed and discussed movies of all time? Plenty, in fact. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece has been called the “Citizen Kane of science fiction films” for good reason. It’s not just because it’s generally recognized as the best of its genre or for its numerous technical innovations that have become necessary tools in contemporary filmmaking, but because of the way invites multiple interpretations from the audience.

            My own reasons for loving the film are best summed up in a review by a friend: it provided a story as intellectually provocative and sophisticated as that of any piece of written science fiction while at the same time not sacrificing the cinematic mode of storytelling.  It was exceedingly rare then as it is now to find a movie that qualified as both good science fiction and good cinema, and for a movie to be truly great on both levels is a once in a blue moon occurrence. In order to properly appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey as a work of cinematic art, it is therefore necessary more closely examine its place in the genre it belongs to.

1968: The Dawn of a New Era

1968 was a great year for film, with many movies released that year going on to be either classics or cult favorites: Bullitt, Oliver!, The Lion in Winter, Petulia, Faces, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead are just some of the titles that immediately come to mind. And it was an especially great year for science fiction film;  2001: A Space Odyssey was one of four outstanding films in the genre released in the United States that year, and even more remarkable is that all four films dealt provocatively with the same core theme of the evolution of human intelligence. Each one would handle this particular theme with their own distinct approaches, perfectly demonstrating the genre’s intellectual flexibility.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: MGM/20th Century Fox

 One of them was of course Planet of Apes, a movie that is many ways the reverse of 2001. Instead of being about humanity’s intellectual and technological ascent, it’s about the reversion of human intelligence to a bestial state, with our cousins in the Hominidae family taking over our old niches and unfortunately, reviving our self-destructive ways as well. Later in the year came Charly, based on Daniel Keyes’s classic short story “Flowers for Algernon” and featuring a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance by Cliff Robertson. Although not dealing directly with the subject of human evolution, it does deal with an individual case of artificially-accelerated intelligence, an experiment that ends tragically in failure. Watching Robertson regress from a genius to his former self in Charly is every bit as emotionally wrenching as watching Bowman dismantle HAL’s memory banks in 2001.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: MGM

            The third film (actually first in release in order), was Quatermass and the Pit, released in the United States as Five Million Years to Earth. Out of all the films, it’s the one closest to 2001 in theme and plot: a millions-year old spaceship is excavated beneath the London subway system, containing the remains of horned, locust-like aliens. It turns out that the “Martians” were responsible for accelerating the evolution of apes into humans, but also implanted their warlike tendencies into our ancestral consciousness. Like Kubrick and Clarke, screenwriter Nigel Kneale and director Roy Ward Baker pack an astounding amount of provocative ideas in a tight running time, and Kneale’s original 1958 television serial developed them even further. If 2001 is the better work, it’s because Quatermass’s television origins are sometimes too obvious, and it requires much dialogue and exposition to communicate its ideas. 2001, on the other hand recognizes the rhetorical possibilities of the cinematic medium to convey similar concepts visually, and opens them to viewer analysis and interpretation. Quatermass and the Pit is a superior science fiction movie, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great science fiction film.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: MGM/Hammer Films/20th Century Fox

            Although the Quatermass and the Pit TV serial preceded 2001: A Space Odyssey by a good ten years, the casual observer should especially avoid falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy in this particular instance. Aliens playing a role in human evolution were hardly a new idea in the1950s, but it was Clarke’s own novel Childhood’s End (1953) that immediately become the definitive literary treatment of this idea. The evolutionary intervention in Clarke’s novel was also accomplished by satanic-looking aliens that instilled the visual motif of devils and demons throughout human culture, an idea re-used by Kneale in his teleplay. And Clarke wasn’t even the first to do so in this specific case; John W. Campbell had already conceived of aliens-as-the-model-for-the-devil in his 1934 novel The Mightiest Machine.

 All the same, 2001 handles the theme in a manner distinct to Clarke’s own brand of poetic hard science fiction, filtered through the directorial approach of Stanley Kubrick. The director and his co-scenarist had very different worldviews, Kubrick taking a dim view of humanity bordering on outright misanthropy while Clarke remained a cautious optimist, believing our species would eventually make it to the stars if it could overcome the self-destructive tendencies that Kubrick himself emphasized in his films. In a rare gesture of humility (his nickname in British SF fandom was “Ego”), Clarke usually deferred most of the credit for the film’s quality to Kubrick and special effects crew. But as chronicled by Michael Benson in his recent book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece (one of the best ever on the making of a single film), Clarke underrated his own importance to the production. Closer examination of the film’s themes of intelligence and evolution demonstrate just how deep Clarke’s contributions were to the finished product. In doing so, we can also better understand the challenge that Kubrick faced in communicating these themes to the public, both as cinema and as science fiction.

The Clarke Variations

Arthur C. Clarke. Credit: MGM

The generally accepted primary source material for the screenplay is Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” about the discovery of a crystalline obelisk on the Moon that signals to whoever left it there that humanity has finally advanced to space travel. It was, however,  far from the only one of Clarke’s stories to guide the development of the screenplay. As mentioned above Clarke had already dealt the notion of extra-terrestrial intervention in human evolution in his novel Childhood’s End. Among Clarke’s other short stories greatly influencing the screen play were “Encounter in the Dawn” and “Breaking Strain,” both reprinted in the collection Expedition to Earth along with “The Sentinel.” In the first story an alien research team arriving on Earth years in the past deliberately leave behind tools that will help early humans build civilization; the second story tells of two astronauts struggling to survive in a space station (whose physical description matches that of 2001’s the Discovery) when their oxygen supplies start to run out.

All three stories, put together, form the framework for each main sequence in 2001, but there are other stories by Clarke that have obvious thematic affinities with the completed film. These include “Jupiter Five,” about the discovery of an alien artifact on one of the Jovian moons that turns out to be deliberately left there for human discovery; “The Possessed,” about an alien hive-mind that guides the evolution of reptiles to mammals; and “Second Dawn,” about a race of highly intelligent unicorn-like aliens that has never learned how to use tools but comes to learn the value of technology. Even HAL has an antecedent in “The Pacifist,” one of several humorous pieces featured in his collection Tales from the White Hart, in which an early AI rebels against the instructions of a gung-ho jingoistic general not unlike the mad General Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.  Around the same time he was working on the 2001 script with Kubrick, Clarke wrote “Dial F for Frankenstein” about the spontaneous organization of the world’s telecommunication systems into an implicitly malevolent global intelligence, controlling every human electronics system the same way HAL controlled the Discovery. Finally, the very story structure of 2001 was anticipated by Clarke’s story “Transience,” a sequence of three vignettes that take place along the same shoreline, separated by millennia, beginning with an early hominid walking along the shore up until the end of the world centuries into the future.

In addition to borrowing from specific stories by Clarke, the 2001 screenplay also displays great affinities to some of the main themes running through his entire oeuvre. Chief among these is a fascination with the evolution of the human species, the circumstances that led to its intellectual development and the possibility of further evolution and eventual transcendence. It’s a thematic preoccupation most evident in Childhood’s End, which as already mentioned deals with the intervention in humanity’s ancestral past by aliens, who eons later help midwife it towards the next step in its evolution into a group-mind (not unlike the Star Child that Bowman “evolves” into). These preoccupations are also very much a part of what is probably his finest novel, The City and the Stars. Both books demonstrate the tremendous influence that Olaf Stapledon’s work, particularly Last and First Men and The Star Maker, had on Clarke’s fiction and overall view of humanity and its future. One of the oddest critiques of the film I’ve encountered is the assertion that it is somehow an apology for creationism, because it supposedly depicts outside influence (call it divine intervention, if you’d like) as being necessary to the intellectual evolution of the human species. It’s an argument I don’t buy; not only was the idea anathema to Clarke’s own views on the matter, but the monoliths are just one step(s) in human evolution, and the movie wisely doesn’t provide any evidence of them popping up elsewhere in the past guiding human history.

Clarke’s Third Law (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) is one that gets bandied about quite liberally, but it certainly applies in the case of 2001. The monoliths are the ultimate black boxes, both literally and figuratively, whose origins and mechanisms are unknown and possibly totally unknowable to us, even if we are eventually able to discern their ultimate purpose…somewhat. The film doesn’t leave the realm of hard science fiction until the climatic Star Gate sequence and final denouement. It was this final third of the film that most disappointed longtime science fiction fans at the movie’s premiere, as many felt that Kubrick and Clarke, after providing the most realistic and scientifically credible of science fiction films up until that point, decided to enter the realm of the mystical and metaphysical.  

Yet it’s Clarke’s Second Law (“the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture into the impossible”) that’s most applicable to the film, and may help to understand the ending. Another running motif in Clarke’s fiction is the shock of discovery, humanity making findings that upend their worldview in an almost Kuhnian fashion, upending not just worldviews but entire worlds themselves. This is a key theme of not just “The Sentinel” but his two most famous stories, “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God.” In the first of these, a devoutly religious astronomer suffers a massive crisis of faith when he realizes the Star of Bethlehem was really a supernova that destroyed a great civilization (like 2001, it deals with a birthday of cosmic and civilizational significance). In the second, the fulfillment of the goal of cataloging the titular nine billion names of god through the use of a supercomputer leads to the end of the world; HAL’s malfunction does not quite lead to the same level of apocalyptic disaster, but the film’s climax has a similar transformative power.

Despite the denouement of these stories, Clarke remained throughout his life a committed believer in the necessity of pushing “the limits of the possible” further  if humanity was ever to survive. Additionally, as a firm scientific rationalist, he regarded the search for knowledge as the noblest of human endeavors, and according to Danny Peary in his interpretation of 2001 in Cult Movies (1981), Stanley Kubrick shared this viewpoint as well. Discovery was not just the name of the main spacecraft of the movie; it’s one of the main themes as well, and according to Clarke and Kubrick, the whole point of existence. Now that we’ve analyzed Clarke’s contributions, we can more closely examine how Kubrick took these ideas to the big screen.

The Kubrick Movements

2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick and William Sylvester. Credit: MGM

For years, audiences have been watching 2001 in severely limited circumstances, the size and resolution of most televisions hardly doing justice to it. I finally got the chance to see a restored print in a theater four years ago, and watching it under these circumstances made me realize that despite being at the top of my favorite films list for years, I hadn’t really seen it at all. Not only were the details so fine you could actually read the instructions on the videophone and zero-gravity toilet, but the movie finally became the immersive experience Kubrick intended it to be. Instead of focusing on just one or two elements, it was now possible to take in an entire shot; when watching Floyd talking with his daughter on the videophone, I found myself watching the moon just outside his window, instead of merely focusing on their conversation as I had in the past. It actually felt like one was moving when characters walk or run upwards the centrifuge, and the Star Gate sequence didn’t come off as a mere light show but genuinely the “ultimate trip” of the film’s tagline, a voyage across the speed of light to somewhere definitely otherworldly.

The proper screening conditions worked on more subtle levels as well. For instance, when Floyd converses with the Russians, I noticed for the first time that Kubrick used a wide-angle lens and a slightly sloping set to create the illusion that they’re actually on the curved surface of the space station’s wheel, an effect completely lost when seen at home, even on a large-screen TV. The improvements in sound were even more impressive; for the first time I made out what they were saying on the space station intercom, and when they find the monolith on the moon, it feels like the signal is piercing through one’s head. Of course, the whole audience gasped when HAL cut off Poole’s lifeline, but it was even more shocking this time to hear his breathing on the soundtrack suddenly cut to absolute silence.

Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick. Credit: MGM

I also gleaned from this viewing a newfound appreciation for Kubrick’s own inspirations. He regarded the German-French director Max Ophuls as the greatest visual influence on his work, in both of his carefully coordinated use of the mobile camera and meticulously detailed yet uncluttered mise en scene, where much important activity goes on in the background while the spectator remains firmly focused on the foreground action. I had seen and enjoyed Ophuls’s Le Plaisir in my film class and later saw Lola Montes on Canadian TV, yet I never thought much of the possible influence on Kubrick because they seemed so different from one another. Ophuls was one of the great romantic directors while Kubrick was one of the most dispassionate, so other than in Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, I didn’t see any obvious similarities between their work.

One big-screen viewing was enough to open my eyes to strong continuity between the film making techniques of the two masters. The movement of the camera (especially the circular motion motif used throughout the film, particularly those involving the centrifuge), placement of props and choice of lenses (particularly the use of the fish-eye lens) all solidly demonstrate the Ophuls influence on Kubrick. It all seems so obvious now, yet it wasn’t evident at all when I had seen the film many times at an insufficient scale (it also helped that Ophuls was fresh in my mind thanks to recent viewings of his films on the Criterion Channel).

Yet the greatest newfound appreciation of all was for the possibilities of cinema itself as a means of communicating complex concepts and ideas purely through visual means. Again, this seems like overstating the obvious, yet the full depth and richness of a work of art only really becomes evident when one views it under proper circumstances.  In an oft-quoted interview with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick described the film as one that “avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious that is essentially poetic and philosophic.” This particular statement and the rest of Kubrick’s response could be misconstrued that he intended the film as exclusively visual experience not intended to actively engage the intellect of the viewer, but Kubrick was on to something much more profound. He saw the potential for cinema as visual rhetoric, a means of intellectual expression relying on pure imagery as much as possible and avoiding excessive verbiage. He not only found the ideal genre for his cinematic experiment but the ideal writer to work with as well.

…to the Infinite

Science fiction has long been one of the most difficult genres to adapt to the big screen, and not just because of special effects. It’s the most thoughtful and intellectually rich of genres when done properly, tackling big ideas about science, society and humanity that are difficult to express in cinematic terms. Hard science fiction, which in the prose format may by necessity rely on long and frequent passages of technical exposition, presents an especially vexing challenge in this regard. Clarke’s novelization of 2001 is very much in hard science tradition he mostly worked in and is identified with, as exemplified by such novels as Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and A Fall of Moondust (1961), heavy in scientific details and technical explanation.

There are many differences between the finished film of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clarke’s subsequent novelization, but while readers tend to focus on the obvious ones (the crystalline monolith of the book, the Discovery heading for Saturn instead of Jupiter, Poole’s much more gruesome method of death), they not to tend to think of the differences in storytelling. The film also emphasizes scientific accuracy, but manages to do so without the expected reams of exposition that a lesser or at least more conventional director would fall back on. What Kubrick did instead was provide an almost purely visual translation of Clarke’s prose, providing not just the most realistic depiction of space travel at the time, but what remains the most beautiful such imagery in the cinema. Instead of filling in the story with explanatory dialogue or narration, he allowed the viewer to fill in the rest. There was no need to go into the mechanics of the zero-gravity toilet, as in the novel; a single one-and-a-half second shot of William Sylvester reading the washroom instructions was all he needed to let us know we are living in a future not far removed from 1968 but one which has advanced itself considerably.

Some critics have complained to this day that Kubrick made space travel look dull and mechanized, but this was his point; it was to make it seem as ordinary and routine as many hoped it would be by the actual year 2001. Furthermore, he wanted to emphasize the scientific realism that Clarke did throughout his fiction and nonfiction writings on the subject, so of course it was filmed slowly and deliberately. Finally, it helped prepare the audience for the final third of the film. The “Star Gate” sequence not only seems even more spectacular when viewed in contrast with the scenes preceding it, but the fact that we believed in the film every step of the way earlier means we believe in this step into the metaphysical. How and why it happens, we don’t know, maybe Kubrick didn’t know himself, but we are satisfied that it is occurring within our physical universe, and we can at least ask questions and try to understand, which is what film goers have been doing for years.

Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Credit: IMDB/MGM

Stanley Kubrick successfully took on the challenge of making what many consider “the first great science fiction film” (there are about half a dozen other earlier science fiction films that I think at least come close to greatness), but he couldn’t do it alone. He required the services of an especially suitable collaborator, a first-class writer whose prose could be easily translated onto the screen without losing any of its core ideas or intellectual content. He found that perfect collaborator in Arthur C. Clarke, whose own brand of science fiction combined the scientific rigor of an Asimov or Heinlein with the distinctively poetic writing style of a Bradbury. Kubrick’s own visual genius is responsible for making the film a masterpiece, yet we must never forget that every great movie begins with a great story, and that every great story begins with a great writer.

To the memory of my father, who made me a science fiction fan.

Written By

Andrew Kidd is a sometimes sessional instructor living in Ontario, where he proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He enjoys classic movies, hard science fiction, and really bad puns.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jeff W

    September 30, 2023 at 11:52 pm

    “…when watching Floyd talking with his daughter on the videophone, I found myself watching the moon just outside his window…”

    I’m not sure which window you were looking out of—that celestial object outside of the window next to Dr Floyd is the Earth, or, really, a rear-projected four-by-five transparency of the Earth on a special rotating mount, according to American Cinematographer.

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