On 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

“It remains a masterpiece of epic proportions.” Mike Pinnington does a deep-dive into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is back in cinemas this weekend – 60 years after the director had wondered whether a ‘really good’ sci-fi film was even possible…  

During the writing of his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, director Stanley Kubrick had, for a while, considered including commentary from an alien race who, looking on from afar, discuss and debate the relative merits of humanity in crisis. In the end, Kubrick decided against the decidedly Twilight Zone-inflected idea; but that he had considered it indicated his willingness to seriously entertain the possibility – or probability – that intelligent life beyond our own existed.

The idea was not a fleeting one – Kubrick did very little on a whim. “Space,” he’d said, “is one of the great themes of our age, yet it is one still almost untouched in serious art and literature.” Perhaps it had been a matter of time when, in the spring of 64, he’d written to one of the world’s preeminent science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke. His intention: to “discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie.” If Strangelove had been a commentary on Cold War tensions and the manic futility of nuclear capability, his next film would, in part, respond to the Space Race.

“Kubrick’s aspiration’s for the project were three-fold”

Having given the project some thought, he outlined for Clarke his aspirations. His main interest lay “along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character: 1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. 2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future. 3. A space-probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars…” He also asked would Clarke consider “coming [to New York] with a view to a meeting, the purpose of which would be to determine whether an idea might exist or arise which would sufficiently interest both of us enough to want to collaborate on a screenplay.” It was eventually agreed that a book, which would also serve as screenplay, and film would be produced in tandem.


Progress was made, with a creative exchange of ideas flowing throughout. In March 1967, approaching what would have been the crunch stage of production, Clarke had given a keynote address to the American Astronautical Society, in which, quoting Indian philosopher Vinoba Bhave (though he’d incorrectly attributed it to then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru), he said: “Politics and religion are obsolete. The time has come for science and spirituality.” In his copy of the address, Kubrick had underlined the second sentence. Uppermost in Kubrick’s mind was that, together, he and Clarke must achieve something containing a ‘mythic grandeur’.

“Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel, fed into the genesis of 2001″

The director had, for some time, been consuming a lot of science fiction, recreationally – in correspondence with a fan, he’d written how he was a “bit more of [an addict of the genre] than you might have suspected.” – and professionally. Indeed, he’d considered at least one other such option for adaptation prior to consulting with Clarke. Something that clearly fed into the genesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey was Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel (published in 1951), in which a pyramidal structure is found on the moon, left there as a beacon by ‘ancient architects’ of unknown origin.


In Kubrick’s vision, the inscrutable structure takes the form of a vast monolith; in a famed opening sequence, the audience has its first encounter with the monolith on earth, as it triggers evolution and the dawn of man, and elegantly propels the narrative into the story’s present. Meanwhile, the discovery of other monoliths seem to join crucial dots across time and space. Their role, never didactically explained, seems to chime with Kubrick’s musings that “There will always be dangers in space – but there also will be wonder, adventure, beauty, opportunity, and sources of knowledge that will transform our civilization as the voyages of the Renaissance brought about the end of the Dark Ages.”

“Little wonder that conspiracy theories about the first manned moon landing persist”

We experience those elements – danger, wonder, adventure, beauty, opportunity and knowledge – most frequently through the eyes of Dr. David Bowman, one of five crew aboard the vessel Discovery, bound on a secretive mission toward Jupiter. It is a multi-sensory feast; more: a technological marvel. Little wonder that conspiracy theories about NASA and Kubrick cooking up the first manned moon landing a year after its release persist. Made in a pre-CG era, 2001 continues to thrill; from beautifully rendered spacecraft and pens floating in zero-gravity, to an incredibly tense spacewalk, it is nothing less than breath-taking to look at.

While Kubrick alone received the Oscar for special visual effects, perhaps the most spectacularly memorable scene was achieved thanks to Douglas Trumbull. Inspired by the work of artist John Whitney, with whom he had worked on 1964′s To the Moon and Beyond, using slit-scan photography, the 23 year old Trumbull created the iconic star gate sequence, which sees Bowman catapulted on an interstellar journey to a higher state of consciousness. During which, a kind of ascension – for the man, or the entire human race – is achieved. Maybe; for little is delivered to you tied with a bow in 2001; while it depicts brilliantly humanity questing to make the great unknowns known, never does it spoon feed the viewer, leaving audiences instead to draw their own conclusions.

“What many people think about when they think about 2001, is HAL”

What many people think about when they think about 2001 (even if they’ve never in fact seen the film), is the HAL-9000, or just plain HAL, for which Kubrick had consulted with IBM (forecasting likely developments in computing and AI). The ship’s supercomputer who goes rogue, HAL constitutes the primary threat encountered by Bowman and the Discovery’s crew. In one memorably terrifying scene, asked to perform a crucial task, HAL tells Bowman: “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” And, later, being shut down: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it.”

HAL’s apparently malicious behaviour (which some have read as akin to a mental breakdown, but likely has more to do with its planned role in the mysterious Jupiter mission), in stark contrast to Keir Dullea’s Bowman, who maintains a largely indefatigable demeanour throughout, resonates today with our darkest concerns around the future of AI. It also asks the current, very pertinent question, of whether AI will be bad due mostly to its maker.

It is in-part this combination of fear and wonder, allied to the ’mythic grandeur’ Kubrick had wanted to achieve, that makes the film so worth returning to today – a little more than 60 years since he extended the creative welcome to Clarke. Rarely can cinema have fulfilled, perhaps even surpassed, its maker’s ambitions so thoroughly, which means 2001: A Space Odyssey, remains a masterpiece of epic proportions.

Mike Pinnington

2001: A Space Odyssey screens at FACT Liverpool @ 3pm, Sunday 16 June

Posted on 14/06/2024 by thedoublenegative