THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
2001: A SPACE Odyssey may now be seen as arguably the greatest sci-fi movie of all time but, back in April 1968, it wasn’t even the greatest sci-fi of the month. That honour went to another hominid-heavy astronaut movie, Planet Of The
Apes, a more accessible but less technical picture. While critics went apes for Charlton Heston, Stanley Kubrick’s space drama got the sharper end of their pens. They damned its languid pacing, lengthy runtime, even its mysterious monolith. “Why doesn’t Pauline Kael like my movie?” fretted Kubrick to his marketing team. The revered New Yorker critic had damned his film’s determinist outlook as “a celebration of a cop-out”.
What Kael and her peers couldn’t have known was that Kubrick’s time-travelling movie would itself travel gloriously through time. It remains a grand, highly cerebral and wilfully baffling experience, but with each passing year it glints with fresh relevance. You only need to watch Christopher Nolan’s
Interstellar, its debt to 2001 evident from its geometric tesseract to its oblique ending, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina to feel its influence still seeping into cinema’s pores. Its use of models, photographic trickery, in-camera effects and that famous bone-tospace station match cut thrilled a new wave of directors like Ridley Scott and George Lucas. Without it, there’d be no Star Wars. It was, simply, a giant leap for moviemaking.
A triptych of interlocking stories, unified by three cameos from that alien monolith and
accompanied by Strauss’ lush orchestration and Ligeti’s jarring tones, Kubrick’s sci-fi was carved from the bones of Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. He had the writer travel from his Sri Lankan home and hole up in New York’s shabby Chelsea Hotel to manoeuvre the enigmatic centrepiece of his story into a metaphor for human evolution around which the plot, such as it was, would hang. When MGM president Robert O’brien warned an eager press that it wouldn’t be “a Buck Rogers kind of space epic”, he wasn’t kidding. The closest it offered to a Twiki-like sidekick was a sentient computer. After decades of helter-skelter B movies filled with flying saucers and little green men with ray guns, Kubrick offered a super-computer embarking on an unprovoked murder spree.
But HAL 9000, the Discovery One’s onboard computer and aide to astronauts Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) on their monolith-led mission to Jupiter, turned out to be much more than just your average AI with a glitch. As a villain, it stands eyeball-tocrimson-eyeball with any in cinema — cunningly dispatching first the scientists aboard, then luring the two remaining crew members one-byone out of the airlock to repair a bogus fault — only to be eventually underdone by that most human of qualities, hubris. Unexpectedly, Bowman is able to negotiate the airlock without a helmet and turn the tables. HAL’S end comes to the strains of Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built For
Two), the song tailing off as it slurs towards the infinite. For a malevolent array of silicon chips and wires, it’s oddly heartbreaking.
If HAL’S self-awareness becomes a little more chilling with every AI advance humanity makes, Kubrick’s prescience in other areas is just as startling. Legend has it that, hedging against being beaten to the punch during production, he placed a bet on the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. If he’d put a fiver on the birth of commercial space travel, sophisticated robotics and video conferencing, too — all pre-empted here — he’d have covered off a portion of MGM’S $10.5 million budget. It’s hard to imagine how this almost 50-year-old movie could be any more prophetic, short of having a Squirtle perched on the monolith.
The shoot itself took a mammoth 20 months, with the visual effects requiring nearly two years (and $6.5 million) of their own. To its eternal credit, MGM, a studio known for betting big on epics like Ben-hur and Gone With The Wind, allowed its director total control, even as the budget ballooned. “An extraordinary amount of credit must go to Robert O’brien,” recounted a grateful Kubrick later, “who had sufficient faith to allow me to persevere at what must have, at times, appeared to be a task without end.” The Discovery One set alone cost an eye-watering $750,000.
The ends, though, justified the beans. A visual experience like no other, 2001 is a film to bathe in, muse over and argue about. Initially shunned by audiences, it found life as a stoner’s day out — a fact cannily seized on by marketeers, who dubbed it “the ultimate trip”. An altered state certainly wouldn’t have hurt in finding enlightenment in its elliptical ending. Perhaps Bowman’s journey through the Star Gate and into a state of rebirth is not meant to be grasped at all. Refreshingly, here is a film with far more questions than answers. Maybe Kubrick, like that darn monolith, is leading us on an odyssey with no destination.
Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is hypnotised by HAL.