Monolithic: A look at Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, back in cinemas this November


Director: Stanley Kubrick

UK. Original release: 1968

141 Mins

Re-released nationwide 28 November 2014 in a new digital transfer

 

He may have been declared the 21st Century’s blockbuster auteur, but even director Christopher Nolan acknowledged he toils in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s grandiose, mysterious and hugely influential 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan’s new sci-fi film Interstellar, conveniently released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubrick’s movie, openly pays homage to 2001, throwing in match cuts and slow-paced sequences of spaceships spinning in orbit framed against the curve of the Earth. And yet to watch both 2001 and Interstellar in the same month is to be reminded how truly bold and experimental 2001 is compared to the technically superb but ultimately more conventional Nolan blockbuster.

The new digital transfer of 2001 makes the already-spectacular visuals (courtesy of Geoffrey Unsworth’s camerawork, and Douglas Trumbull’s pioneering effects) even more of a feast for the eyes, and whilst directors like Nolan boast of their macho use of minimal CGI, 2001 is the real CGI-free deal. Whether it is the meticulously composed shots of sunrises over the curve of the Earth, kaleidoscopically coloured star portals, or majestic clusters of planets hanging in the heavens - 2001 still delivers a visual punch that truly does convey something of the wondrous terror that is the limitless expanses of space. But it is still striking how, having pushed 1960s filmmaking technology to the limit to create such breathtaking space vistas and still-impressive zero gravity starship interiors, how slowly Kubrick lets the resulting narrative play. It is hard to imagine a studio today allowing for the length of time many of 2001’s poetic space sequences run without hitting the alarm button and demanding some alone time with the director in the editing suite.

If 2001’s pacing feels even more unconventional watching it in today’s climate of roller coaster superhero movies that fill the multiplexes every month, the film’s minimal plot exposition, elliptical narrative (we go from the dawn of man to what seems to be the alien-assisted evolution of man thousands of years later in just one movie), and that ambiguous conclusion seem even more remarkable in contrast. Cutting much of the dialogue and backstory details from the original Arthur C. Clarke novel, which Kubrick collaborated on alongside working on the film script, Kubrick turned an already strange story into an almost unfathomable one that seems to beg you to feel it rather than interpret it fully. Exactly what the strange, sleek monoliths want for humanity, and the ultimate fate of the lone astronaut David Bowman on his long space journey following the monolith’s transmissions aimed toward Jupiter, have been the subject of decades of existential musings. Where exactly is Bowman at the end of the film? How and why did he seemingly become a giant “star child”? What are the intentions of this mysterious space-bourne infant, shown in the film’s iconic final shot staring down at our Earth? Is this our salvation or destruction?

By the time 2001 moves into the final act, it is almost as if the entire film has shifted fully into an art film. Bowman’s surreal journey through the alien wormhole, with star portals and planet surfaces depicted in supersaturated colours, ending in a bizarre artificial hotel room, is undeniably “trippy”. In fact, parent studio MGM soon realised that this aspect of the film offered them a marketing approach for those 1960s era audiences who might enjoy certain mind expanding substances, and the film was sold with the tag line “The Ultimate Trip”.

But perhaps the strongest impression 2001 makes, and what makes it so different from Nolan’s Interstellar, is how it is a film willing to almost de-centre humanity from the story. In Kubrick’s film, mankind seems easily lost amongst the sheer scale of the universe around us. Bowman is literally sucked up at the end of the film into a galactic scheme beyond his and our understanding. In contrast, Nolan’s Interstellar puts humanity firmly back at the centre of space and space travel, in fact the entire film is laced with nostalgia for the days of the “Right Stuff” where bold rocket men broke new frontiers with guts and swagger. In Interstellar, humanity goes back into space to save itself and seize back control of its destiny, whereas in 2001 our world seems to be just one small part of a giant cosmos that existed before we were conscious and will happily continue long after we are gone.


2001: A Space Odyssey: Key Facts:

 

  • 2001 is frequently high up on “best of” film lists. In the 2002 Sight and Sound Magazine poll, 2001 was ranked at number 6 of the greatest films of all time. The 2012 poll by the same magazine saw 2001 retain its place in the top ten - again at the number 6 spot. A recent Time Out poll put it at No.1 out of 100 sci-fi films.
  • The movie originated in a collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke, who's novel of the same title was actually published some months after the film was released. It began with a letter Kubrick sent Clarke in March 1964 after being advised by a Columbia Pictures PR associate that the author would be a useful collaborator for the sci-fi movie Kubrick was contemplating. Kubrick and Clarke then wrote the story in the form of a long, novelistic treatment that then developed into both the screenplay and the final novel. Clarke was not the first novelist Kubrick had worked with when it came to his film projects.
  • Kubrick had already imagined a sci-fi framing for his earlier hit Dr Strangelove, with n idea that the film would ultimately contain a pull-back sequence which would reveal aliens observing humanity’s downfall and a long-dead earth. This idea translated into an ongoing investigation by Kubrick into what the impact would be of humanity’s encounter with alien intelligence, and as to whether or not such an encounter and the knowledge it would bring might be the one thing that could prevent humanity destroying itself in a nuclear inferno. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only a few years in the past at this point. But alongside nuclear gloom, this was also a period where the science fiction genre was enjoying massive popularity, and there was widespread interest in the possibility of humanity encountering alien life.
  • Peter Kramer, in the BFI Classics Guide to 2001, argues that Kubrick’s letters and statements that display his concerns about the risks of nuclear war and his thoughts on how alien contact could unite humanity for the better show that he actually intended his film as an optimistic antidote to his more apocalyptic Dr Strangelove. He was also willing to work with a writer - Clarke - who was more on the optimistic end of the scale when it came to envisioning the future of humanity and the possibilities of technology and space exploration. Kramer argues this intention was often misunderstood by critics and viewers given the aura of pessimism that was seen to hang around the filmmaker then and now. The 2001 novel explicitly states that the star child destroys all nuclear weapons on Earth after it arrives, which led many commentators to interpret the conclusion of the story as a pessimistic one with humanity facing eventual extinction at alien hands. Clarke admitted his novel’s conclusion could be read either way. But a pessimistic reading is not what either Kubrick or Clarke originally intended according to Kramer, and Kubrick’s film does not actually feature this action on the part of the Star Child.
  • Kramer also traces in his BFI Classics book how studio MGM and Kubrick conceived originally of 2001 as a family-oriented blockbuster in the tradition of the dominant box office trends of the 1960s, but at the last minute Kubrick decided to shift the film into a more unconventional piece of cinema that nevertheless eventually found a mass audience. Kramer also argues that the film, contrary to the accepted story that it flopped at the box office before being rescued by the counterculture, was successful right from the start and its hopefulness was an essential part of its appeal.
  • Kubrick became notorious for his meticulous, lengthy planning stages on his film projects. 2001 was no exception, four years elapsed between Clarke laying out a basic story outline for 2001, and Kubrick approving the final manuscript for the novel in spring 1968. MGM announced the film in 1965 in its press release as set to start shooting in August,with the intention to release in late 1966. In fact, the release date was missed by over a year and Kubrick ended up taking the budget to $11million from $6 million.
  • The early draft of the script Kubrick and Clarke submitted to studio MGM in 1965 was entitled Journey Beyond the Stars and differed in substantial ways from the final film and novel (no star child, for example). Nevertheless, MGM at this early stage stumped up a surprisingly large sum of money for a project in this genre: committing $6 million at a time when many noteworthy science fiction films made less than half of that in rentals. As Kramer shows in his study of 2001’s marketing material, studio MGM was confident they could sell the film on the link the Clarke and on Kubrick’s track record; after all his 1960 film Spartacus had been nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, and was ranked high in various top grossing film charts. His Lolita and Dr Stangelove had also been box office and critical hits. MGM was also hoping to exploit the Cinerama widescreen format with this new Kubrick project and sell Journey Beyond the Stars both as a form of immersive, visually amazing virtual tourism and as a traditional big-budget epic of the sort that had traditionally dominated the box office.
  • MGM’s decision to back 2001 to such an extent, despite how strange the final film became, should also be seen as a decision made against a backdrop of a rapidly heating-up real-life space race, and the proven popularity of space-set and science-oriented shows in cinemas and on television. By 1965 US and Soviet astronauts were already orbiting the earth, and unmanned probes had reached the moon.
  • Kubrick and his production team shot 2001 in England from 17 December 1965 to 14 July 1966, mainly at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood near London, with second unit shoots in Africa (for the Dawn of Man section) and in the US. Even as late as 1967 Kubrick was still shooting additional material. The shoot involved elaborate production design, including an interior spaceship set but around a centrifuge 38 feet in diameter, built by Aerospace company Vickers Armstrong and designed to rotate at 3 miles an hour. Filming on the moving centrifuge allowed for the illusion of zero gravity. For example in one scene astronaut Poole (Gary Lockwood) is eating a meal apparently upside down, from the viewer’s POV, at the top of the wheel-like Discovery spaceship interior. Astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) then enters from the hub, climbs down a ladder, and seems to walk up the wheel to join him. In reality Lockwood had been harnessed to the ceiling, and the set rotated down to Dullea while he walked in place.
  • The film constantly evolved throughout production. For example, Kubrick and Clarke originally planned for there to be a voice-over layered into the audio track, and that the film would begin with a ten minute prologue featuring interviews with scientists, philosophers and other great thinker who would ruminate on the film’s themes. Both these elements were ultimately dropped. Originally, there was no plan to make the computer Hal 9000 the threat during the Discovery’s mission, but Kubrick felt the space mission needed conflict, tension, and an antagonist to oppose the human characters. Kubrick also decided very late in the production - a few weeks before the planed released date in fact - to drop most of Alex North’s original score, replacing it with 19th and 20th century classical and avant-garde pieces. Overall, the direction Kubrick’s film took was to move further and further away from the more explanatory slant of the book towards becoming a more ambiguous, visually intense experience. As Kramer concludes in his book, in many ways Kubrick decided to make his film as mysterious as the workings of the cold, sleek monoliths.

 

*This feature draws from The Bfi Film Classics: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Roger Kramer and the 2001 feature from the November 2014 issue of Empire Magazine.



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Owen Van Spall

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