Cult films to see before you die: 2001: A Space Odyssey

James Oliver

Find out why the cult film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a must-watch

Back in 1964, soon after the release of his film Dr. Strangelove (or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb), director Stanley Kubrick began work on his next project. But, to most people, what he was proposing seemed absurd.

Strangelove had not just been a commercial success but a critical favourite too, cementing Kubrick's reputation as the great young American director. He proposed to take all that goodwill... and make a science fiction movie??? Science fiction, after all, was kids' stuff—the alien invaders and oversized monsters that had rampaged through the drive-ins and matinees during the 1950s.

As everyone knows by now, the film that Kubrick eventually made couldn't be further away from then-popular notions of sci-fi. 2001: A Space Odyssey had significantly higher aspirations than Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, and it has endured—for 50 years now—as one of the most celebrated (and debated) achievements not just in science fiction but in cinema as a whole.

Some of the credit for that belongs to Arthur C Clarke, the noted science fiction writer who collaborated with Kubrick on the script. While movie sci-fi was predominately aimed at the younger generation, its literary cousin was altogether more sophisticated, and Clarke was one of its high priests. He and Kubrick fashioned a tale that went beyond bug eyed monsters and atomic age paranoia, something for a world about to send men to the moon.

It begins way back in time—at The Dawn of Man, in fact—with a bunch of apemen encountering a mysterious black monolith. A couple of million years later, the descendants of those apemen (homo sapiens) find another such monolith. A space craft is dispatched to uncover its source but things do not go quite according to plan.

The script Clarke and Kubrick wrote was intriguing, with bold philosophical questions about humanity's place in the universe. But as the director worked on the film, it became something else again, more oblique, more immersive.

Kubrick had secured a king's ransom from MGM to make the film and spent the bulk of it imagining the future. For instance, he built a huge rotating wheel which he used to apparently defy gravity (carefully filmed, it looked like his astronauts were walking on the ceiling: in fact, they stood still while everything moved around them). He also recruited an army of special effects boffins to simulate space travel.

Perhaps because he wanted to get his money's worth, he let these scenes play out at stately length, as if daring us to work out how they were done. Often, these moments are accompanied by classical music which is both ironic (such futuristic images are matched to very traditional sounds) and thoroughly appropriate, because they harmonise so well: witness the famous mating dance between a shuttle and a space station, all choreographed to the Blue Danube Waltz.

 

This alone was radical stuff but Kubrick had much further to go yet: having raised mysteries throughout the film, he then disdains to resolve them. The final 25 minutes are given over to a bombardment of light, colour and unexplained imagery (...a giant baby?...) that’s very different to the way movies were supposed to end. Hollywood star Rock Hudson spoke for many when he left the Los Angeles premier muttering, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”

If you want to know What It All Means, read the novel that Arthur C Clarke wrote while Kubrick was filming, which fills in (some of) the plot details that Kubrick omits. But you don't need to “understand” it to appreciate it: there's no puzzle to be solved here. For Kubrick, it was “a non-verbal experience” and that's as good a take as any: a film to be felt rather than comprehended. (The hippies of the time took it to be a psychedelic experience, and that's one of the reasons it did such good business back in 1968.)

And now it's a half-century old. Like George Orwell's novel 1984, it's outlasted the sell-by date in its title. It continues to frustrate, captivate, bewilder, entrance, baffle and delight. It will probably do so as long as people watch movies.