Apeman, Spaceman – ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ revisited

 Often copied, never equalled – the legacy of ‘2001’ in the centenary year of Arthur C. Clarke, who died on this day in 2008.

“Kubrick’s space can be awe-inspiring, melancholic and sublime, but he never lets us forget that it is also dangerous, cold and unforgiving.”

2001: A Space Odyssey – Hungarian film poster.

From its opening moments, 2001: A Space Odyssey lets us know it will be a science fiction film quite unlike any other. Before its opening titles or even the MGM logo, we are treated to a musical overture (in this case, György Ligeti’s ethereal Atmospheres); a device more often associated with historical blockbusters such as Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia than movies which take us to distant worlds.The intent is clear: 2001 isn’t “sci-fi” in the mould of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. As the classical allusion of its title suggests, this is science fiction as Epic.

It could be argued the film wasn’t director Stanley Kubrick’s first foray into the genre (some critics see it as the second instalment in a very loose trilogy, beginning with Dr Strangelove and ending with A Clockwork Orange) but while those works take an earthbound, dystopian look at humanity, 2001 reaches for something transcendental. In yet another break from convention, following the opening titles (and a first outing for Richard Strauss’s now-synonymous Also Sprach Zarathustra) we have a sequence set not in the distant future or in outer space, but in the Palaeolithic past, and on the craggy plains of central Africa.

There, a tribe of early, chimp-like hominids forage for survival in competition with a herd of tapirs, under constant threat of attack from big cats and rival tribes. Only the arrival of a mysterious black monolith propels them into the evolutionary big league: No sooner does it appear than the apes learn how to use bones as cudgels, and a now-legendary “match-cut” takes us from one of these bones spinning through the air to a cylindrical satellite orbiting the Earth, some four million years later.

What follows is the story of how a second, identical monolith is discovered on the Moon’s surface, resulting in a manned mission to Jupiter, led by astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Throw in the murderous machinations of the ship’s on-board computer, HALand a final jaunt “beyond the infinite” and in the most reductive sense you have the entire plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But of course, as anyone who has seen it knows,the film is so much more than that.

The project started life with a meeting in 1964 between Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick wished to make a “good science fiction film” (much as he would later see The Shining as his opportunity to make a “good horror film”), and decided to use Clarke’s short story The Sentinel as a starting point. The project was to occupy them both for four years, and would ultimately push the boundaries of what was possible in terms of both visual effects and cinematic storytelling.

“For authenticity, as well as drawing on Clarke’s considerable knowledge of aerospace technology, Kubrick turned to experts such as astronomer Carl Sagan for their input.”

Watching the film now, almost fifty years after its release, audiences are often struck by just how fresh it feels. A long-held rumour has it that when Planet of the Apes (released the same year) was given an honorary Academy Award for its makeup effects, 2001 missed out only because many thought its ape men were the real thing. But if the prosthetics in this opening sequence are impressive, the model work and camera effects throughout the rest of the film are almost literally out of this world.

Authenticity was a watch word throughout the production. As well as drawing on Clarke’s considerable knowledge of aerospace technology, Kubrick turned to experts such as astronomer Carl Sagan for their input. As a result, we have a cinematic treatment of space exploration that feels virtually without antecedent.

Though George Pal’s Conquest of Space and Pavel Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars both treated space exploration seriously (Klushantsev’s film in particular is often cited as one of 2001’s visual influences) no prior film had looked at the minutiae of space travel in quite so much detail. A colossal, rotating set allowed Kubrick to create the effect of a centrifuge, intended to counter zero gravity, while on a smaller – but no less impressive – scale, we see glimpses of the encyclopaedic instructions for a “zero gravity toilet”, and the logo of a Pan-Am shuttle stewardess’s ‘Grip Shoes’ (In reality, Pan-Am would cease its operations in 1991, ten years before the film is set).

“Many audiences in 1968 – and, for that matter, ever since – were left baffled by the final act. Where does Bowman go? What happens when he gets there? What happens next?”

Famously, 2001 remains one of the very few films to confront what may be the most startling reality of space: Its silence. While later movies such as Star Wars and even Alien (tagline: ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’) insist on having their enormous spacecraft rumble noisily past the camera, in 2001 the only thing we hear as Discovery One heads for Jupiter is the Adagio from Khatchatourian’s ballet Gayaneh. Later, when Dave Bowman embarks on a spacewalk, we are there with him, in the claustrophobic confines of his suit, and can hear only the mechanical hiss of his assisted breathing. Kubrick’s space can be awe-inspiring, melancholic and sublime, but he never lets us forget that it is also dangerous, cold and unforgiving.

For the most part, Bowman and Poole take this peril in their stride, displaying the kind of emotional reserve we’ve come to expect from astronauts (think of Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell’s positively understated “Houston, we have a problem”). If any one character acknowledges the momentousness of what they’re doing, it’s HAL. Just as the monolith’s sudden appearance in 4,000,000 BC turned our hominid ancestors homicidal, so it seems possible that this latest evolutionary leap forward is what drives the ship’s computer to dispatch his flesh and blood crewmates for the good of the mission.

If this was Kubrick and Clarke’s intention, it’s never stated in quite so many words. Nor are the monoliths’ origins, or their precise role in the film’s events. Many audiences in 1968 – and, for that matter, ever since – were left baffled by the final act. Where does Bowman go? What happens when he gets there? What happens next? While the film’s countless imitators, from its sequel 2010 to the more recent Interstellar go to great pains to tie up their narrative loose ends, 2001 leaves us only with more questions, and perhaps that is why it is still watched and argued over almost half a century later.


David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).

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