The Mysterious Genius of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

You’re not supposed to get ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ you’re supposed to experience it.


Earlier this month, specialty publisher The Folio Society released the first illustrated edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s towering science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The work marries both versions of the story; the new visual component, provided by artist Joe Wilson, is inspired as much by Clarke’s novel as it is by the companion film created by Stanley Kubrick. Though some critics at the time dismissed the movie as having “none of the wit of Dr. Strangelove or Lolita [or] with little of the visual acuity of Paths of Glory or Spartacus,” 2001 has since grown in the minds of fans and critics alike to assume a role atop the science fiction pantheon.

Since it’s 1968 debut, the film has stood as one of Stanley Kubrick’s most divisive films, even though it was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s most celebrated novels. Its uniqueness divided audiences; artists loved its trailblazing visuals and abstract storytelling, while more casual moviegoers were confused and angry. That was in part by design. When Stanley Kubrick set out to make a movie about extra-terrestrials and man’s relationship with the universe, he was resolute in creating, first and foremost, “a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.”

In that respect, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unqualified success. While there are aspects of the narrative that have wormed their way irrevocably into pop culture (ahem, big monotone robot), the story isn’t the most important part of 2001. Not even close. It’s a film that uses its revolutionary visual technique to inspire a purely emotional response in the viewer.

Again, while not everyone loved it, but nearly 50 years later, 2001 is an undeniably valuable contribution to the film canon that influenced filmmakers for generations to come and set the standard for science fiction on the big screen.

Kubrick Is Obsessed With Little, Green Men

Coming off the success of his seminal dark comedy Dr. Stranglove, Stanley Kubrick wanted to dip his toe into science fiction. Mythically, his goal was to lend a little legitimacy to a genre that had been largely disrespected in Hollywood up to that point. Whatever his reason, the iconic director embarked on a journey to make an alien film that was both scientifically accurate and strikingly emotional.


During a conversation with friend Roger Caras, Kubrick was turned on to the work of Arthur C. Clarke, specifically a little-known short story the author had written over the Christmas of 1948 called The Sentinel. It’s actually a really wonderful story that’s basically about astronauts finding a big fucking rock on the moon. It’s just as inscrutable as the film that eventually sprung from it, but like 2001: A Space Odyssey there’s something oddly alluring hidden in the prose.

After some brief introductions, the two men were soon immersed in the project, developing the script and the novel side-by-side, with Kubrick concentrating on his visual experiment and Clarke weaving a narrative that would become one of the most beloved stories in the history of science fiction literature.

When You Watch The Spaceships, Remember … This Was 1968

One of 2001’s unspoken legacies is the tradition started by the Academy of awarding the Best Visual Effects Oscar to the best sci-fi film of the year. Of course, in 1968, Kubrick’s film was absolutely deserving of that honor. Not only is the film freaking beautiful, the director is actually credited with pioneering some new editing techniques that have been aped by countless directors in the decades since.

For example, the film’s opening scenes — the ones with all the monkeys — were actually shot in a studio, not that you’d know it from the final product, which features Kubrick’s primate actors struggling for survival against authentic-looking vistas of the African terrain. That’s an editing technique called front projection that Kubrick made use of on a previously unseen scale.

Kubrick also made creative use of lighting and editing techniques to create deeply layered images that were far more crisp than anything that had come before.

While the film’s effects may seem dated today, Kubrick and his special effects team were making groundbreaking advances. It was the techniques used in 2001 that informed much of the action in 1977’s Star Wars, among scads of others. Even George Lucas openly stated, “Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie. It is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned. On a technical level, [Star Wars] can be compared, but personally I think that 2001 is far superior.”

The Legacy of a ‘Space Odyssey’

Since it’s premiere, 2001: A Space Odyssey has been cause for great debate among film and genre enthusiasts. Of course, that’s merited. 2001 is not for everyone. There are fully ten minutes of abstract footage of psychedelic lights and space nonsense that Kubrick left unexplained.

Beware: Illumination may cause seizures.


And while he was alive, Kubrick himself was very uninterested in elucidating the film’s meaning. As the auteur once told Playboy when asked to explain what the Hell was going on in 2001, Kubrick’s reply was simple:

No … How much would we appreciate [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” — or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover.” It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a “reality” other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.

Judging from the debate that still rages over the true meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one “reality” isn’t likely going to be attached to the film any time soon. Much like the work of James Joyce, the film’s complexity has actually increased its appeal in the long term. In celebration of last year’s theatrical re-release, The Guardian heaped epic praise on the film’s quality. In the nearly 50 years since the film was released, the originally mixed critical consensus has become one of nearly universal acclaim, a prestige reflected in the film’s place on AFI’s List Top 100 Films. Beyond that loft place in film history, regardless of what the film means to you, the viewer, it’s still notable for its impact on filmmakers who made sci-fi we actually like.

Steven Spielberg called the film, his generation’s “big bang.” Ridley Scott said, “Stanley’s design influenced everybody. I’ve never shaken it off … Stanley really got it right … There’s a certain level of director where we all feed off each other. It’s like a painter who looks at the work of a peer and goes, damn.”

In their eyes, the monumental brilliance of 2001 is a benchmark that no other director can hope to achieve, a film of striking originality and innovation that will never be eclipsed.

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