In the 50+ years since my all-time favorite sci-fi movie was released, there have been numerous attempts to take its crown. As yet, these pretenders and would-be usurpers have yet to produce a legitimate heir apparent, despite many worthwhile efforts. This represents a remarkable achievement considering the film has sparse dialogue, no big box office stars, and certainly no scary aliens in the conventional sense — no belly busters, facesuckers, or spindly limbed eggheads. There is, however, an undoubtedly alien presence: A precision-engineered black monolith of indeterminate material.
Director Stanley Kubrick, who had recently completed his Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove, contacted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1964 with a view to developing Clarke's short story “The Sentinel” into what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey. They collaborated on the film's screenplay and Clarke also expanded the story into a novel, which was published after the film's release.
The ASAP Awards is a celebration of the best sci-fi movies streaming right now. Recommended and written by Inverse readers.
Although accustomed to working with big names — Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) among them — Kubrick chose to cast relatively unknown actors in 2001. Keir Dullea, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Neil Armstrong, became astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman. The movie’s real stars, however, are not human but come in the guise of the spaceship Discovery’s allegedly faultless computer HAL 9000, and that enigmatic monolith.
From the vantage point of 2022, and considering there has been no manned space flight beyond low Earth orbit for almost 50 years, the year 2001 now appears to be an ambitious forecast for the technology and engineering marvels depicted in the movie. However, this was the ‘60s, when anything seemed possible. NASA was all-systems-go on the Apollo program, following JFK's bold declaration in 1962 that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It was against this backdrop that 2001 was developed and created.
The movie, which is currently streaming on HBO Max, is structured into three distinct parts and follows a linear plot commencing some four million years ago, when the monolith appears to impart, telepathically, the knowledge of how to use a bone as a weapon to the alpha male of a group of hominids.
Fast forward to 2001 and the discovery of an identical monolith on the Moon. There is a masterful scene here which suggests the monolith is aware of its surroundings. Just as several scientists in spacesuits gather in front of the monolith for a group photo, it emits an ear-piercing electronic shriek, not unlike an uncooperative infant would at a family event. Wasn’t it W.C. Fields who once said, "Never work with animals or monoliths?” It was something like that.
Kubrick’s expertise is his ability to convey to the audience the harsh environment and vast emptiness of space, as well as the fatal consequences of any serious malfunction or mishap. Another possibly realistic situation that 2001 suggests is that of disclosure to the general public should an artifact of unquestionable alien origin ever be discovered. Would the authorities consider the consequences of revealing it to the public too great a risk of causing panic and a worldwide existential crisis?
The final act concerns the destination of that electronic shriek, and the Discovery’s mission to locate the signal's recipient. This appears to be another monolith, positioned in the vicinity of Jupiter’s moons but is in fact a “stargate” or space portal.
Much has been made over the years of the film’s final sequences. For me, the ambiguity of those latter scenes — where Bowman may have initially thought he'd traveled halfway across the solar system and ended up at the czar's palace in St. Petersburg — is 2001’s apotheosis. Given that his previous film, Dr. Strangelove has a very clear, unequivocal ending, Kubrick was always going to go for something totally out-there for his next.
The importance of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the history of cinema cannot be underestimated in either the science fiction genre or, indeed, any genre. Even the inspired soundtrack has passed into cinema legend; when you hear the Blue Danube waltz do you picture 19th century Vienna or 2001? Its iconic status has been assured for more than 50 years, and it shows little sign of fading.
2001: A Space Odyssey is streaming now on HBO Max.