Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey Introduction


Release Year: 1968

Genre: Mystery, Sci-Fi

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke

Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester


2001: A Space Odyssey is a film by a legendary director attempting a one-of-a-kind epic visual narrative, utilizing brand-new special effects. Obviously we're dealing with an instant classic here, right? Well, if by "instant" you mean "slow burning" and by "classic" you mean "mixed opinions," then sure.

On its release in 1968, critics and film buffs weren't quite sure what to make of Stanley Kubrick's trippy space epic. Some of the words used to describe it back then included "dull," "tedious," and "just plain boring." Movie star Rock Hudson famously stomped out of a preview saying, "Can someone tell me what the hell this is all about?" (Source) Some reviewers thought the film was a 160-minute self-indulgent display of navel-gazing by a director with delusions of grandeur.

Oof.

2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of humanity's discovery of a mysterious black monolith on the moon. By emitting a radio wave aimed at Jupiter, the monolith suggests the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth. The United States quickly mounts a space expedition to Jupiter, but the trip hits a snag when the ship's powerful A.I., the HAL 9000 computer, has itself a bit of an existential crisis en route.

Not that this summary does the film justice, since Kubrick's goal was to tell his story through the film's visuals, making wordy plot rundowns kind of pointless. To manage this visual feat, Kubrick had to develop entirely new special effect techniques to portray space travel as realistically as possible. Even by today's standards, the effects have you asking out loud, "How'd they do that?" It's even more impressive because the answer isn't instantly, "With a computer, how else?"

While special effects didn't save the film from a poor opening, 2001's trajectory to success was summed up by film critic Vincent Canby when he noted, "The film opened to almost unanimous pans from the daily press and then went on to become a cult film, a head film, a film to recant by, and a smashing commercial success" (Source). Many college-age viewers saw the movie dozens of times, conducting their own scientific experiments by seeing it in varied, um, states of consciousness. (This was 1968, after all, and it was a visually and conceptually mind-bending film.)

The film's popularity eventually caught up with its cinematic brilliance, inspiring a whole new generation of movie makers to push the boundaries of visual effects, including some guy named George Lucas, and scores of others. Legendary director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien), who knows a little something about sci-fi films, said that after 2001, science fiction as a film genre was dead, killed by the perfection of 2001. Kubrick did it all; nothing more could be said; that's all, folks; everyone can just grab their hats and go home. (Source)

Fortunately for the genre, they all got over that phase.

2001 also inspired real astronauts and scientists. In 2001, NASA launched a robotic spacecraft to orbit around the planet Mars. The mission was named "2001 Mars Odyssey" in honor of the film. NASA even uses music from the film to wake its astronauts in space. They're kinda smitten with it.

Kubrick had no desire to return to the film's world, even going so far as destroying the set and props to prevent them from being used elsewhere. But co-author Arthur C. Clarke would write three sequels: 2010, 2016, and 3001. 2010 would later be made into a film directed by Peter Hyams in 1984, and Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain would return to play Dave Bowman and the HAL 9000, respectively.

The year 2001 has come and gone. The question is: Does a film about the future still matter now that its future is past? Let's find out.

What is 2001: A Space Odyssey About and Why Should I Care?

Plain and simple, movies wouldn't be what they are today if not for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And unless you're 90 years old and remember the "good old days" of hubcap flying saucers and rubber-costumed monsters, this is a good thing.

Co-author Arthur C. Clarke received a letter from Kubrick expressing his desire to make the "proverbial 'really good' science-fiction movie," implying there hadn't been any good ones before then. (Source) While that implication isn't entirely true—looking your way, Metropolis—the truth is that speculative fiction films were mostly relegated to B-flicks before 2001. For every King Kong or The Incredible Shrinking Man, there were ten other films sporting unitard-clad aliens or giant monsters smashing unconvincing cardboard boxes made to look like cityscapes—a pedigree that makes it difficult for those films to gain traction among the more respectable, highbrow genres.

For 2001, Kubrick revolutionized the art of special effects and visual storytelling. His attention to detail was such that decades later this vision of the future remains mind-bogglingly authentic. To give these stunning practical effects purpose, Kubrick and Clarke devised an intelligent script that allowed audiences to form their own thoughts on the nature of life, human existence, and the future of technology.

Among the new generation of filmmakers inspired by 2001 would be Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would further revolutionize special effects and the summer blockbuster with their Jurassic Park and Star Wars franchises; and Ridley Scott, who directed a few of his own futuristic sci-fi classics like Blade Runner and Aliens. Kubrick also inspired less well-known but no less important behind-the-scenes artists such as Caleb Deschanel, Dennis Muren, and Phil Tippett.

Spielberg held the film in such high esteem that he said: "[Kubrick] would tell me the last couple of years of his life when we were talking about the form; he kept saying, 'I want to change the form. I want to make a movie that changes the form.' And I said, 'Didn't you do it with 2001?'" (Source) And that's coming from an absolute master of the art.

So if you're a fan of the Marvel movies, the Star Wars series, or FX summer blockbusters in general, you owe it to yourself to study 2001. If you like science fiction films like Gravity or Interstellar, you owe it to yourself to study their granddaddy, 2001. Come to think of it: if you like movies, period, you really owe it to yourself to study 2001.

Trivia

It is possible that HAL made a mistake well in advance of his forehead-slapping blunder over the antenna unit. When playing chess with Poole, HAL should have called his fifteenth move as Queen to Bishop six, not Queen to Bishop three, accord in to chess expert Murray Campbell. While it's possible this is simply an error in the script, many have read it as super sneaky foreshadowing on Kubrick's part, especially given that the director was an avid chess player. Or that HAL was testing Dave's intelligence by deliberately making a wrong move and seeing if he noticed. (Source)

HAL's unusual choice of his last song it is a shout-out to the IBM 7094. In 1961, the 7094 was the first computer to use its synthesized voice to sing. The song the programmers chose was none other than "Daisy Bell." Arthur C. Clarke witnessed a demonstration of the 7094's capabilities and wove this little bit of computer history into HAL's backstory. (Source)

The first 25 minutes of the film has no dialogue. The final 23 minutes, not counting the credits, also goes by without a word. In total, roughly 88 minutes of the film gives the viewer the silent treatment. For our mathematically inclined readers, that's about 55 percent of its runtime, making it the yin to Michael Bay's yang. (Source)

Kubrick's filmmaking techniques in 2001 were so convincing for the day that some conspiracy theorists have claimed he was hired by NASA to fake the 1969 moon landings. As part of the supposed deal, Kubrick was offered VIP access to Roswell, New Mexico, where he no doubt saw all manner of ET craziness. (Source)

Arthur C. Clarke has placed his mark on science fact as much as science fiction. In 1945, he wrote a paper titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays—Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" The paper popularized the idea of using geosynchronous orbit—an orbit that matches the Earth's rotation so objects in it appears to stay in the same place—for communications spacecraft. Today we use this orbit for our communications satellites, and it is often referred to as a Clarke Orbit in honor of the author. (Source and Source)

2001: A Space Odyssey Resources

Websites

A Life in Pictures
Biography.com gives Kubrick beginners a great place to quickly learn about the famed director and his 10 feature films.

X Clarkes the Spot
This website is dedicated to all things Arthur C. Clarke and includes such fun trivia as the author's half-serious predictions for the future.

From Page to Projector
Dailyscript has posted an earlier draft of 2001's screenplay. As an early draft, there are several ideas, scenes, and bits of dialogue that were removed from the final product, making this a fun read for fans.

Where Credit's Due
IMDB has all the details you could possibly want regarding 2001. If you desperately need to know who played Aries-1B Lunar Shuttle Captain, then IMDB has your back.

Anachronisms Are Awesome
Want to see an astronaut shake hands with Australopithecus afarensis? You know you do, and Vanity Fair has a behind-the-scenes slideshow for you.

Why, HAL, Why?
One fan probes HAL's psyche to find out the reason for his meltdown.

Check, Mate
A computer scientist discusses the future of artificial intelligence using HAL and Poole's chess game as a jumping off point.

Book or TV Adaptations

A Novel Read
Arthur C. Clarke's novelization is its own take on the story. Whether it stands up to Kubrick's film is something readers will have to decide for themselves.

Sequelitis
Think unnecessary sequels made ten years after the originals are a modern Hollywood plague? Think again. 2010: The Year We Made Contact saw director Peter Hyams take the helm with actors Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain returning to play Dave Bowman and HAL, respectively.

Articles and Interviews

House Hunters: Alternative Reality Edition
Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian take us through a tour of Stanley Kubrick's interior designs, including the hotel room at the end of 2001. Space and time come together through the imagery of this mind-bending scene.

Genre Tamer
Carl Freedman discusses how 2001 fits into the history of science fiction cinema and how it's been pushing the boundaries of the genre for decades.

Thumbs Up With Love
Roger Ebert loves himself some 2001. Let him explain why in his 4-star review.

Yakkety Yak
The Stanley Kubrick Interviews features, well, interviews with Stanley Kubrick. For interesting insights into 2001, we recommend his interview with Playboy.

The Best Around
The Guardian charts the best 25 science fiction films, and 2001 gets its time to shine. Find out why the Brits love it.

The Unexplainable Explained?
Nope. But the creators of kubrick2001.com use Flash animation to take you on a tour of Kubrick's film and present you with ideas you might not have considered before.

Video

Trailer-blazing
The official 1968 trailer shows off those cutting-edge special effects that still look good today.

Trailer v2
To celebrate its re-release in the U.K., the film got a new trailer, almost 50 years after the original.

Still Human After All These Years
Aged but otherwise unevolved Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea discuss why 2001 was the greatest sci-fi film of all time. They can't believe they had the chance to be involved with the film.

Vision of a Future Passed
This documentary explores the technological realism and prowess of 2001. It can also get a little nitpicky, such as when it points out that Earth is the wrong color in the film.

Fanboys
Filmmakers discuss how much they love Stanley Kubrick and 2001 in "Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick." The short answer: they like it a lot.

Quickie Bio
This thirteen-minute biography discusses Kubrick's life from his birth to his short films to Dr. Strangelove.

Top Ten Kubrick Trivia
Did you know that Stanley Kubrick was at the bottom of his class? Now you do. Find out nine more factoids about the director here.

Top Ten Kubrick Films
The question isn't whether 2001 will make the list, but how high on the list it will be. Click here to find out.

Audio

In His Own Words
Jeremy Bernstein interviews Kubrick in 1966, during the creation of 2001. It's an insightful look at the director in his own words and voice.

Classically Trained
Shmoop has helpfully collected the soundtrack to 2001. If you want to listen to the soundtrack in its entirety, click on the first link. If you're more interested in individual scores, we've got those lined up, too.
Full SoundtrackAlso Sprach Zarathustra op. 30 by Richard Strauss Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss IILux Aeterna (A Cappella version) by György LigetiRequiem (Kyrie) by György LigetiGayneh's Adagio by Aram Khachaturian

Images

Man on the Moon
Hard to believe that at one time the idea of a man walking on the moon was science fiction, but this theatrical poster for 2001 shows exactly that.

Blast Off!
Another theatrical poster for 2001 presenting the film's impressive space station.

Pale Earth
This scene from the movie shows the space station and ship from the poster above. Notice that the pale Earth looks nothing like Earth because they didn't have the wonderful satellite images we have today.

Hammer Time
Moon-Watcher drops the hammer on a tapir skull and forever changes the course of human history.

They Call Me the Space Cowboy
Keir Dullea plays Dave Bowman in the film.

The Monolith
The monolith stands tall in all its mysterious, mythological glory.

Poole Runnings
Dr. Poole runs on the centrifuge set to show just how complicated it is to jog in space.

Red-Eye Space Flight
HAL as represented by his now famous red eye. Wherever you go it just follows you around.