2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a polarizing film. On the one hand, there are those like me who absolutely love it. The other pole does not consist of people who hate it, because there is nothing really objectionable in the film. Instead it consists of those who were utterly bored and baffled by it. Even those who loved it were baffled by it but did not let that reduce our enjoyment as we were swept along by the cosmic grandeur of this revolutionary science fiction film, the story it told, and the awesome special effects that blew us away even though (and perhaps because) they were done using models and film trickery in that pre-CGI age. They still hold up well in this CGI age.
As a huge fan of the film myself from the time I first saw it, I can’t get enough of seeing the film or reading about how it was made. A new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, And The Making Of A Masterpiece by Michael Benson has just come out and it has pretty much everything that aficionados of the film might want, starting with the backstories of the director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and how they met and the collaboration developed, as well as the intricacies of the filmmaking.
Kubrick was a visionary but at the same time what we might call a control freak, keeping a close eye on expenses and what he paid people and less than generous in assigning credit to the people who worked on the film. But the many creative people involved put up with it because they thought he was a genius, that the film he was making would be a masterpiece that they would be proud of being associated with, and because he pushed them to do things that they did not think they could do. When it came to providing the resources for them to push the boundaries of what could be done, Kubrick did not stint. But because of his relentless drive for greater perfection, the result was a film that was well over budget and missed deadline after deadline for release, much to the consternation of studio executives and shareholders who felt he might bankrupt the company MGM. It was only the unwavering confidence that the MGM president had in Kubrick, who had just produced the blockbuster hit Dr. Stranglove, that enabled him to withstand the pressures to cut corners.
The book goes into detail about how the film evolved even as it was being made and how the special effects were created. In the early stages, there was much more dialogue, including voice-over expository narration and a prelude of scientists talking about the nature of space exploration, to be included in order that viewers would better understand what was going on. But as time went on, words were steadily cut as Kubrick pursued the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim to its extreme, until only 25 minutes of dialogue remained. An initial plan to show at the end an encounter with the aliens ho created the famous monolith was shelved as any conception of what an alien looked like would be seen as anti-climactic. So we were left with just the monolith and the ornate French palace room as alien artifacts.
When it was finally screened, there was a curious reversal of the usual reactions to a new film. A film like this, very long, cerebral, no sex, violence, or even action, highly visual with little dialogue, is more likely to have appealed to highbrow critics and been disdained by mass audiences, especially young people. But on its opening, the film got panned by film critics and other film cognoscenti. The hostile reaction of catcalls, boos, and derisive laughter of the older audiences who attended the premiers brought Clarke to tears and made director Kubrick Stanley think his future in films was ruined.
But almost immediately, starting the very next day in fact, audiences, especially young people, embraced the film and started lining up to see it. Tom Hanks said he was blown away by it as a boy (as I was back then) and has since seen it over 200 times. John Lennon said he went to see it every week. It became a hit and ran for over a year in its initial release and keeps getting screened. This immediate enthusiastic reception by mass audiences caused some critics to reconsider their initial reaction and proclaim it to be the masterpiece of cinema that it is now widely recognized to be.
For those of you who are interested but perhaps cannot find the time to read the book, in a recent episode of the public radio show Studio 360, host Kurt Anderson examines the history of making of the film and its huge impact, using much of the material in Benson’s book and talking to some of the people who worked on it and are still around. The program is fascinating. The first of a two-part series can be heard below.
The second part will be broadcast in three weeks. I am looking forward to it.
Here’s the trailer for the film.