How many times can you say that you’ve seen a film that is actually unlike anything else you’ve ever seen? How many times have to witnessed a movie that doesn’t easily draw comparisons? How frequently has cinema truly made you speechless?
For most of us, the answer is infrequently. Especially these days, with every film being a riff off of something else, or maybe a sequel/prequel/reboot – nothing is exactly new. Superhero movies are still superhero movies. Horror films are still trying to scare you. Comedy films want you to forget about your troubles. Certain examples may exude an uncommon creativity, innovative filmmakers might hit a nerve with a particular audience and leave a lasting impression, and sometimes a film just happens to have perfect timing to deliver a message that really resonates. But something genuinely, completely, and utterly new?
2001: A Space Odyssey, I would argue, was one of the few films that not only brought something completely new to the table, but flipped over said table in a tantrum of industry redefining ideas. It didn’t just upset the status quo, because there wasn’t really one before it was released. It didn’t start a new genre, but instead redefined what science fiction could be and what it could accomplish in cinema. It is a film that we can’t stop talking about, or thinking about, even after 50 years.
From a storytelling perspective, Kubrick essentially threw out the rule book. He made a film about humanity, but it’s not about any particular human. There are characters, but they are fleeting. We don’t know much about them, there is no attempt at characterization. They may have words to say, but it is the moments without dialogue in which the film speaks the loudest. Traditional films used dialogue to drive the plot. Kubrick used images. He hypnotizes his audience into wonder. He allows them to explore by themselves, without someone onscreen to lead their inquisition.
These methods might not have been new, but the way that Kubrick utilized them, in such a grand way, (science fiction no less!) was unexpected. In many ways, 2001 was a catalyst for change in big budget films. It was experimental and artistic while also a major production. Usually those two things don’t coincide. Usually big budget films are concerned about a return on investment, not on expanding the potential of cinema in ways never before conceived. From the success of his previous work, Kubrick had earned the opportunity, and he took full advantage. Kubrick was an auteur filmmaker in a position that very few have been in before or since. He had both a grand vision and the resources by which to fully realize that grand vision.
Kubrick’s work on the film began the same as all of his other movies; lots of research. Kubrick was an atypical filmmaker in that he approached his work analytically, rather than emotionally. Along with writer Arthur C. Clark, Kubrick was not only fascinated with the potential of science fiction, but the essence of science fiction films. While talking to physicists and engineers he was also watching Forbidden Planet and How the West Was Won. Kubrick wanted to make a film that was scientifically feasible, but also pushed against the boundaries of what science fiction had so far been able to accomplish.
Kubrick wanted the film to seem scientifically feasible because he wanted it to be seen as more than just a science fiction film. By the late 60’s science fiction as a genre had mostly been relegated to cheap thrills courtesy of 50’s B-movies and creature features. 2001 helped to establish the idea that science fiction could be thought-provoking. In depicting a realistic future, Kubrick not only gave us ipads and space shuttles decades before their time, he gave us concerns about our increased reliance on technology as well as a glimpse into a commercialized future. Science fiction became darker and more sinister, but also more prevalent to contemporary society than ever before.
Kubrick’s decision regarding the film’s realistic depiction also laid the foundation for the rest of the production. The technical challenges required to brink Kubrick’s vision to life resulted in many filmmaking and special effects innovations. So much of the film required special effects that 2001 basically invented the idea of post production. It set a benchmark for special effects in movies, starting an arms race that has continued to this day. The special effects would make a profound statement on a new generation of filmmakers – convincing them that the limitations of film were only the limitations of the imagination. It seemed that dreams could come alive on the silver screen, and that inspiration would help to give birth to the blockbusters of the 1980’s.
But 2001 isn’t just an exhibition in special effects; it works on many different levels. Part of the reason, I think, is Kubrick’s strong vision as a director. He is a filmmaker that understands human emotion, aesthetics, and stimulatory needs and structures his film to obtain the desired response. Thanks to the large budget that he was afforded, Kubrick was able to get everything just right. He was able to be serious and comedic at the same time. He can make us interested and bored simultaneously. He uses these emotions to drive the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey works as a satire. It works as a realistic prediction of the future. It works as a psychedelic mind trip. It’s a cautionary tale as much as it is an explanation of our faults as a species. Great movies are different things to different people. Even different things on different viewings. 2001 is one of those films.
50 years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey is hailed as a masterpiece. It’s AFI’s number one best science fiction film, #15 on their 2007 list of 100 best films. The British Film Institute has 2001 as one of the top 10 films ever made, and the only science fiction film on their list. Ebert gave the film 4 stars and said it, “exceeds magnificently on a cosmic scale.” Ridley Scott once remarked that 2001 made science fiction obsolete – there is nothing that can be made to top what Kubrick has accomplished. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, and Alfonso Cauron, among others, have all stated how Kubrick’s film has had an immense influence on their own work.
But 2001 wasn”t always seen as an exemplary example of filmmaking. It took time for its brilliance to be recognized. I think this is the most significant proof that 2001 was mind-bendingly brilliant in the first place. After all, humans don’t necessarily respond to change very well. Contemporary reviews of the film at the time of its release were all over the place. No one knew what to think. The film baffled, bored, and belittled audiences who didn’t really know what they were getting into. At the Academy Awards, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture or Best Cinematography or Best Score or even Best Film Editing – all categories in which it is currently hailed as a monumental achievement.
Suffice to say, 2001: A Space Odyssey was a film that was entirely ahead of its time. Now, 50 years later, we are able to appreciate it for all of its breathtaking accomplishments. We have seen the impact that it has had since its release, and that hindsight has allowed us to reconsider our perspective. We will probably never see a movie as ground breaking and influential as 2001: A Space Odyssey. And even if we do, it may take many decades for us to realize it!