“Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”
Hey! It’s time to salute 1968’s other enduring classic science fiction movie. You know…the one without the talking apes. It’s perhaps one of the most discussed, debated, analyzed, respected, reviled, misunderstood and even frustrating films ever committed to celluloid, made all the more fascinating by the fact that its director basically told all of us, “Have fun figuring out this shit, kids. I’m out.”
Is there really anybody who’s not at least familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s basic plot? In a nutshell, there’s some mysterious uber-peeps way out on Jupiter, who may well have muddled about here on Earth way back in the Good Old days, influencing the development of early humanity. These same peeps bury a benign booby trap of sorts on the Moon, and our finding and digging it up trips a switch that fires off a message back to Jupiter that–more or less–says, “The children are out of their crib and are snooping around.” We send a spaceship and some astronauts out to Jupiter to see what’s what, and…well…let’s just say things get weird from there, and that’s before the ship’s computer, HAL, loses its shit.
The film has been the subject and target of much scrutiny pretty much since the moment of its release. Countless theories abound as to its message(s) and meaning(s), and opinions are about as wide-ranging as the selections of beef jerky at a truck stop. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
Directed by the late, great Stanley Kubrick, 2001 has its genesis in a couple of short stories written by Arthur C. Clarke, most notably “The Sentinel.” Clarke and Kubrick developed the story behind the film, and Clarke also penned a novel which was released later in 1968. The novel does much to fill in some of the blanks Kubrick deliberately left in the movie, though it diverges from its onscreen sibling on one major point: in the book, the spaceship Discovery is sent to Saturn, rather than Jupiter. Saturn was the movie’s original destination, as well, but was changed when it became evident that special effects footage of the ringed planet would not measure up to the rest of the film’s opticals. The practical and visual effects–many of them employing techniques developed for 2001–still stand toe to toe with more recent and lavishly-budgeted FX-heavy films. Speaking of the production side of things, there are numerous books, magazine articles and essays, and documentaries devoted to that effort. If you can find them, I recommend these:
The Lost Worlds of 2001, by Arthur C. Clarke
The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, by Jerome Agel
2001: Filming the Future, by Piers Bizony
Clarke would revisit the setting he created with Kubrick with three more novels: 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), 2061: Odyssey Three (1987), and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). The first sequel, of course, was the basis for the 1984 film 2010, which actually works better on its own when/if you can set aside the fact that it’s supposed to be a follow-up to “the greatest science fiction film ever made.”
To this day, 2001 continues to inspire, befuddle, and annoy viewers and critics, which is pretty much the most you ever can ask of any story. If you’ve not seen it, then you owe it to yourself to give it a spin. Same goes for Clarke’s novel; it’s definitely worth the read.
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”