In 2014 I was lucky enough to see the British Film Institute’s re- release of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hadn’t learned to drive yet so had my Mum drive us the 30- mile journey to the closest cinema, she then proceeded to sleep through the entire film. I can’t fault her for this, on its release in 1968, 2001 was dubbed ‘one of the grimmest films I have ever seen in my life’ by Andrew Sarris that exists ‘somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring’ in The New York Times. The film does move at a snail’s pace in parts, contains no dialogue for its first and last 20 minutes, and it conceals overt meaning; it is difficult to “read” meaning within it. This year, 2001: A Space Odyssey celebrates the 50th anniversary of its release, it has earned over $190 million since its debut and consistently ranks in critic’s top 5 in the Sight & Sound poll each year. Traces of the film can be found in most contemporary science fiction films and it is difficult to speak about the genre without mentioning 2001 because of this ubiquity. 50 years on, it is important to consider why 2001, an abstract, difficult film, yields such a large fan base and high praise today.
Fortunately, upon its release it wasn’t entirely dismantled by critics, it was cited as ‘the world’s most extraordinary film’ by The Boston Globe that ‘succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale’ according to Roger Ebert. 2001 also earned director Stanley Kubrick his only Academy Award which he received for visual effects. Its visual effects were one of its many elements that set it apart from preceding science-fiction films. They were unconventional in that they depicted realistic zero-gravity situations in space, but also had eye-popping surreal sequences, all putting to shame the CGI-spectacle films of today. They were masterfully orchestrated and do not look particularly dated as many similar films of the 60’s and 70’s do now. Perhaps the most enduring and believable visual aspect of 2001 is the rotating drum set, which composes a major set piece within a satellite that a character runs within like a giant hamster wheel. This set, and the technology behind has since inspired a slew of imitators. Films which borrowed from this concept include horror films Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Fly, using rotating sets to give the effect of a character walking on the ceiling and ramping up the horror. Perhaps the film most obvious in its lineage with 2001’s drum set is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-bending magnum opus Inception. With a full length fight scene occurring within a rotating hallway and hotel room one can clearly see the update on Kubrick’s vision almost 40 years on. Kubrick also pioneered techniques such as front projection, an effect used to create a sharp and detailed backdrop behind the actors, and utilised split scan photography within the film to create a mind-bending “Stargate” sequence. The kaleidoscopic sequence is largely responsible for the films increase in revenue in the latter half of 1968, becoming popular with an audience comprised largely of teenagers and young adults experimenting with psychedelic drugs.
It is likely the device that you’re reading this on, or is in your pocket right now has also been inspired by 2001. In designing Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad, Steve Jobs borrowed elements from the set design within the spaceships in 2001. Kubrick’s attention to detail in these scenes and vision of the future, with large tablet devices and touch screens displaying news, information, and interacting with other people through technology that resembles Skype and FaceTime is surprising. This would have seemed an ambitious view of the future in 1968, but it now resemble the devices and programs we interact with daily.
2001: A Space Odyssey has since spawned a sequel titled 2010: The Year We Make Contact released in 1984, that stars Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, and Helen Mirren. Furthermore, its novelization, a text written in parallel with the screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke, has received several sequels updating and expanding upon the lore of the first. It has been parodied and referenced within our culture and art an innumerable amount of times since its debut. Famously, scenes from 2001 were used in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Mike Teavee is shrunk into a sequence with primitive men- ape. Perhaps the series to make the most reference to 2001 is The Simpsons, which over the years has borrowed, parodied, and paid homage to dozens of motifs and sequences from it. On YouTube there are several examples of these parodies, one inspired user has made a short shot- for- shot remake of 2001 using only Simpsons clips.
2001 is also, at least partly, responsible for the modern day popularity of Sunrise from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which featured heavily as part of the films score, usually used to denote the forthcoming arrival of something epic. To my surprise, I last noticed this being used in Wrestlemania 34 to signal the debut of Ronda Rousey in the professional wrestling competition, a homage that seemed both unconventional and humorous. It’s an epic piece that has become so iconic that it has become divorced from the film itself despite aiding it’s modern popularity. 2001’s musical connections don’t stop there, it has also been referenced overtly in album titles such as A Funk Odyssey by Jamiroquai and 3001: A Laced Odyssey by The Flatbush Zombies, and song titles such as Space Oddity by David Bowie. Furthermore, contemporary musicians such as Kanye West and Frank Ocean cite both 2001 and Stanley Kubrick himself as inspirations.
Looking back at this film 50 years since its release, it’s astonishing to see such an initially polarizing film have such a meteoric rise to become one of the most revered films in history. In 1968, few would have predicted 2001 to become the cultural phenomenon that it is today. It took science fiction, a genre that was oft considered cheap and secondary, and turned it into high art through its masterful direction under a man with a clear vision of the future. Stanley Kubrick paved the way for a slew of successors and defined a genre with this. Films such as Nolan’s Inception and Villeneuve’s Arrival can be seen as love letters to 2001. It is hard today not to find facets of our modern culture and society that have not been shaped by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey performed with a live orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on the 28th April.