The Silver Screen Expanses
“Look to the stars!” The moment humanity did just that and glanced at the infinite, we had our work cut out for us. And, while it wasn’t until the 1960s that we ultimately broke that barrier, our imaginations certainly carried us through until then. Nowhere has this been more present than in Hollywood film and television.
There are so many examples of films and shows we could appeal to. Consider The Martian (2015) with Matt Damon or Interstellar (2014) with Matthew McConaughey. There are also numerous biopics. First Man (2018), with Ryan Gosling, depicts Neil Armstrong and his inaugural walk on the moon (July 20, 1969). Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995)- with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Kevin Bacon- depicts the eponymous, nearly ill-fated space mission of 1970. Hidden Figures (2016) tells the story of the young women running the numbers back home (the numbers that, in turn, safely sent our early astronauts out into space).
The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), Ad Astra (2019), Moon (2009), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and October Sky (1999)are other examples of space-genre pictures. Arrival (2015), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Alien (1979), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) all contend with the question of whether alien life exists. George Melies’ Trip to The Moon (1902) arguably kicked off the science fiction genre. But if there is a film that epitomizes the space genre, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Kubrick had a knack for etching into stone a signature film for every major genre. What is the most famous war film? Full Metal Jacket (1987) is certainly way up there. What is the most famous horror film? The Shining (1980) is certainly way up there. What is the most famous comedy/satire? Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1967) is certainly way up there, and, as far as the science fiction genre goes, 2001 takes the top spot!
2001: A Space Odyssey made classical pieces like the Nietzschean-inspired “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (which Karl Böhm conducted, and the Berlin Philharmonic performed) a household name. It also gave us the famous quote: “I’m afraid I cannot do that, Dave.” 2001: A Space Odyssey is based on the novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke (who worked with Kubrick on the screenplay). Clarke based his novel upon a short story, “The Sentinel,” which he had written in 1951.
The film, which viewers diversely regarded with optimism and apocalyptic despair, begins on a prehistoric veldt. A tribal unit of “ape-men” contend with the raw elements of nature. A saber-tooth tiger takes down one of them. They brawl with another tribal unit (which drives them away from their watering hole), and they then learn how to hunt and use animal bones as weapons. Then they discover a strange monolith that towers before them and are bewildered. One hominin goes into “smash mode” and sends an animal bone flying. The shot, which leaps forward millions of years, is one of cinema’s most quintessential “graphic matches,” and it transitions to the image of a spacecraft.
Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), Chairman of the United States National Council of Astronautics, travels to an American lunar outpost, the Clavius Base. Russian scientists at Space Station 5 express their concern to Dr. Floyd (who has stopped over) that Clavius seems unresponsive. The men discuss a new mission to investigate a recently discovered monolithic artifact (buried four million years earlier near the lunar crater Tycho). The artifact, which scientists and others have examined and photographed, emits a high-powered radio signal.
Eighteen months later, two mission scientists, Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), board the American spacecraft “Discovery One” bound for Jupiter. They travel with three other scientists in suspended animation. HAL-9000, a computer with a human-like personality, controls most of the operations. During their journey, though, HAL-9000 develops sinister motives, mutinying against the crew in true “Skynet” fashion. The film bookends itself with the monolithic stone and an iconic image of a fetus in a transparent orb circling the globe.
Kubrick produced the film. Geoffrey Unsworth provided principal photography. Ray Lovejoy was the movie’s editor. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer distributed the film. Movie reviewers and film historians have noted its accurate depiction of space flight, its ambiguous imagery, and the various special effects that Kubrick pioneered in its production. The film is undoubtedly unique, using dialogue sparingly and incorporating numerous classical scores (alongside “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian, and György Ligeti.
2001: A Space Odyssey touches upon numerous themes- human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Kubrick won the award for his direction of visual effects. In 1991, the United States Library of Congress selected the movie for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Kubrick decided to avoid the fanciful portrayals of space travel popular in science fiction films of his time. He preferred a more realistic and accurate depiction of space travel. Kubrick therefore hired illustrators such as Chesley Bonestell, Roy Carnon, and Richard McKenna to produce various concept drawings, sketches, and paintings of the subject matter.1,2. Stanley Kubrick’s biographer, Vincent LoBrutto, noted that the animated short documentary Universe visually inspired Kubrick, as did the 1964 New York World’s Fair movie, To the Moon and Beyond.1. Kubrick was interested in animation camerawork. He brought British mathematician, Brian Salt, whom Universe co-director Colin Low worked with, onboard, and hired the Universe’s narrator, Douglas Rain, to voice HAL-9000.3,4,5.
Kubrick expressed to Arthur C. Clarke his desire to produce a film about “Man’s relationship to the universe,” and, in Clarke’s words, he was “determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe…even, appropriate terror.”6. Clarke offered Kubrick six of his short stories. Kubrick chose the “Sentinel” in May 1964 as source material for the film, and then spent the rest of that year reading science and anthropology books and screening other sci-fi movies.7.
Under the Hood
In January 1966, the film’s production moved from Shepperton, England to the smaller MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood. Filmmakers shot the live-action and special-effects scenes involving Floyd on the Orion spaceplane there.8 Those involved described the set as a “huge throbbing nerve center … with much the same frenetic atmosphere as a Cape Kennedy blockhouse during the final stages of Countdown.”9
Kubrick and his team only filmed one sequence outside of a studio- the “skull-smashing” sequence in which the hominid “Moonwatcher” wields his “weapon-tool” against nearby animal bones. The crew set up the shot on an elevated platform, and so the cameramen could film the actor at a low angle (the vast sky in the background; all cars and trucks passing out of the frame).10,11 Cinematographer John Alcott used images of Southwest Africa’s Spitzkoppe Mountains for the backdrop.12,13
Kubrick ordered his special effects technicians to create all the 205 special effects “in camera.” He wanted to avoid blue screens and traveling-matte techniques that he believed resulted in poorer image quality. The cinematographers shot the movie in Super Panavision 70 film, and the distributors eventually released it in “roadshow” Cinerama version, and then in 75- and 35-mm prints.14, 15.
Filmmakers shot various scenes in the Discovery centrifuge by securing set pieces within the wheel. They then rotated it while the actor walked or ran in sync with its motion. The shot kept the actor at the bottom of the wheel as it turned. The camera could be fixed to the inside of the rotating wheel to show the actor walking completely “around” the set or mounted in such a way that the wheel rotated independently of the stationary camera.
Kubrick used a transparent tetrahedral pyramid, a 12-foot transparent plexiglass pyramid, and finally a black-matted surface for shots of the iconic monolith.16. Artists created a 55-foot-long (17-meter) model for the “Discovery One,” while cinematographers accomplished the “Star Gate” sequence by use of slit-scan photography. Thousands of high-contrast images- Op art paintings, architectural drawings, Moiré patterns, printed circuits, and electron-microscope photographs of molecular and crystal structures- flash in rapid succession.
The staff captured shots of nebula-like phenomena and star-fields, an accomplishment they achieved by swirling colored paints and chemicals in a large “cloud tank”.17. They referred to the process as the “Manhattan Project,” paying playful homage to Robert Oppenheimer.17 They used different color filters in a process of making duplicate negatives in an optical printer for various landscape shots (Monument Valley, the Hebridean Islands, and the mountains of northern Scotland).18
“2001” was also the film that brought front projection and retroflective matting into cinematic vogue. Kubrick put this technique to great effective use in the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence. The technique consists of setting a separate scenery projector at a right angle to the camera and a half-silvered mirror placed at an angle in front. The half-silvered mirrors reflect the projected image forward in line with the camera lens onto a retroflective backdrop. The reflective directional screen behind the actors can reflect light from the projected image 100 times more efficiently than the foreground subject can.
Way Out There
With all its groundbreaking special effects, its lofty music and imagery, and its unique narrative structure, 2001: A Space Odyssey has cemented its position as one of the greatest science fiction films ever produced. But what about its message? What is at the heart of this epic, spatially and temporally expansive story? It isn’t merely man’s role in the universe; it is also his trajectory.
One of Kubrick’s trademarks (in addition to long hallway shots and a creepy upward stare various characters of his do) is that he partitions his films into two parts. The first part of Full Metal Jacket, for instance, takes place in a bootcamp where a sadistic boot-camp instructor drives one cadet to murder-suicide. The second half takes place in the throes of Vietnam, where the soldiers end up reaching a futile conclusion.
For 2001: A Space Odyssey, the dichotomous narrative pits human atavism vs. human intelligence and imagination/wonder. At first the setting is bare and primal. Pre-linguistic apes muck about, fighting, smashing things, and ending up in the jaws of giant predators. These hominids are linked by the monolith across countless epochs to another version of humanity. Humanity has prospered. It’s got its automobiles, televisions, trains, medicines, and spaceships, and, yet even when it catapults itself away from the terrestrial “mire” it desperately seeks to get away from, it finds out that it never can escape it. Even in the farthest depths of space, humanity is trapped by its own mortal conditions. Thus, the monolith follows it wherever it goes, and the circling “fetus” orb is a reminder that the womb is where it came from…and the womb is where it’ll eventually return! “Ashes to ashes…dust to dust”!
We can see all shades of 2001 play out in our current world. There’s an old colloquialism. “They can send man to the moon, but they can’t…make a decent coffee…learn how to parallel park…not lose our luggage on an airline, e.g.,” you might hear people say. Our brilliance and our stupidity seem to go together. It’s annoying. Isn’t it? Politicians are especially guilty. The politicians are who all the intelligent aliens wish to speak with first (“take me to your leader”). Don’t bother, our alien visitors. They’re good at their governmental roles, but they cannot unlock the secrets of the universe for you. They’re doomed to all the same emotional distortions and cognitive biases as the rest of us…wishful thinking, appeals to emotion, arguments from ignorance, and so on and so on.
The other major issue that 2001 highlights is our relationship to artificial intelligence. Kubrick’s masterpiece was made in an era long, long before smartphones, the internet, Alexa, Siri, and Google Maps. HAL-9000 to some extent approximates the cybernetic, decision-tree algorithms that systems like Alexa and Google Maps use. HAL-9000 appears to assert personal agency when it defies and dispatches its human users.
This is one of the questions that people frequently have about A.I. Can it do exactly that…can it become autonomous and self-aware or is any appearance of that just an illusion (especially when its algorithmic commands work against the best interests of its users)? If self-driving cars start running over people, are they to blame or are their manufacturers/developers to blame?
And lastly, 2001 evokes a deep sense of contemplation from us as viewers as to just how enormous and varied the expanding universe really is. We know that we are in a solar system inside a single galaxy…which in turn exists alongside billions of other galaxies across hundreds of billions of lightyears of space. Our planet is so small, millions of it could fit inside the sun. The Milky Way Galaxy is so enormous that the size of it compared to our sun is basically equivalent to the size of the United States to a single human cell. Anyone who has watched the old “Powers of Ten” video knows how mind-blowingly large these proportions and comparisons really are! In the opposite direction, the size of anything we see vs. the size of a quantum molecule is comparable to the size of North America to a single human hair.
2001 influenced scientists and thinkers far and wide…scientists and thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Laurence Krauss, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. The questions they ask are the ones we ask as well. Just how “big” was the Big Bang? What happened before it? What is the fate of the earth, the sun, and the universe as a whole? Are we made of the same material as stars? Do we return to the stars when we die? Do parallel universes exist? These…and so many other fathomless, philosophical questions are at the heart of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s message.
When we look to the stars, we see something infinite that we can always explore further…something for which the truth is always greater than what we think it initially is. Science-fiction space films provide us with a version of that experience. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey does quintessentially just that.
 “Sloan Science & Film”. scienceandfilm.org. Archived from the original on 21 September 2016. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
 “The Art of Roy Carnon”. www.2001italia.it. Archived from the original on 20 September 2016. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
 Graham, Gerald G. (1989). Canadian film technology, 1896–1986. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p. 114. ISBN 0-87413-347-5. Archived from the original on 14 November 2020. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
 Evans, Gary (1991). In the national interest: a chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989 (Repr. ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 75. ISBN 0-8020-6833-2. Retrieved 16 August 2016. In the National Interest City of Gold.
 Lacey, Liam (11 March 2016). “Colin Low: A gentleman genius of documentary cinema”. The Globe and Mail. Archived from the original on 17 March 2016. Retrieved 15 March 2016.
 Clarke, Arthur C. (1972). The Lost Worlds of 2001. London: Sidgwick and Jackson. p 29.
 Clarke 1972, p. 32-35.
 Geduld 1973, p. 24, reproduced in Castle 2005 and Schwam 2010, p. 22.
Lightman, Herb A. (June 1968). “Filming 2001: A Space Odyssey. American Cinematographer. Excerpted in Castle 2005.
 Richter 2002, pp. 133–35
Clarke 1972, p. 51
 Chiasson, Dan (16 April 2018). “”2001: A Space Odyssey”: What It Means, and How It Was Made”. The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 26 October 2022.
 “2001: A Space Odyssey”: Locations”. Movie-Locations.com. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
 Richter, Daniel (2002). Moonwatcher’s Memoir: A Diary of 2001: A Space Odyssey. foreword by Arthur C. Clarke. New York City: Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 92
 Chapman, James; Cull, Nicholas J. (5 February 2013). Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema. I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-78076-410-8. Archived from the original on 28 January 2016. Retrieved 20 November 2015. p. 97, footnote 18.
 Benson, Michael (2018). Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-6395-1. Archived from the original on 31 August 2018.
 Agel, Jerome, ed. (1970). The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. New York: New American Library. pp. 143–146
 Agel 1970, p. 150