Many of you who are fans of science fiction know that 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite its age, 2001 has become so iconic and renowned that it seems enough ink has been used in writing about it to fill space itself; so I’m not going to add to the attempts to describe, analyse, dissemble or review this incredible movie. Instead, I want to weave a bunch of electrons describing what this movie has meant to me, personally.
When 2001 was released, I was only 8 years old; and at that age, I not only didn’t know much about science fiction, I didn’t know about much at all. But I had seen my first episodes of Star Trek (during its prime-time run), The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space. I was also reading adventure novels about characters like Doc Savage and Perry Rhodan and, as the years advanced, moving on to my first science fiction novels.
By the time I was 15, I was an avid science fiction fan, and thanks to movies on television, uncounted books in used bookstores, and Star Trek‘s non-stop syndicated run, I was interested not only in current SF, but in the SF books, TV shows and movies of the past. I was also fascinated by special effects; optical and physical tricks that had been developed over the years that made SF movies and TV shows come alive. By that time, 2001 had already achieved legendary status among SF movies, and I’d already read (and loved) Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization, which he wrote concurrently with Kubrick’s movie production.
I finally had the chance to see the movie when it returned to Washington, DC’s Uptown Theater; it had earned the promo “the ultimate trip” by then, and though I was aware that it was supposed to be a drug reference for the pop culture, I was much more interested in seeing how well Clarke’s story translated to, and how good those vaunted effects looked on, the big screen.
The first showing was more than magic to me: Stanley Kubrick’s avant-garde filming style, his use of classical music and choirs, the amazing sets, the incredible effects work of Douglas Trumbull, and of course Arthur C. Clarke’s story, created a unique and entrancing experience that left me speechless. This was one of the first SF movies I’d seen outside of tiny television screens, and as such, it burned itself into my memory as one of my first science fiction-related experiences.
When most science fiction I’d seen or read at the time had been colorful adventures or (let’s face it) monster stories, 2001 was perhaps the first intelligent SF movie I’d seen. More than just cool or exciting, 2001 was mind-blowing, a story spanning millions of years and telling the story of how mysterious alien devices somehow taught early man to use tools, later led him into space and, finally, evolved an astronaut into a new being, the Starchild, who would watch over Earth. Though some of the episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone had been heady and intellectual, the sheer scope of 2001‘s story was leagues ahead of any television production I’d seen.
Visually, 2001 was (and still is) gorgeous. The combination of the physical sets and costumes, and the model effects, created a vista of space, and the experiences of living and working in it, that were so far ahead of any other movies or TV shows as to be laughable. For the first time, I felt like I was seeing a realistic, believable example of what it would be like to fly spacecraft in zero gravity, to live in modules rotating to produce artificial gravity, to eat pre-packaged foods (and to use zero-gee toilets!). I also enjoyed the cool satisfaction of the silence of space, the lack of stars whizzing by as if only a few yards away, the significant distances suggested by the journey through the Solar System. Thanks to Douglas Trumbull’s mastery of effects work, the sheer void and expanse of space, as well as the intricate ballet of space flight, was being shown to me for the first time.
And it’s hard to articulate the physical effects, some of them relatively simple in execution but incredibly impactful, that brought the “reality” of zero-gee existence to the fore: A pen floating in a passenger cabin; a stewardess carefully walking a circular portal until she was completely upside-down to the audience; astronauts seemingly walking in a zero-gee corridor, descending to a rotating module that allowed them to work, sleep and jog around its circumference. Though I’d read about these physically-rotating sets and other effects when I was 15, it was quite an experience seeing them in action for the first time. Again, they gave a verisimilitude to 2001 that no other movie or TV show had given me by then.
2001 was the first movie to prove to me that science fiction could look accurate, be smart, and still present an incredibly rich and fascinating story to its audience. It helped to draw me in to more intelligent SF, at a time when SF movies were starting to more severely warn us about the consequences of our global actions, and that helped hone my interest in more intelligent stories like Soylent Green and ZPG.
Even at 50 years old, to me it remains the high water mark in intelligent SF movies that an embarrassingly few other movies have come close to reaching since. 2001 was instrumental in securing my ongoing interest in science fiction, both in print and on the small and big screen. And it inspires me personally to write more intelligent SF novels, stories that don’t just entertain, but make the reader think about the world and our present’s impact on the future.
What a shame it is, therefore, that the success of Star Wars a decade later would so completely outperform intelligent SF movies as to make them almost unmarketable… and they hadn’t been that popular before then. The Star Wars media and marketing juggernaut has cast a long shadow that still chills serious SF media, and more’s the pity; for a single movie like 2001 has more impact than a hundred Star Wars-type movies. And it frustrates me that, for every movie with the high quality and intelligence of a 2001, Solaris, Contact or Arrival, we get a hundred mindless shoot-em-ups with goofy aliens and prepubescent morals; the sci-fi mindset of the 1940s, cheap beer regurgitated endlessly until it’s hard to remember the taste of a well-crafted liquor like 2001.
2001: A Space Odyssey will always be iconic to me: The big screen representation of the best, most intelligent, highest quality of science fiction; an artistic and visual tour de force; and an inspiration to create more than sci-fi pablum. 2001 set me on the greatest odyssey: That of applying my own artistic talents in the discovery and celebration of the science fiction genre; an odyssey that I’ve enjoyed for a half-century (and counting).
In searching for iconic images for this post, I discovered that there were so many iconic moments in 2001 that it was hard to choose between them. So, in addition to the images above, enjoy these as well: