We’re celebrating 50 years of “2001: A Space Odyssey” by reflecting on the future projected by the 1968 blockbuster.
The year is 2018. We are in the 21st century. Nearly two decades ago we were supposed to make contact with life on other worlds. At least, according to Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick, and their film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which opened in U.S. theaters in 1968.
Arthur C. Clarke was a scientific visionary, recluse, and writer of more than 100 books, including “Childhood’s End” and “Rendezvous with Rama.” He served on the British Interplanetary Society and predicted numerous innovations to come, including satellite telecommunications and man landing on the moon. Yet he’s best remembered for “2001: A Space Odyssey” — a collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick for which he simultaneously wrote the screen story and novel. Why is it this film, and not his other works, that we so remember him for?
The project began in 1964, when Kubrick and Clarke embarked on a mission to create a serious, well-researched look at man’s destiny in space, one that ditched the typical sci-fi tropes (such as green aliens and flying saucers) in favor of actual science, with the goal of enabling humanity to reflect on its relative insignificance in the universe. After a series of meetings with Kubrick, Clarke settled in New York’s Chelsea Hotel to write a work based on his short story “The Sentinel,” about an alien landmark discovered on the Moon. Over the four difficult years that followed (not the four months Clarke had anticipated) that story was whittled down and made ever more abstract — narration erased, aliens made invisible — until a simple three-part story emerged. Once the book was completed, Clarke had to wait for years to publish it — without being able to take other projects or receive compensation — until the movie was finished, as he’d agreed with Kubrick that the works should be released simultaneously.
Fifty years have passed since the film “2001” emerged into a world whose landscape was changing in ways just as incredible and confusing as the film itself. Controversial and inspiring, the movie is remembered for its often-wordless, extremely serious, and mystically wondrous portrayal of the future. It remains unchallenged as one of the greatest works of science in art, and as the years have passed, its legend as one of the greatest films of all time continues to grow. Today, almost all science fiction films have come from its visionary womb. “Star Wars,” “Aliens,” “Star Trek” — their spaceships, atmosphere, and technology are all borrowed from the groundwork established in “2001.”
Why has such a strange, baffling movie remained so cherished? Perhaps because though the pacing might be slow by today’s roller-coaster standards, the special effects are still impressive. Perhaps because the ending is still enigmatic, still a mystery. Perhaps Hal, the robot artificial intelligence who calmly destroys the entire crew of the Discovery except for David Bowman, still terrifies as a real possibility. Perhaps the movie still reminds us of our future, even today.
Today, we still have not discovered extraterrestrial life. We haven’t set foot farther than the moon. In that sense, “2001” is still a promise. Despite our smartphones, our Internet, our genetic engineering, we still strive for that sense of wonder. Like 50 years ago, we’re also embroiled in a war of global implications, facing cultural turmoil, looking for a way out. What the world and humanity needs is perspective.
Perhaps we can step back and learn from Arthur C. Clarke, a man who escaped to Sri Lanka for much of his life to write and dream. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a journey backwards to mankind’s origins, as well as forward to the rebirth of a new humanity. The film allows us to witness something new instead of preaching to us. This is the legacy of Clarke, who died in 2008 (nine years after Kubrick), and also of his most memorable work, “2001.” It is, like the alien presence in the film, a monolith that reaches out. We need the film’s perspective, now more than ever.
We all need to step back every once in a while and ponder how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. We need to remember how large the universe is, how small we are. In 50 years, we haven’t changed that much at all.
Originally published in June 2008
Scott Stein is a playwright and writer who has covered tech, gaming and entertainment since 2001 for Maxim, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Esquire and Laptop Magazine, among others. He is a senior editor at CNET.com.