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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 5
In Which I Bring in Fellow Skiffy Writer and Blogger Paul O. Miles to Help Discuss
the Cultural Impact of Kubrick's Science Fiction Masterpiece

2001: A Space Odyssey
Planet of the Apes
Sound of Music
The Killing
The Fifth Element
Big Bad Mama
Dangerous Visions
At Armadillocon this past weekend I got to attend a panel called "Five Films on an Island," in which Joe Lansdale, Howard Waldrop, Mark Finn, Rick Klaw and I discussed which movies we would take with us were we to be stranded on a deserted island. All suggested some amazing movies, and fortunately I was the only one who turned film snob by saying I wanted to bring along Stanley Kubrick's seminal science fiction motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Granted, I'd take it along not only because it's one of my all-time favorites, but also because it would be perfect to watch when I started licking toads for a psychedelic experience.) Most of the other panelists groaned (and both Mark and Rick I know prefer the other great science fiction movie of 1968, Planet of the Apes), which I understand, but would want to take it with me for the simple reason that it still moves me in a way that no other SF movie can.

Leaving the convention that evening, I remembered a conversation that Paul O. Miles (one of the best writers living in Central Texas) and I had about this cinematic gem. Paul is a member of the Dark Forces Book Group and the group blog No Fear of the Future and, like me, is a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. So, with Paul's permission, I have decided to use this installment to reprint our discussion of 2001 and its cultural impact.

Paul Miles: In his film history  Pictures at an Exhibition, Mark Harris suggests that one of the reasons the late 60s and early 70s saw studios producing more idiosyncratic films was that they increasingly felt out of touch with their audiences. Studio execs, comfortable with signing off on a Cleopatra or  Sound of Music, found themselves in a world where people were lining up for Easy Rider. They were no longer sure what would work, so they were more receptive to "crazy" projects that years earlier would have gotten a filmmaker tossed off the lot. This idea helps to answer the question of how in the world Stanley Kubrick got Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to give him the money to make 2001: A Space Odyssey

I mean, imagine that meeting. Pretend it is 1965 or so and that you're a studio exec (it's the 60s so instead of a suit, you are wearing a Nehru jacket and a purple scarf tied around your neck) when Kubrick tells you and your assembled colleagues that he'd like to make a science fiction film. That part's great. It has been a while, but you might be able to make some money on SF. Will it be like Forbidden Planet? Or that one about the apes you've heard Fox is prepping? Well... there are some apes in it, Kubrick says, but the meat of the story is about a computer that goes crazy and threatens a crew on its trip to Jupiter. He goes on some more about the story, but at that point you aren't listening. You've already decided to give the Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove wunderkind a blank check for this crowd pleaser. You don't hear him when he mentions he'll be shooting the entire thing at Shepparton in England instead of on your California sound stages. You don't hear him discuss the special effects he's looking forward to using in the film -- the effects that don't exist yet. The transmission on your Silver Cloud has been acting up and you wonder if you can get it to the dealership before it closes. 

Now fast forward to late 1967. You are sitting in a small screening room. It's been hell to get to this point. (Thank God for that new Columbian pick-me-up Warren introduced you to last year). Principal photography on 2001 wrapped over a year ago, the rest of the time has been spent on those non-existent effects that now exist due to the millions of dollars in overruns that went right to MGM's bottom line. You swear if you ever meet those fellows whose names appear on all the optical and model department memos -- Trumbull and Dykstra -- you'll choke them to death with your bare hands. Well, anyway, it's done. And now you have a movie perfect for kids over the 1968 summer. The lights dim...

Here's the thing: It was a big hit. 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that ends with a purposely opaque meditation on Man's place in the universe, that ends with a light show, an aged man in a puzzlingly ancient room, and a giant baby floating over the Earth as Strauss' Also Sprach Zaruthustra pounds on the soundtrack, easily made its money back that summer and permanently drilled itself into the national conciousness. Why? 

Well, first off, notwithstanding the poster, not everyone was lying on the floor on an acid "ultimate" trip. But it is certainly fair to suggest that one reason the film worked is that the audience for it had changed. The audience for 2001 was the same one, to a lesser extent, that was reading Moorcock's New Worlds magazine in England, or picking up Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology, which had been published in 1967.  Funny, in that the source material, "The Sentinel" was by Arthur C. Clarke, a writer who practically defines SF's old school.

Derek Johnson: In citing 2001 as canonical in The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, John Scalzi relates Rock Hudson's response to the movie at its premiere: "Will somebody please tell me what that was about?"  Today, if your exposure to science fiction consists of a smattering of 50s classics, a little Star Trek, the first Star Wars, and maybe a recent blockbuster like Transformers 2 or Avatar, then I'd guess your response echoes Hudson's.  It challenges your preconceptions of what science fiction film should be and demands that you participate in its dialogue, which even now must frustrate the average filmgoer who prefers his movies as prepackaged as the food Heywood Floyd consumes while traveling to the moon.  I can't imagine what a remake would look like beyond the example of Stephen Soderbergh's remake of Tartovsky's Solaris, only worse.

  It's interesting that you'd mention the New Wave, Paul, because if you read Arthur C. Clarke's novelization of 2001, you get the impression that it is a hard SF movie through and through.  Kubrick took great pains to get the details of the space sequences right, and I'm sure the extrapolations of future computation made sense at the time.  But the movie really moves with the New Wave, for me, by approaching the subject matter with the same sort of seriousness of intent one would expect from any work of art.  Kubrick knew he was making a genre picture, but he also knew he didn't have to be a slave to genre expectations, that he could push the envelope of audience expectations.  It's the whole New Wave argument that the genre can be taken seriously, that it can be Art, though this time in visual as opposed to written terms.

  Looking at the movie more than forty years after its initial release and on a strictly technical level, I'm still amazed at the quality of the effects.  All of the space sequences, from the Pan Am shuttles floating and the Hilton Hotels spinning in earth orbit to the sequence where HAL hurls the pod at Frank Poole, provide the audience with a verisimilitude to which few, if any, other science fiction movies aspire.

  Clarke and Kubrick also took care to give symmetry to the major sequences.  For example, in each sequence involving the monolith, humans (and the proto-humans of the Dawn of Man sequence) either gather around and touch it or attempt to touch it: in the latter sequences Bowman (Kubrick's symbol for humanity) leaves the Discovery in the pod, presumably with the arms extended, only to have it transform into the Star Gate; on his deathbed, he reaches out to the monolith but cannot touch it because he is too frail to get out of bed.  Additionally, food plays a major part in each of the sequences.  The first shot with a living being shows it eating; upon receiving the monolith's gift of intelligence, the proto-humans develop tools with which to hunt food; in the final sequence, Bowman sits in what looks like an elegant hotel room, eating what turns out to be his (and symbolically humanity's) last meal.

PM: Generally in SF movies, the audience is offered a text to follow that allows you to completely ignore the subtext if you want. You can feel free to watch the 50s Invasion of the Body Snatchers as just a good gripping thriller instead of a McCarthy-era allegory or the apes in Planet of the Apes can just be apes rather at least partly a metaphor of hippies struggling against the Man, right? As you note, Kubrick doesn't let you play that game in 2001. The first ominous sign for our literal minded viewer that the roller coaster is at its apex would be the title card he throws up at the end of the Discovery sequence: Jupiter and the Infinite. No way to avoid the post-movie bull session in the lobby. 

To go back to the idea of Kubrick being willing to take SF seriously, I would first note that he really was a genre guy. Over his career, he made war movies (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), comedies (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove), a heist movie (The Killing), a sword and sandal picture (Spartacus) and a horror picture (The Shining) in addition to his two SF movies. And I recall reading stories prior to the release of Eyes Wide Shut that he thought of that as his sex movie. But except for The Killing (a slap in the face noir I heartily recommend to anyone who hasn't seen it), all his movies in a particular genre may contain its trappings or its elements, but they have inevitably been filtered through his sensibility. In Full Metal Jacket, for example, we get the traditional final battle in which a platoon is trapped under sniper fire, but the sniper turns out to be a teenaged girl. I'd suggest in 2001 that this manifests itself in the movie's jaundiced attitude towards humanity. You mentioned the scene on the Pan Am shuttle where Dr. Floyd is deciding what to eat; I'm thinking about the part in the same sequence where he is in the bathroom reading instructions to figure out how to take a dump as Strauss waltzes on the soundtrack. That's Kubrick all over. He was in part his own genre. If he attempted a kind of film, certain people in the audience would have been there because he had made it even if it wasn't the type of film they would normally see. And that's another way you can tie 2001 to the authors of the emerging new wave. The concept of a personal vision that just happens to be being expressed in SF. So just as Kubrick didn't limit himself to SF, it's not surprising that the SF authors of the same period generally did not limit themselves to one type of fiction. Tom Disch, to name one, tried his hand at poetry, opera, and horror in addition to science fiction. 

If the director gave 2001 his less than heroic vision of humanity, it comes into conflict with the generally positive vision of its writer. The idea that mankind is slogging its way through a rough patch now but we have a grand destiny is the grand theme of Arthur C. Clarke's fiction. The monolith is there and we will make it out to it and be transformed. I'm not saying Clarke was a pollyanna (nor do I think Kubrick was a complete misanthrope) but I do think there is a tension between the two creators that energizes the movie. 

DJ: Going slightly off-topic, I imagine that the intertextual nature of science fiction, in print and film, exists to allow an audience some frame of reference, or some way to get their minds around what, depending on the audience, must look like very  bizarre ideas.  So formatting a movie about the nature of humanity and its potential transcendence in the guise of a thriller might allow greater audience accessibility, but it also might dilute the ideas that the filmmaker wants to address.  Which I guess is why you see so few movies like 2001 or so few science fiction writers like, say, Stanislaw Lem; for most audiences, ideas themselves just aren't that thrilling.

When I was fourteen or fifteen and had seen 2001 a couple of times during late showings on television, I discussed it with a friend who professed to love science fiction.  He told me the movie disappointed him because there was all of this stuff about apes and space but not a single space battle.  How, he wondered, could you have people call a science fiction movie great if it didn't have a single space battle?  Which proves my point.

The thing I always liked about Kubrick is that he got genre.  I don't want to use the tired cliché that he transcended genre, but, be his genre crime, historical epic, or horror, he understood that these works had protocols. They had structures and, to an extent, rituals.  (I tend to think that writers like Dan Simmons, who moves between genres frequently, exist in the same category.) And the amazing thing is that he never made any bones about this; hell, he reveled in it.  Killer's Kiss and The Killing are pure film noir, 2001 is science fiction, The Shining is horror, Full Metal Jacket is a pure war story.  And the only thing that differentiates these works from others in their genre is their seriousness of intent. 

I remember that Arthur C. Clarke once stated in an interview that Kubrick wanted, with 2001, to make "the proverbial good science fiction movie."  He wasn't trying to remake the genre, but make the best possible movie of its genre.

PM: So after all this tongue bathing of 2001, has it been influential over the years? I would say that the innovations in the special effects were certainly a game changer. And the key technicians who worked with the director to develop those effects, especially John Dykstra and Douglas Trumbull, would go on to great careers. But did the film have much of an effect on other SF movies? Maybe for a few years, from let's say 1969 to 1977 when Star Wars came out, but beyond that the answer is probably no. It has cultural relevance in the sense that people who haven't seen it can ID parodies or riffs on its iconic images, but I don't know that I see much of 2001 in the current bloodstream of SF on the screen. Put it down to two reasons.

First, 2001 has a deliberate pace, even for its time. The movie is never in a hurry, whether it's the slow dance of the Pan Am shuttle rendezvous with the space station or Dave Bowman jogging on Discovery. Towards the end, as Bowman makes his way to the ship's core to unplug HAL, he walks. Nowadays, that might be sped up a little. There were a few movies after 2001 that seem to match its easy gait. Silent Running  is the most obvious one, with its ecological story about a space ship carrying Earth's last plant life. THX-1138 is another, up until Lucas' de rigeur car chase at the end of the movie. Maybe The Andromeda Strain? But to be honest, movies were beginning to speed up in the late 60s. Bonnie and Clyde, in addition to its violence, was faster paced than what had come before (to be fair, movies in the 30s and 40s like the Warner Brothers crime pictures had been plenty fast) and things would only speed up more from something like The French Connection and then obviously on to Jaws and Star Wars. You can't say for certain what the audience reaction would be to a picture taking its time like that, but I suspect it would be negative. 

Moon Bonnie and Clyde

Second, 2001 has "big" ideas. As said before, the other big SF movie of the period was Planet of the Apes, which has a kitchy, sort of winking approach to the whole apes as metaphor for human society idea. In contrast, 2001 is pretty earnest. The Planet approach has been much more influential. 

DJ: And I think that's the key issue. 2001 deals with nothing less than the beginnings of the human race and its eventual end, but without Planet's wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach, and in a much less predictable and more subtle fashion.  As a result, Kubrick may have set the bar too high for other science fiction movies.  Though the aforementioned Silent Running  and THX-1138 run at a much slower place (as do Rollerball and The Man Who Fell to Earth) and wear 2001's influence on their sleeves, in my opinion they also lack the quality, depth and intelligence of 2001.  Most of them don't have 2001's intellectual rigor. I don't think any of them deal with the "big" ideas.  I seriously doubt the filmmakers were up to the intellectual challenge of making something that could match it.  But later filmmakers could see the kitsch in Planet, copy it, film it, and deliver product that, while not aspiring to anything like 2001's quality or ideas, could at least feature some of Planet's fun.  Sadly, most aren't even able to do that today.  

To make matters worse, few science fiction movies aspire to the intelligence and art of 2001, and those that do either cannot transcend their flaws as science fiction (bad ideas, or interesting ideas poorly or shallowly executed) or attempt to transcend genre altogether, with nonsensical results.  Of the hundreds of science fiction movies released since 2001, only a handful -- PrimerChildren of MenBladerunnerSolaris, a few others -- attempt to reach as high as 2001.  A tiny handful exceed the grasp of its reach.  Most of the rest either fail as true quill science fiction -- much as I liked  Donnie Darko, for example, I still think it ridiculous as science fiction -- or have to make do with pretty images and limited intelligence.  I mean, I really liked The Fifth Element, even though it possesses not one neuron in its beautiful head.

In a way, this discussion covers similar territory as the Wells-Burroughs comparison in Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, where he talks about the opposing poles of science fiction: the rational and the dreaming.  2001 resides firmly on the rational pole, while Planet of the Apes lives in dreams.  Ultimately, while most of us want to claim that rational end, we more often find ourselves visiting the dreaming pole.  As much as I love 2001, as often as I cite it as my favorite science fiction movie, I've seen Planet of the Apes many more times because, damn it, it's more fun.

Forbidden Planet

PM: More fun, more easily reproducible. I suppose you could say that Hollywood briefly tried to head down the path suggested by 2001 in the movies you mention and found that it was not very fruitful. Shockingly, by about 1975, they'd discovered that audiences don't want a steady diet of Silent Running, or at least not in enough numbers to make it worth a studio's while. It's also probably not a good idea to make a film at a deliberate pace if the only thing the pace will do is give the audience more time to realize that the picture isn't quite as smart as the filmmaker seems to think it is. A sure sign of 2001's commercial limits? Roger Corman never even tried to rip it off.  On the other hand, he was going crazy with jacks of other New Hollywood pictures -- Bonnie and Clyde begat Big Bad Mama, Easy Rider begat Gassss! and so on. 

And I also agree that most successful SF movies in intervening years haven't reached for as much as 2001, probably for the better. You risk embarrassing yourself, as I'd say the Wachowski Brothers did with their philosophical PKD-lite mumblings in The Matrix

(And to be fair, I don't know how much SF literature has played with ideas the size of 2001's. Isn't the entire cyberpunk movement and beyond a willful narrowing of the genre's scope to give it a more human scale? These days, I think most authors keep questions like what is Man's place in the universe way off stage). 

I would also make the argument that films don't actually do ideas all that well. At least in pure cinemaaaa -- as Alfred Hitchcock used to call it -- when not aping the conventions of other art forms, like novels or the stage. Movies are at their best -- and this perhaps gets to your dreaming versus rationality point -- when they suggest, hint, prick at deeper themes but don't hit them head-on, leave them in the aforementioned subtext. The deadliest moment in almost any movie is when a character says: "let me explain this to you." 

2001 doesn't explain a thing. That's what you tease out yourself as you walk away from the theatre in the drizzling rain that always seems to accompany my viewings of the movie. So I would actually suggest that it might belong on the dreaming side of the fence as much and maybe more than Planet of the Apes.  

DJ: You may be right.  And that would help explain why 2001 has remained pretty firmly rooted in the consciousness of the true cineaste.  It really is a movie where you have to go to it, rather than having it come to you.

  One more thing. You asked earlier if 2001 was still influential, and I dodged the question.  Given the preponderance of movies in the wake of Star Wars and The Matrix, it was hard for me to see its influence forty years later.  Yes, it influenced Silent Running.  Yes, it influenced Rollerball. Yes, it influenced Dark Star.  But once you get to 1977, the year of Star Wars' release, it becomes more difficult to see any influence.  That was my initial take.  Then last year I saw Duncan Jones' Moon, and while there's nothing in it that actually pays homage to 2001, while the only things it has in common with Kubrick's film is a computer system voiced in very even tones and the lunar setting, it struck me as a very clear descendant of 2001 in terms of approach and intelligence.  On the surface, it's not nearly as revolutionary as 2001, largely because we've seen all of these effects before.  But it strikes me as being revolutionary because it concentrates on exploring a larger question (one which Philip K. Dick often asked in his fiction) instead of explosions.  And that, to my mind, makes it a worthy offspring.

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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