This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the seminal work by auteur director Stanley Kubrick. On Dec. 7, Weber State University Honors Program will present a screening of the movie with some guest commentators — myself and history professor Eric Swedin.
From the time of its 1968 release, the movie has been called everything from magnificent to magnificently boring. However, its influence has extended well beyond film. In often in surprising ways, it reflects both 1968 and today’s concerns.
In his documentary series “From the Earth to the Moon,” Tom Hanks indicated he has watched the movie countless times and noted its importance for his generation. Let’s wind back the clock to another time when Americans found themselves sharply divided. In 1968, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, historically viewed as a turning point of the war. White supremacist James Earl Ray shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hair” opened on Broadway. Police confronted the Black Panthers. Jordanian citizen Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. The Republican National Committee nominated Nixon for president. Riots marred the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In Houston, astronauts for Apollo 8 watched 2001 while training to becoming the first men to see the dark side of the moon.
Two years later, and millions over budget, MGM brass were extremely nervous about a picture that opened with horrible reviews, had people walking out of theatres and had absolutely no dialogue for the first 25 minutes. Americans, however, escaped into “the ultimate trip!” Kubrick made a film that explained little but created an experience. 2001 became an unexpected hit; the biggest box office draw of the year.
2001 is more than an escape, however. The film begins with an origin-of-man story and then leaps from ancient to modern weapon systems. The conversations between scientists reflect tensions of the Cold War. The tension between man and machine reflects the growing concern of losing what makes humans human with the advent of computer technology. Ultimately, the film, as Kubrick intended, explores the relationship between man and the cosmos.
The idea of the film started in 1964. Kubrick met with the Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author who focused on scientific and technological accuracy. Clarke’s kind of story is hard to pull off without becoming pedantic through narration. His stories communicate technical details through dialogue between scientists and, conveniently, “less-knowledgeable” characters such as janitors, cooks and, sadly, women. Kubrick, however, didn’t want narration or lots of dialogue. He wanted the ultimately alien aspect of space to overwhelm the audience. To compensate, Clarke wrote a book with considerable explication that also came out in 1968. It eventually sold three million copies.
The two partners strove for extreme accuracy in all things, and the studio supported the effort. The spaceships make no noise as they move through space because sound doesn’t carry in a vacuum. There is no magic gravity on spaceships. Space travelers walk with Velcro shoes and need a large centrifuge to have artificial gravity. With no computer graphics available, Kubrick’s team invented techniques that created images in the film that still hold up visually today. To understand ancient man, they consulted anthropologists. To create their supercomputers, they consulted Marvin Minski and other famous computer scientists and artificial intelligence experts. The work of those experts then became part of the canon of actual A.I. work, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
They didn’t predict everything accurately, of course. In their view, space was mostly a Caucasian male domain. When the year 2001 dawned, we had Y2K, but no moon colonies or routine space travel. However, given the efforts of the space program in 1964 when Kubrick and Clarke imagined the story, we can forgive their optimism. Thirty-seven years prior to his film, “computers” were humans with calculators, all planes had propellers, and people didn’t use penicillin.
The optimistic worldview of Kubrick and Clarke in 1968 imagined that humans continued to venture outward. It’s a dream that remains with many today, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and, of course, NASA. Perhaps Kubrick and Clarke’s biggest miss with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was how the journey outward would be delayed by other societal priorities. Who knew that when Americans landed on the moon in 1969, people would be bored with space travel only a few years later?
If you want to experience “2001: A Space Odyssey,” join us for a free screening and discussion at 1 p.m. Dec. 7 in the Weber State Stewart Library Room 324.