Monday is the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Paul Little looks at what made the prescient film so weird and so wonderful.

Why the fuss over a 50-year-old movie?

Although there had been some intelligent and well-made science fiction cinema before 2001: A Space Odyssey, nothing had come near it in terms of scientific plausibility, intellectual ambition, creative effort and sheer beauty.

What happens?


Good question and one more easily answered if you've read the book by screenplay co-writer Arthur C Clarke. In short: aeons ago aliens left a monolith on earth that may have helped our ancestors evolve into humans. Much later a similar monolith is found on the moon. Once uncovered it emits a signal back to the aliens who left it there, alerting them that humans are now able to travel in space. The discoverers realise it has sent a signal to Saturn and a mission to investigate is organised. The mission's computer system, HAL, breaks down and turns on the humans on board. HAL is disabled and the surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman, continues on his journey until he encounters another monolith, which turns out to be a stargate that takes him to an encounter with the aliens, who engineer his passage to the next level of evolution — a star child. The film leaves much of this ambiguous, but it is all consistent with what Kubrick shows.

Close-up of American actor Keir Dullea, dressed in a space suit, in a scene from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo / Getty Images
Close-up of American actor Keir Dullea, dressed in a space suit, in a scene from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo / Getty Images

Why does it look so distinctive?

Among other reasons, according to John Baxter in Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, because "in every shot of the future Kubrick aimed for symmetry of composition and shadowless light; what camera operators or directors of photography call 'high key against white' … one has no sense in the film of either heat or cold, simply an airy ease as neat, soft-spoken people move through bone-pale interiors".

It sounds like Kubrick was determined to make more than just a science fiction movie?

And he would bless you for saying that. Clarke once said Kubrick didn't want to make a "science fiction melodrama"; he wanted to make a "mythological documentary". The first cut of the film opened with a series of interviews with leading scientists speculating on what might be out there. Fortunately, this was cut before too many people saw it.

How was the initial reaction?

It could best be summed up as "Huh?" Originally there was much more exposition with dialogue and voiceover explaining what was going on. For instance, at one stage, the prehistoric apes learnt about hunting from seeing a demonstration — a sort of instructional video — inside the monolith. Gradually Kubrick whittled away all this explanatory material to leave the enigmatic masterpiece we know today.

Tough sell?

Yes. Early reactions weren't good. Then a review in the Christian Science Monitor described it as "the ultimate trip" and a whole generation of people who had never tried LSD bought tickets to sample what the movie's ads suggested would be close to an hallucinogenic experience.

Any weak spots?

Not many, but in a pre-Andy Serkis world the simians at the beginning of the movie look like a high school production of Planet of the Apes today.

Where was the CGI?

There wasn't any. Everything you see on screen is real in some sense. There's back projection, amazing models, giant slides to represent the African wilderness. Stars were spattered on to backdrops using toothbrushes soaked in white paint.

Keir Dullea in a scene from the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo / AP
Keir Dullea in a scene from the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo / AP

What happened to all those wonderful model spacecraft?

After agreeing to put them on public display, Kubrick changed his mind because, he said, "If they are on exhibition, people will say, 'We know this film isn't real.' " They were dispersed and the location of many is unknown. NOTE: the film isn't real.

Speaking of real or not — what's all this about a faked moon landing?

Most recently seen in the latest X-Files series, this is the conspiracy theory that Neil Armstrong and co. did not land on the moon, and that the footage shown on TV news was faked. Take that one step further and you'll convince yourself, as some have, that making 2001 was Kubrick's practice run for faking the moon landing.

It must have cleaned up at the Oscars?

Not exactly. It won the special effects Oscar, which was the only Academy Award Stanley Kubrick ever received. It was also nominated for best art direction and best director, but those awards went to the lumbering musical Oliver.

How weird was this Kubrick guy?

Weird in so many ways but for the purposes of 2001 his most ironic eccentricity was that while making a movie that crossed millions of kilometres of space, he refused to travel more than 16 kilometres from home. All of 2001 was shot in a studio set in England, except one of the ape scenes and some African exteriors.

Which came first, the book or the movie?

It began as a screenplay project for Kubrick and Clarke, partly based on a couple of Clarke's short stories. Clarke was to write the novel at the same time as the script As the movie developed so did a to and fro between book and film, with Kubrick. sometimes getting in the way to ensure the movie would come out first. When he finally saw the film, Clarke was very disappointed that so much was left mysterious in the film.

Why an odyssey?

Partly because it was more upmarket than one cheesy original possibility: Journey Beyond the Stars. And because the characters undertake a voyage to unknown places, just as Odysseus did in Homer's epic. There are other allusions to the Greek tale: a villain like a Cyclops with one eye in the form of HAL, also, Odysseus was a legendary archer and the astronaut who survives his voyaging and comes home is Dave Bowman.