Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
By 1964, director Stanley Kubrick was already garnering attention within the cinema world. Kubrick had directed 10 films, the most recent being the Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, a popular success at the box office with moviegoers. Other memorable films of Kubrick’s early work include film noir The Killing (1956), the epic historical drama Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962) adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel. Most filmmakers are lucky if they have one or two movies that endure throughout the years; almost all of Kubrick’s filmography are regarded as classics.
After Dr. Strangelove’s release, Kubrick became fascinated with the idea of space travel and extraterrestrial life. He became determined to make “the ultimate science fiction movie” and sought out a partner to help in his endeavor. Roger Caras, a staffer at Columbia Pictures, suggested the author Arthur C. Clarke as a possible collaborator. Caras cabled the film proposal to Clarke, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time. The two met in New York City in April of 1964 and began working on a film about “man’s relationship to the universe.”
Clarke offered up six of his short stories as possible material for Kubrick to adapt. The director picked “The Sentinel” as his source material for the film. Clarke and Kubrick spent the rest of 1964 generating ideas, reading books on anthropology and science, and watching many science fiction films. On February 23, 1965 Kubrick issued a press releasing the next the title of his next film as Journey Beyond the Stars. Eleven months later, Kubrick changed the title to 2001: A Space Odyssey drawing on Homer’s The Odyssey for inspiration. The director and Clarke went through several drafts of a script while Clarke concurrently worked on a 2001 novel. Kubrick remarked his goal was to make a film that was “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”
Over the past 40 years, 2001: A Space Odyssey has become one of the most essential cinematic masterpieces of all-time. Kubrick’s iconic tale follows the crew of a ship on their way to Jupiter with a sentient computer program called Hal 9000 after a mysterious black monolith has been discovered on the moon affecting human civilization. 2001 deals with many themes including existentialism, the onslaught of modern technology and artificial inteligence, human evolution, and the search for alien life. In addition to the narrative, the movie’s special effects were groundbreaking at the time of release. Composed of 205 special effects shots throughout the film, Kubrick’s movie used a variety of special techniques to achieve these stunning visuals. 2001 used front projection with retroflective matting to achieve the beautiful backdrops of the African plains and the moon throughout the film. The director also used practical effects such a models to depict various spacecraft moving through space. Cameras were driven along a track on a special mount, making it possible to repeat shots and match speeds of previous takes.
Another innovative effect used in 2001 are the zero gravity scenes when the crew of the Discovery One are in space. In one particularly well-known sequence, Bowman enters the centrifuge of the spacecraft and walks over to join Poole, who is eating on the other side of the craft. To achieve the zero-gravity effect, Kubrick had a 30-short-ton rotating “ferris wheel” at a cost of $750,000. Scenes set in the Discovery space were shot by securing pieces of the set within the wheel and then rotating them while the actor walked in motion with the wheel, keeping him at the bottom of the centrifuge as it turned. The camera was attached to the inside of the wheel so a shot could show the actor walking “completely” around the set. In the jogging sequence, the camera was mounted so that the wheel rotated independently from the camera itself. For shots where characters were shown on opposite sides of the centrifuge, actors were strapped in securely at the top of the wheel while it moved, allowing the other actor to walk to the bottom and join his side.
Lastly, the film contains one of the most unique and breathtaking special effects sequences in cinema. The Star Gate sequence when Bowman travels through deep space has become one of the most iconic science fiction scenes in movies. To achieve the effect of the colored lights, slit screen photography was used containing thousands of high-contrast images on film such as crystal structures, Op art paintings, and architectural drawings. Staff referred to the scene as “the Manhattan Project,” and shot the nebula-like star field by swirling chemicals and colored paints in a large cloud tank, shot in slow-motion in a dark room. Different color filters were used to achieve the coloring and negative-image effects used in the live-action landscape shots. Kubrick earned a special visual effects Academy Award in 1969 for impressive work on 2001.
Besides the groundbreaking visuals of 2001, the film has gone on to influence filmmakers throughout the world. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas both cite the movie as a source of inspiration. Although critical and audience reaction was mixed when 2001 was first released, it gained a devoted cult following and became highest-grossing North American film of 1968. The movie’s success arguably opened up the door for more science fiction films to be made, including Alien, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If 2001 had failed at the box-office, it is unlikely studios would have taken a chance on big-budget sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s. Today, the film is still shown around the world as a landmark piece of cinema, and an example how science-fiction can be throught-provoking, entertaining, and moving.
Video game director Hideo Kojima has cited 2001: A Space Odyssey as his favorite movie of all-time. The movie is frequently referenced in his Metal Gear series. The fictional character Hal Emmerich is named after Hal 9000, and the main character Solid Snake’s real name is Dave.
The film’s first 25 and last 23 minutes are completely free of dialogue. In total, the movie contains almost 88 dialogue-free minutes of footage.
With the exception of the two baby chimpanzees, all the primates in the film were portrayed by humans in costume.
Originally, Hal 9000 was named Athena and was going to have a female voice.
2001 was voted as the sixth greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics poll.
2001: A Space Odyssey is available to stream on Netflix.
What’s your favorite science fiction film? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Image credit: MGM
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.