It’s some kind of understatement to merely say that 1968 was one of the most significant years for social and political change in the 20th Century, or at the very least the latter half. The idealism of the Eisenhower era had given way to the promise of John F. Kennedy, which in turn, through his assassination in 1963, led to an ever-increasing sense that things were not as shiny in America as we had once hoped. By the end of the decade, the Vietnam War was in full swing and unrest was at an all time high. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were shot dead in 1968, and the youth of the nation were even more disaffected than before.
Still, in the midst of all this change, struggle, and strife, and likely because of it, movies were approaching their next renaissance. As we are now 45 years removed, we can see that 1968 was a banner year for cinema, and specifically genre pictures. Advances in storytelling techniques, tone, style, and visuals in science fiction, horror, action, and comedy took a huge leap forward. This series will take a look at five of the most culturally and cinematically significant films of all time, which just so happened to come out in ’68. For each film, we’ll examine their importance in terms of technology, filmic language, cultural impact, and continued resonance.
The films in question are Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Franklin J. Shaffner’s Planet of the Apes, and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. All of these are considered landmarks in their respective genres and for their respective filmmakers and are still, rightfully, being discussed today.
To start with, let’s go from the Dawn of Man to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.
2001: A Space Odyssey
With the exception of John Williams’ score for Star Wars, and possibly Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, no music is more famously associated with science fiction cinema than that which opens Stanley Kubrick’s only foray into the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. That piece of music, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by German composer Richard Strauss, was certainly not written for scenes of spacecrafts or ape-men discovering weaponry. It was written in 1896 as a companion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name, and its initial fanfare, “Sunrise,” was merely to suggest the dawning of a new day.
It’s this, though, that made the short snippet perfect for its three uses in the film. 2001 is about humanity reaching further apexes never before dreamed of, through the inspiration of some unknown extraterrestrial force. This music also became the theme for the Apollo space program, due in no small part to its use in this movie.
This is only the first of many ways in which 2001: A Space Odyssey revolutionized science fiction. Teaming with futurist author Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick set out to make the quintessential “good sci-fi movie,” and like most of what he did as a filmmaker, his take on any genre becomes one of its defining moments. Sci-fi movies had depicted space travel and alien contact since nearly the first days of moving pictures, but none had taken such care with its effects, or attempted such accuracy in the science. There is a reason for everything to exist and not just because it looks cool, though it most assuredly does. The ships have functionality beyond that which flying saucers or Commando Cody’s rockets ever did.
Kubrick was a fan of using existing music, especially that of contemporary and classical composers, in his films. It’s because of this movie that we now associate classical music with the floating grace of zero-gravity. Is it possible to listen to Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” an 1866 waltz about an Eastern European river, without thinking of swirly space stations and docking shuttlecrafts? I don’t think so. Aside from the music of the two Strausses, and another balletic piece by Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, the most pronounced pieces of music are the haunting and atonal works of Hungarian Gyӧrgy Ligeti. Four of his compositions are used in the film, usually to aurally represent the presence of the alien monolith. During the “Beyond the Infinite” section of the final act of the film, his music perfectly matches the far-out spacey optical effects through which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is traveling. Kubrick used Ligeti again on several other films, most notably in his 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining.
As previously mentioned, the most memorable, and frankly still impressive, aspect of the film is its special and visual effects. Kubrick, along with Douglas Trumbull, Con Pedersen, and Tom Howard, totally revolutionized movie special effects, simply because, being a perfectionist, he felt like he couldn’t properly tell this story with the technology that already existed. He was the first director to use front projection with retroflective matting in a mainstream film. This was used for the “Dawn of Man” sequences to make it seem like the ape-men and animals were actually in the African wilderness. Nope, they’re inside a studio. Kubrick felt that typical painted backdrops or back projection looked too fake and wouldn’t serve his story well. He was so very right.
Models had been used for space in the past but never to this degree of detail or photorealism. Enormous scale models of the various spacecraft in the film were filmed using specially-designed cameras and carefully layered on top of shots of the background or lunar surface to create the effect of flight or movement. These techniques became the norm for space movies hereafter, inspiring everything from Trumbull’s own Silent Running in 1972 to George Lucas’ Star Wars films to all of the Star Trek films and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Literally, if you see a movie that depicts spaceships made post-1968, even with CGI today, it will be shot with at least some degree of aping from Stanley Kubrick.
The interior of the spacecrafts were also an enormous feat of ingenuity. To depict artificial gravity, Kubrick concocted a ship that would rotate 360 degrees at a speed that would induce centrifugal force and keep astronauts Bowman and Poole from floating around. A giant wheel-shaped set was constructed in two halves in MGM British Studios and various holes were built in for the camera to be placed. The first time we see him, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is running around the exterior of this wheel, apparently perpendicular to the ground. This was done by placing the camera on its side and fastening it to the wall while the hamster-wheel set was moving and Lockwood ran ostensibly in place. For the shots that follow Poole as he runs, the set rotated around the camera while Lockwood continued to jog.
For the film’s climactic “Star Gate” sequence, Kubrick employed an experimental slit-scan photographic technique which layered dozens of contrasting images of op-art paintings, architectural drawings, Moiré paintings, printed circuits and crystal structures. The various shots of nebulas and swirling celestial bodies were actually colored paints and chemicals inside a device called a “cloud tank,” shot in a dark room. It was for all of these truly outrageous and innovative techniques that Kubrick was awarded (very deservingly as well) his only personal Academy Award, for achievement in special photographic effects.
The story of 2001: A Space Odyssey is significant because it posits two very new-agey and radical ideas: 1) that at some point in our future, artificial intelligence will become indistinguishable from human intelligence and will put its own continued existence above that of the humanity that created it and 2), possibly more controversially, that the assistance of extraterrestrial influence gave humanity its edge over the rest of nature. This type of thinking was relatively new at the time and called into question a fair amount of what people held, and still hold, true about the place of humanity.
Many, many films have warned of technology overtaking mankind, but this was the first time it was shown to be so cold and yet so paranoid, so human and so inhuman at the same time. Futurists in the years hence have postulated that we’re getting ever-nearer to the Singularity, wherein our existence will be completely technology-based and our physical forms will cease to have purpose. HAL-9000, while not a human, is omnipresent within the ship and conniving and scared of its own demise. It’s about as close to being a human mind as any computer mind could be.
As for the aliens-as-creator theory, there have been many books and films that have proposed this, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus goes so far as to say we were genetically modified from alien parentage. 2001, on the other hand, says that it wasn’t a divine plan but more, through the placement of the monoliths, a means of helping existing creatures eventually reach their next evolutionary stage. Naturally, ideas like this were not met with a whole lot of welcome in some circles. Kubrick, ever thoughtful and willing to engage in intellectual debate, said in response to criticism about these themes, “In an infinite and eternal universe, the point is, anything is possible.”
In 1968, we hadn’t yet landed on the moon, and so Kubrick was taking a lot of leaps with how far we’d get and what we’d know by the year 2001. The way the Earth looks from space in the film is different from how we now know it to look. Kubrick took an educated guess. How was he to know it would look more blue than green? In 1968, given how quickly the space program had progressed, it would have been totally plausible for humanity to live at least partially in outer space and for regular flights to the moon to be commonplace. It was 33 years later, after all. But Kubrick and Clarke couldn’t have known that once it became clear the Russians weren’t going to beat us in the race to the moon, nor would they ever, probably, America’s interest in continued spaceflight began to dwindle. The 2001 of 2001 was the 1960s view of the future, which we have greatly surpassed in some areas and have sadly never reached in others.
The film was very challenging for some viewers, and as such, MGM feared it wouldn’t fare all that well at the box office. It was decided to give the movie a rolling roadshow release, meaning it would travel from city to city instead of prints being available everywhere at once. Often projected in Cinerama, the exhibition method wherein three projectors each flash a third of the movie frame onto an overhead dome screen, 2001: A Space Odyssey became an event built up by word of mouth. Young people flocked to the movie in huge numbers, often after or during the usage of certain substances. This led to a slight alteration in marketing, going from posters depicting painted images of the space and technology from the film along with slogan like “An epic drama of adventure and exploration,” to the now-famous image of the Star Child from the film’s final shot with the words “The Ultimate Trip.” 2001 was a slow but undeniable hit, eventually grossing over $68 million dollars and making it the highest-earning movie of 1968.
This essay merely skirts the surface of why 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential films of all time, and certainly in the top two or three of all science fiction films. It took special effects photography to new and exciting places that were to be built upon by other filmmakers later. It had innovative uses of existing orchestral music to create the sense of awe and majesty in space. It touched upon ideas and themes that were radical at the time and still being debated today. And its method of distribution made it a must-see film for people across the United States for a long while after. While hard to say which of Stanley Kubrick’s 13 films is his absolute best, with several being the pinnacle of their respective genre or type, 2001: A Space Odyssey is far and away his most wondrous, and makes the viewer long for the future we might have had.