50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – how Kubrick's sci-fi 'changed the very form of cinema'

As Stanley Kubrick’s monolithic movie celebrates its half century, special effects gurus, directors and those who worked on the film consider its legacy

Wally Pfister

Wally Pfister, director, Transcendence; cinematographer, Inception

2001: A Space Odyssey affected my life in three different phases: my dad took me to see the film the year it opened at the Ziegfeld theatre in New York. I was a real space buff, partly because dad produced coverage of the space flights for ABC News. So I was totally blown away, and it became my favourite film for years; I made my own little Super-8 space movies with models on wires. Ten years later, in high school, I dropped acid to watch an anniversary screening. I’m sure we had a “deep” conversation afterwards. Then it was wonderfully influential as I got into film, and started appreciating it technically. It took 40 years for visual effects to catch up with what they did.

When I met Christopher Nolan in 1998, I was really chuffed to find Kubrick was one of the things we had in common. I rewatched 2001 around the time we did Inception, and there are some similarities in the sets and the style. That last room where Pete Postlethwaite is dying is definitely reminiscent of the end of 2001 – there’s a little homage there. And 2001 was a huge influence on Transcendence – I was attracted to the script because of the parallels: AI, becoming a godlike being. And the question of whether this AI is good or evil, coming to the conclusion that it’s only as good as the person who inputted it.

Claire Denis

Claire Denis, director, High Life

I saw 2001 on a giant screen in Paris, and I was blown away. You knew it took place in space, but I didn’t expect that kind of strange reflection on humanity. I wasn’t sure I understood this mysterious philosophising, the black monolith, all that. But I accepted all of it. It’s not possible to imitate a single thing from 2001 – it’s taboo, private territory. For one thing, to do the special effects you have to film models in a sort of choreography; modern special effects are very beautiful, but they don’t give the same physical impression. And space films are no longer voyages into the unknown – science has advanced a lot since then. My own thinking had to prevail when making my forthcoming science-fiction film High Life: it would be stupid to use 2001 as a departure point. They’re completely different: asking me about them is like asking whether I’d like to eat a sandwich or go on a trip to Australia.

Stanley Kubrick, next to camera, on set of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick, next to camera, on set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photograph: Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock
Jan Harlan
Jan Harlan Photograph: George Pimentel/WireImage

Jan Harlan, producer, The Shining; A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick [who worked together on the film] shared the same spirit: agnostic, curious, very intelligent and in awe of the endlessness of the universe. If a film managed to build on what 2001 did, it’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence – it predicted the end of humanity. Stanley [Kubrick, Harlan’s brother-in-law] was convinced that we have no chance to survive in the long run, the way we behave – whether we exist for another 50 or 500 years doesn’t matter, it’s a short moment either way on the large scale of time. It is a dead serious message wrapped in a sweetener where robots survive their former masters. Does that mean HAL wins in the end? No, it’s a very different story merely born out of the same spirit.

Douglas Trumbull
Douglas Trumbull Photograph: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Douglas Trumbull, visual effects supervisor, 2001

I was excited working on it every day. With the space race happening at the same time, I felt like we were working on something really important. I don’t think it directly affected the moon landings, which happened the following year, but I meet scientists, engineers and astrophysicists almost every week who say they went into their line of work because they watched the film when they were young. It has profoundly affected that community to believe that certain things were going to be real and possible and spectacular. Especially regarding the possibility of contact with intelligent civilisations.

John Gaeta
John Gaeta Photograph: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for WIRED

John Gaeta, visual effects supervisor, The Matrix

I could dot-connect where I am today back to being a young man watching 2001. Kubrick allowed Douglas Trumbull to explore and envision things by any means necessary. And that led to startling breakthroughs and a level of immersion we haven’t seen before. The Wachowskis [Lana and Lilly, sibling directors of The Matrix] acted very much for me like Kubrick acted with him. They told me to find the form that allows a concept to resonate, which led to Bullet Time. And now I’m at Magic Leap, working on augmented reality.

HAL is really the first mass understanding that artificial intelligence could exist. The people building those interfaces use films like 2001 as guides and influences. The film is completely contemporary in its idea that AI could destroy us. We’re within five years of that moment now. Not necessarily in the exact context of that story, but in the context of AI overruling us on something important. The next step is what Spike Jonze was talking about in Her. 2001 was basically off by 20 years.

‘Did 2001 start a VFX arms race? I think so.’
‘Did 2001 start a VFX arms race? I think so.’ Photograph: c.MGM/Everett/Rex
Andrew Niccol
Andrew Niccol Photograph: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Andrew Niccol, director, Gattaca

The opening sequence of 2001 is the most immersive experience in cinema: completely spare of dialogue. I was sucked into the world as if I was in a black hole. I was watching 3D before there was 3D. It changed not only science fiction but also the very form of cinema. I love the grandeur, but I also love the attention to detail, like how the letters in the name HAL are only one removed in the alphabet from IBM.
Niccol’s new film, Anon, is released on 11 May

Peter Suschitzky
Peter Suschitzky Photograph: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Joi

Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer, The Empire Strikes Back; Mars Attacks!

Everyone in the London film-making community was tremendously excited by it. It was the first thing we talked about. I was amazed at its visual splendour. Most of the space shots mystified me and still do. And I don’t mind staying mystified. It’s more miraculous if you don’t know how it was done. But I was nonplussed by the hallucinogenic ending. I still feel he was trying to pull the wool over our eyes – he didn’t know how to end the film.

But it became the benchmark. When I was called for an interview for the first Star Wars, I said straight away to George Lucas: “You don’t really want me, you want [2001 cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth.” He said, “He’s not available.” I later got the job on The Empire Strikes Back. It was so different in character to 2001, but the quality of Kubrick’s space shots was so high that inevitably they were in our minds.

Did 2001 start a VFX arms race? I think so. Science-fiction films are always trying to outdo the last one visually now, to push the boundaries. There’s been nothing as outstanding in science-fiction cinema since 2001. I’ve seen Interstellar, but I’m having trouble recalling it. Blade Runner 2049 was beautifully designed, but quite frankly a bit tedious.

David Braben, developer, Elite (videogame)

In the later versions of Elite, we put in the tribute of having The Blue Danube when you used the docking computer – quite a bleepy version! As a child, I loved hard science-fiction, which is grounded in reality. 2001 was very rich because science wasn’t completely forgotten. Like the scene with Keir Dullea walking on the curved floor – the idea that things rotating produced gravity. And the shuttle in turn rotating to dock with the space station. I liked the way it showed those things in a matter-of-fact way.

Amar Ediriwira
Amar Ediriwira Photograph: Public domain

Amar Ediriwira, film curator, Boiler Room

2001 suggested an existential shift for music in sci-fi and beyond. Pairing the dawn of man sequence with the Nietzsche-inspired tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and Johann Strauss’s 1866 Blue Danube waltz with the interstellar docking scene, was an utterly audacious, even vulgar, thing to do at the time. Both pieces have since become synonymous with space travel; the BBC, for instance, used Zarathustra as theme music for its TV coverage of the Apollo space missions.

A bit like Pierre Schaeffer with musique concrète or Kool Herc with a turntable, Kubrick’s “fuck you” to traditional scoring recast music recordings as found objects, another tool for the auteur to fully exploit the interplay between moving image and sound. Recycling music to transcend its original form in the context of the “image” is integral to the works of Tarantino, for example, who regularly envisages cinematic moments around songs. The soundtrack as a significant cultural product can be traced right back to 2001.


As told to Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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