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2001: A Space Odyssey at Fifty

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey saw its world premiere on this day, April 2, in 1968 at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. Two days later, it opened in two more theaters, one in Hollywood and one in New York. Kubrick cut nineteen minutes before 2001 rolled out in five more cities in the U.S. and, on the following day, five more overseas. It wouldn’t be until the fall of 1968 that the film would see a wide release with 35 mm prints making their way across the country. But audiences in that first round of cities would have been viewing 70 mm prints and, as you’ll have heard, Christopher Nolan will be in Cannes on May 12 to present a new one, “struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative,” as the festival’s announced. “This is a true photochemical film recreation. There are no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits. The original version will be presented to recreate the cinematic event audiences experienced fifty years ago.”

Good news from Michael Nordine at IndieWire: “You don’t have to go to Cannes to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in all its 70 mm glory. Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterwork will also return to select theaters beginning May 18.” So this entry will gather all things 2001 for as long as this year’s anniversary is being celebrated.

“Kubrick’s project promised the moon and then some, but executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feared they had a disaster on their hands when the picture was finally ready for release,” writes Bruce Handy in a piece for Vanity Fair on the film’s making and reception. During a press screening, “one skeptic was overheard sniping, ‘Well, that’s the end of Stanley Kubrick.’”

You might have thought escapism would be in vogue, and 2001 offered that, but moviegoers in this uneasy but heady era were also in a mood to be provoked and challenged, even baffled, and they had never seen anything like 2001—literally, in terms of the film’s painstakingly realistic portrayal of inter-planetary space travel, with special effects that still hold up, and figuratively, in the sense that 2001’s elliptical storytelling was as confounding to many viewers as, for others, the film’s cosmic scale, mythic reach, and wordless, psychedelic finale were exhilarating (if still confounding). An art film made on a big-boy budget, it became the highest-grossing picture of 1968—“perhaps the most offbeat blockbuster in the history of U.S. pic playoff,” as Variety put it in early 1969.

Handy has followed up on his epic account with “the ‘super-bonus extended director’s cut’ version of my story—featuring a testy Stanley Kubrick, an excellent Lost in Space dismissal, and some wonderfully passive-aggressive telegrams.”

For the BFI, Samuel Wrigley looks back on “five films that influenced Kubrick’s giant leap for sci-fi.”

The Guardian’s Phil Hoad talks with Keir Dullea, who played Dave Bowman: “I felt awed working with him and he picked up that I was tense—which is terrible for an actor. After a week, he took me aside and said: ‘Keir, you’re everything I’m looking for.’” And on the same page, Hoad talks with legendary visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull: “He was a genius but even he was right at his limit. He asked IBM to make an algorithm to help with the production process. They analyzed it for two weeks and said: ‘There’s no way, Stanley. There’s too many things changing every day.’”

HAL 9000 “was the film’s most expressive and emotional figure, and made a lasting impression on our collective imagination,” writes Gerry Flahive for the New York Times. “The story of the creation of HAL’s performance—the result of a last-minute collaboration between the idiosyncratic director Stanley Kubrick and the veteran Canadian actor Douglas Rain—has been somewhat lost in the fifty years since the film’s release . . . Mr. Rain’s HAL has become the default reference, not just for the voice, but also for the humanesque qualities of what a sentient machine’s personality should be. Just ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home—the cadence, the friendly formality, the pleasant intelligence and sense of calm control in their voices evoke Mr. Rain’s unforgettable performance. As we warily eye a future utterly transformed by A.I. incursions into all aspects of our lives, HAL has been lurking.”

On May 29, the fortieth International Conference on Software Engineering in Gothenburg, Sweden will host a symposium on HAL’s legacy. Meantime, the exhibition Kubrick’s 2001. 50 Years A SPACE ODYSSEY opened a little over a week ago at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt and will remain on view through September 23.

Anyone looking for further reading until the next update should begin at The Kubrick Site, which has indexed, among many other things, essays and articles. The 2001 section begins with Michel Ciment’s “Kubrick & The Fantastic,” excerpted from his 1982 book on Kubrick, and runs for a little over a dozen more articles.

The next deep dive would be Coudal Partners’ “Stuff About Stanley Kubrick,” surely the most fun of these archives to wander through. And then head over to Scraps from the Loft and have a look around in there.

Update: “It’s not possible to imitate a single thing from 2001—it’s taboo, private territory,” Claire Denis tells the Guardian’s Phil Hoad. “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.”

Hoad also talks about 2001 with cinematographer and director Wally Pfister: “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. . . . And 2001 was a huge influence on Transcendence.

Also on that same page are comments from producer (and Kubrick’s brother-in-law) Jan Harlan, John Gaeta (visual effects supervisor on The Matrix), Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, videogame developer David Braben, and film curator Amar Ediriwira.

Updates, 4/3: “I saw it again a few days ago, inspired by Michael Benson’s terrific new book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece,” writes John Powers for NPR, where you can read an excerpt. “Though Benson is afflicted with what a friend calls the ‘Stanley syndrome’—he never stops telling you that Kubrick is a ‘genius’ and ‘a perfectionist’—his book is filled with nifty stories. My favorite is when the control-freak director asks Lloyd’s of London if they could insure him in case NASA spoiled 2001’s plot by discovering extraterrestrial life before the movie came out. . . . Like many classics, 2001 isn't always a good movie,” Powers finds, but watching it now “can bring on a melancholy nostalgia for the era that spawned it, an optimistic time in which Americans believed the future was limitless.”

“It remains such a staggering experience, so mind-bending and one-of-a-kind, that you’d be hard-pressed to think of a moment in the film that isn’t iconic,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “The awesome opening solar alignment, scored to the sweeping fanfare of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ which somehow comes to sound . . . extraterrestrial. The ape that picks up a bone and smashes down a weapon. The mystery of the monolith. The balletic spaceships twirling around Earth to ‘The Blue Danube.’” And HAL’s “death scene, in which he sings ‘Bicycle Built for Two,’ one of the most haunting moments in film history. . . . You can feel [2001’s] influence not just in the kinetic grandeur of Star Wars . . . but in the grit and dread of Alien, the transcendental thrust of Blade Runner, the floating-in-air playfulness of Gravity. You can feel it, as well, in the stoned camera stare of David Lynch, the mystic sprawl of Terrence Malick and the spatial-temporal virtuosity of Steven Spielberg.”

IndieWire’s posted a set of photos taken during the film’s making.

Updates, 4/4: “I have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey many times throughout my life,” writes Alfonso Cuarón for Entertainment Weekly, “and when the notion of Gravity took shape, I watched every non-fantasy space film I could find. I revisited many, some brilliant, but I consciously decided not to revisit 2001: A Space Odyssey as I knew that it would paralyze me. I used to joke that it would be like taking a shower next to Dirk Diggler.”

At Vulture, Vikram Murthi writes about “the ways 2001 has influenced science fiction and pop culture, and how so many artists have kept its legacy alive with tips of the hat, pointed tributes, or spiritual connections.” Similarly, for Yahoo Movies, Nick Schager lists “five key ways it helped shape so much science fiction that followed in its wake.”

“Tucked in a downstairs corner of the maze that is the London College of Communication is the Stanley Kubrick Archives,” writes Lucy Orr for the Register. “I managed to get to grips (touch gently with gloved fingers) with one of the first draft scripts of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bound in black and looking very much like the monolith from the film, I was surprised by the extent to which this script differs from what we see and hear in the finished film. One of the most striking divergences is the presence of a benevolent second HAL, determined to thwart his evil twin.”

The Barmecide Feast is an immersive art installation by Simon Birch on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on view from April 8 through May 28. “In this exhibit, walk into a fully realized, full-scale reflection of the iconic, neo-classical hotel room from the penultimate scene of the film.”

Poster Posse has put together an extensive gallery of alternative posters for 2001.

Update, 4/6: It’s Bruce Handy again, here in the New York Times, telling us about how he learned from Kier Dullea what may actually be going on in a moment in 2001 that’s puzzled critics and fans for decades.

Update, 4/9: To celebrate its own fiftieth anniversary New York magazine has posted “a favorite story from our inaugural issue” by none other than Arthur C. Clarke: “Fiction and fact are indeed becoming hard to disentangle. I hope that, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley and I have added, constructively and responsibly, to the confusion. For what we have tried to do is to create a realistic myth, appro­priate to our time; and we may well have to wait until the year 2001 itself to see how successful we have been.”

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