By Rich Lynch: It’s the final day of 2018 as I’m writing this, and the month of December has featured two news stories about space exploration. The one of immediate interest is the New Horizons deep space probe, which is out at the edge of the solar system and will be whizzing past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, otherwise known as “Ultima Thule”, this very evening. But it’s the other story, about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 manned mission to the moon, which captured people’s imaginations. Or for me, ‘recaptured’, since I can recall very well all the news coverage about the event, including the memorable Christmas Eve television transmission when the three astronauts read from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon.
But 1968 was even more memorable for me as a science fiction enthusiast for a different reason – it was the year that Stanley Kubrick’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared in movie theaters. Kubrick, who had become intrigued by the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations, had wanted to make “the proverbially good science fiction movie” and to do so he enlisted the collaboration of Arthur C. Clarke, who was then considered to be the preeminent writer of ‘hard’ (i.e., scientifically accurate) science fiction. And it was inspired, in part, on what I consider the finest science fiction story ever written: Clarke’s “The Sentinel”, which (like the movie) is centered around the discovery of an alien artifact on the moon and what happens afterwards.
I think it is still the best pure science fiction film ever made. So much so that fifty years after its release, the science still holds up pretty well even though the title of the movie was far too optimistic on how much progress in astronautics would be made in a third of a century. But something that the movie is noted for is what it didn’t do – it made no attempt to depict the alien beings who created the artifact. This is probably due to the advice of astronomer Carl Sagan, who had consulted Clarke and Kubrick on this topic. Sagan had urged them to use imagery which only suggested the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence, otherwise there would likely be “an element of falseness” perceived by the viewers of the movie.
With all the painstaking care that was taken in making the movie, right down to the smallest details, one might expect that the reviews of the film would have been wildly enthusiastic. And some were. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote that the movie “succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale”. But others were much less impressed. Pauline Kael, for instance, described it as “a monumentally unimaginative movie” while Renata Adler wrote that it was “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring”. There was even a mixed response in the science fiction community. The movie won the Hugo Award in 1969 for Best Dramatic Presentation so it’s probably fair to say that most science fiction fans had the same reaction as I did when I first saw it – it was the best science fiction film I had ever seen and a great cinematic experience. But some of the science fiction authors who reviewed the film had a different opinion. Lester Del Rey, for instance, found the movie less than inspiring, with a prediction that it “would be a box office disaster” and would “set major science fiction movie-making back another ten years”. Harlan Ellison was even less kind, writing that: “2001 is a visually-exciting self-indulgent directorial exercise by a man who has spent anywhere from ten to twenty-five million dollars pulling ciphers out of a cocked hat because he lost his rabbit somewhere.” And that: “It fails in the first order of story-telling: to tell a story.”
In the end, Del Rey was wrong. 2001 not only turned a profit, it was also a direct influence on the next generation of notable film-makers such as George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, and Stephen Spielberg. The American Film Institute has ranked 2001: A Space Odyssey as #15 in its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time and it has achieved that gold-standard of cinematic immortality – even though it inspired a sequel, it has never been remade. And there’s a reason for that, as George Lucas described back in 1977: “Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie, and it is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned.”
And I, as a lowly science fiction enthusiast, have my own take on why 2001 is as exalted as it is, at least for me. There are many good movies I’ve seen just once and it wouldn’t bother me if I never see them again. And there are other good movies which I have enjoyed more than once. But there are very, very few movies which I don’t think I’d ever get tired of seeing, and 2001 is one of them. It is, really, a movie for the ages.