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A new book celebrates the 50th anniversary of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece

Michael Benson
Simon & Schuster
525 pp.
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Fifty years after its appearance, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a film that commands attention. This is partly because of its status as the most influential science fiction movie ever made; partly because of the ever-growing reputation of its director, Stanley Kubrick; and partly because it has always been a work that confounds easy interpretation—and so readily opens itself to multiple interpretations.

Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey, an epic-like account of the film’s planning, making, and reception, will hardly answer all of the questions that haunt it, but his thoroughly researched, multivoiced narrative should become essential reading for anyone wanting to penetrate the mysteries that continue to swirl around this work and its creator.

Before 2001, the science fiction film had largely been a form modeled on pulp science fiction. Such films usually featured adventuring in outer space, alien invasion, or monstrous encounters. Just 2 years before its release in 1968, the writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag published her influential—and largely dismissive—overview of the genre, tellingly titled “The Imagination of Disaster.”

Benson recounts how Kubrick sought to stake out a different path for the genre. He cites the director’s first letter to noted British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, wherein Kubrick declared that he wanted to do “the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie” and wanted Clarke as a collaborator. This path would steer clear of what Kubrick’s wife Christiane termed “‘little green men stuff,’” while seeking inspiration in Homer, his Odyssey, and the “archetypal workings of human mythological yearnings.”

Benson provides a detailed account of how this ambitious aim was accompanied by prodigious preproduction research, attention to accuracy in the smallest details, and advice from top experts in various fields. In addition to Clarke, Kubrick sought the assistance of special effects figures Con Pederson and Douglas Trumbull, space flight consultant Frederick Ordway, actor/choreographer Dan Richter, production designer Tony Masters, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and many others, all of whom participated in what Benson terms “a kind of extended collective improvisation.”

While emphasizing this “collective” product, Benson never loses sight of Kubrick’s orchestrating hand—or mind. He emphasizes others’ impressions of the director, as when publicist Roger Caras declared him “a genius,” when Clarke called him “’perhaps the most intelligent person I’ve ever met,” and when cinematographer John Alcott suggested that, if he hadn’t been a director, he would have been “the greatest lighting cameraman in the world.” The image that emerges is of a person who could bring together great talent, who encouraged a “creative ferment,” but who also exercised great control over his films.


Stanley Kubrick (right) gives direction to actor Gary Lockwood on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As Clarke and Kubrick brainstormed about the general format and specific plot details of 2001, and Clarke worked on a novelization originally intended to help sell the project to a studio and later to publicize the forthcoming film, Benson reveals that the cast and crew “never had a finished script,” that there was no agreed-upon ending, and that major elements of the film changed from day to day.

Those changes were both big and small and reflected a constant sharpening of Kubrick’s ideas. As his conception of his astronauts’ electronic assistant changed from robot to computer and from guardian to flawed killer, a new view of humanity’s relationship to electronic intelligence emerged. And as Kubrick sought an image sufficiently evocative of alien presence, the mysterious monolith that instigates 2001’s journey changed from a crystal pyramid to a black slab, which he felt was easier to work with, while still being suggestive of the unknown.

Kubrick’s original plans to use a voice-over narration for various parts of the film—exposition laboriously crafted by Clarke—also changed dramatically over time. 2001 ultimately became a “largely nonverbal work” that depended on mysterious and evocative images for much of its impact.

While Benson’s Space Odyssey is hardly a gloss on those haunting images, nor a full accounting of the film’s impact or Kubrick’s directorial manner, it is a compelling point of access for those who want to further explore the mysteries of this film and its gifted director. A rigorously researched effort, the book gives voice to many of those involved in 2001’s making, a number of whom expressed that the experience changed their lives. Without trying to be a biography, it also grants us much insight into the enigmatic director of one of the most compelling science fiction visions in the history of the cinema.

About the author

The reviewer is on the faculty of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA.