David Bowman, an astronaut, had long learned that his mission to Jupiter was to make a close approach to a possible advanced civilization. He was accompanied by the AI computer HAL, his fellow astronaut Gary Lockwood and a few more astronauts that were under hibernation. On this few-year mission, HAL went back against Bowman, nearly locking Bowman out of the spaceship and intentionally murdered Lockwood. Bowman eventually had enough of HAL, switched him off, and moved on to orbit Jupiter. Yet as he glanced over the mysterious Jupiter, what he discovered wasn’t a civilization, but a whole new dimension of reality that his three dimensional body couldn’t stand. He bounced in and out of another dimension and ended as a starbaby. That was the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Few years prior, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, 2001’s writer and sci-fi novelist, had a dinner with the charming astronomer and writer, Carl Sagan. They met Sagan hoping that his perspective could bring them out from a mindboggling dilemma: depicting a realistic representation of an alien civilization.
“About midway through the movie, a manned space vehicle is making a close approach to either Jupiter 5, the innermost satellite of Jupiter, or to Ispetus, one of the middle-sized satellites of Saturn. As the spacecraft approaches and the curvature of the satellite is visible on the screen, we become aware that the satellite is not a natural moon. It is an artifact of some immensely powerful, advanced civilization. Suddenly, an aperture appears in the side of the satellite; through it we see – stars. But they are not the stars on the other side of the satellite. They are a portion of the sky from elsewhere. Small drone rockets are fired into the aperture, but contact with them is lost as soon as they pass through. The aperture is a space gate, a way to get from one part of the universe to another without the awkwardness of traversing the intervening distance. The spacecraft plunges through the gate and emerges in the vicinity of another stellar system, with a red giant star blazing in the sky. Orbiting the red giant is a planet, obviously the site of an advanced technological civilizations. The spacecraft approaches the planet, makes landfall, and then – what?”
Believing in the universe’s unlimited creativity to produce unique civilizations, Carl Sagan responded to Kubrick:
I argued that the number of individually unlikely evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing likely to evolve again anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials.
Stanley Kubrick, initially hoping to depict human-like aliens with actors and make up, disliked Sagan’s ambiguous approach so much he never wanted to talk to Sagan again.
But in the 60s, when 2001 was in production, even Apollo 11 had not happened. A real photo of our marble blue planet did not happen until few years after 2001 was released and it was only few decades prior that we learned that the nebulous patches in the sky were galaxies, not stars. Our cosmic imagination was just beginning to stir. And it took the majority of us a while to understand this immensity of space and to really come into the cosmic perspective.
For a long while, the sci-fi literature was fueled with earth’s history. The aliens and civilizations in these fictions, albeit physically looking absolutely not like humans, were truly the reflection of humanity’s stories. Depicting alien civilization in fiction always have “an element of falseness”, no matter how much we tried to detach ourselves.
Kubrick knew that 2001 was an odyssey film, not a sci-fi. He wanted 2001 to convey the feeling of vastness and immensity, a fiction that surpasses our earthly reality and history.
“A space odyssey – comparable in some ways to the Homeric Odyssey. It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation, and ha the far-flung islands Homer’s wonderful characters visited were no less remote to them than the planets our spacemen will soon be landing on are to us. Journey (2001’s working title) also shares with the Odyssey a concern for wandering, exploration, and adventure.”
After several production attempts at depicting the aliens, including filming pirouetting dancers in black tights with white polkadots against the black backdrop, Kubrick settled with the now legendary scene of all time:
It’s a surreal scene that goes beyond science. It ends with the iconic all-white bedroom and Bowman as a starbaby looking to earth. But its surrealism touches us profoundly because in a millions of years evolution, physical entities might transform into “beings of pure energy and spirit… with limitless capabilities and ungraspable intelligence.”
The first weeks of 2001: A Space Odyssey saw little to no audience. Film critics said that it’s …,and probably it’s because Why its boring was probably, precisely, because we had not touched space yet, both physically and mentally. Yet it now stands as one of the most long lasting film to contemplate on; it evolves with us, as we took our steps to the moon and beyond, as we see deeper into the universe and its past. And again, it’s truly mind blowing that this movie was released before we ever stepped on the moon.