David Bowman, an astronaut, had long learned that his mission to Jupiter was to study a possible advanced civilization up close.
He was accompanied by HAL the AI computer that runs the spaceship, Gary Lockwood his fellow astronaut, and a few more astronauts under hibernation. But before they even descended anywhere near Jupiter’s orbit, HAL took over the ship; nearly locking Bowman out of the spaceship and murdered Lockwood. Having enough of HAL, Bowman 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 occupy. 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 of a puzzling existential roadblock: depicting a realistic alien civilization, even though we’ve never seen anything like that.
“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 scientifically ambiguous approach so much he never wanted to talk to Sagan again.
Sagan’s perspective to create an absolutely non-human like aliens was out of this world. During the production of 2001, even Apollo 11 had not happened. In fact, we landed on the Moon one year after the release of 2001. What Carl Sagan concerned the most was way ahead of his time. The viral shot of our planet looking marble blue was not taken until a few years after 2001. 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—that who we are is incredibly unique in the grand scheme of the universe and to create an ‘alien’ resembling us just proof the limit of our imagination.
Sci-fi literature has always had humanity’s history filling in the backdrop. 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. Boring, maybe. And that makes sense precisely because we had not gone beyond our earthly constraints yet, both physically and mentally. Now, it stands to be 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.