The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic announced the dawn of a new age of science fiction cinema.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has a legacy that transcends the realms of science fiction. Its cosmic vibe has invaded the films of Gaspar Noé, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and most recently Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
The 1968 extravaganza sought to move away from the fantastical realms of sci-fi monsters and cliché to focus more on the science part of the equation, while still retaining a wondrous edge.
Kubrick and his writing partner Arthur C Clarke initially planned a sci-fi feature which fed into fears of the nuclear age, much like Kubrick's previous film Dr. Strangelove, but something else sprung forth from their plans. Clarke used parts his own work ('Journey’s End' and 'The Sentinel') as a base for the project.
UFOs and aliens were reimagined as a mysterious black monolith, emitting pure psychic energy or acting as a technological beacon and sending out signals. The ambiguous nature of the film allows for different readings. The movie ends, too, with a glimpse of what is known in the novel as the Star-Child.
Science fiction is one of the oldest genres in cinema thanks to pioneers Georges Méliès and later Fritz Lang, who contributed Metropolis and Woman in the Moon (which features the first ever on-screen use of a countdown launch), and cinema has long been a prism for mankind's fascination with what lies beyond our known world.
The original title Kubrick and Clarke came up with was Journey Beyond the Stars before, before the pair decided on the infinitely more profound 'Space Odyssey'. The script was written in tandem with a novel with each complimenting the other, to a certain extent.
Clarke, the man who dreamt up the communications satellite and became an iconic sci-fi writer, brought a much-needed sense of realism to the project. Handy, considering how set Kubrick was on creating a new breed of motion picture.
In many ways, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a baffling experience with only causal links between scenes. The finale, the 'journey beyond the stars' or Star Gate sequence and its Star-Child denouement, are unlike anything seen before or indeed since.
Kubrick removed the intended voiceover in post-production and told Alex North (the film’s original composer) that he wasn’t going to use his score at all. Instead the director chose to source the soundtrack from classical composers. What might seem like a cliché now was an extraordinary move back then – especially the music he chose.
2001: A Space Odyssey features one of the greatest opening sequences in screen history. On its original theatrical release in 1968, audiences would have been treated to a musical prologue before the curtains parted and lights dimmed. It all helped set the tone, Kubrick was going to take the audience deep inside his own cavernous dream world. His choice of Richard Strauss' 'Thus Spake Zarathurstra' was a masterstroke, imbuing the scene with a sort of fantastical intensity.
From complete darkness we see the shadowy outline of a sphere. We may believe it is Earth, for the opening few seconds, at least. Already the camera’s position is something entirely new and unusual. It tilts sharply upwards, inviting an arc of sunlight to flood the screen.
The camera continues to rise and the sun gets brighter, the Earth more defined but still bathed largely in shadow. The drums beat with vigour and the moon drops away from our view. At this moment the title card appears: 'Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Presents', in white font. The sun rises higher and higher. Another slice of bombast strikes as 'A Stanley Kubrick Production' builds to an outright crescendo for the title itself.
Ironically, the film opens not in the future but in the far away past. The jet black monolith, it is insinuated, births human consciousness. It is a gift and not an evolutionary issue. God is left out of the equation entirely, unless one chooses to read this object as a tool of the Almighty. Yet this recalls outlandish theories about Mayans and Egyptians building their pyramids guided by celestial, even extraterrestrial, encounters.
2001: A Space Odyssey became notorious as a counter-culture rite of passage event movie, where LSD-dropping crowds would flock to experience the ultimate big screen trip.
Yet for those who do not partake in hallucinogens Kubrick’s film is an equally powerful journey. Its opaque quality begs many questions and none are ever fully answered. Kubrick and Clarke wanted it that way, not out of some obscurantist agenda but because mystery serves the narrative so well.
2001: A Space Odyssey contains one of the most majestic openers in cine history. We are shown our existence from a near impossible angle, and this belies the realisation in that slither of light, hidden in shadow, millions of life forms of all conscience levels go about their daily lives. The sun, our planet and the moon form a cosmic unison each playing a part in creation and life. These formative moments announce the dawn of not just a new strand of science fiction film but an entirely new movie-going experience.