"2001: A Space Odyssey" is 50 years old today

A broad slate of top aerospace and computer companies were brought on board as advisers for ‘2001.’

Fifty years ago this week, a film was screened for invitation-only audiences  in specially equipped Cinerama theaters in select major cities. It was a preview of Stanley Kubrick's latest endeavor: An adaptation of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”


"2001: A Space Odyssey" is the film that famously bewildered Woody Allen back in 1968. The famous director had said about Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece: "When I first saw 2001, I didn't like it. Three or four months later, I was with some woman in California, and I went to see it again, and I liked it a lot more. A couple of years later, I saw it again, and I thought, "GEE! This is really a sensational movie, and it was one of the few times in my life that I realized that the artist was much ahead of me!" 

He, of course, wasn't alone. It did take multiple viewings for people to truly understand appreciate what Kubrick had done. 

However, I was immediately astonished by the film. Its 
opening, which contains no dialogue for roughly the first half hour, is set in an African desert millions of years ago, the opening has a tribe of apes being pushed back from their watering hole by a rival tribe. The morning later, they awaken to find a featureless black monolith, which appears before them like a towering territorial stamp from God.  Influenced by the monolith, they discover how to use a bone as a weapon and wrestle their rivals away from the water hole, death is unleashed and so is the bone used for the fight, which is thrown into the air; the bone spinning continuously, until Kubrick cuts to an orbiting satellite, which concludes the astonishing prologue.


"The primitive blurring into the advanced." That's what the bone and orbit cut suggests.  Kubrick scholar Michel Ciment, discussing Kubrick's attitude toward human aggression and instinct, observed that: "The bone cast into the air by the ape (now become a man) is transformed at the other extreme of civilization, by one of those abrupt ellipses characteristic of the director, into a spacecraft on its way to the moon."


As for its ending, the forward-motioning enigma of an astronaut's encounter with another dimension, filled with visual effects of immense power, bewildering is word most commonly used. And yet, visionary should added with it. The concluding half hour, a largely symbolic mindbender, has our hero, Dave, going through a psychedelic light show, meant to be incomprehensible,and  transported across enormous oceans of time and space, finally reaching the third monolith of the film. It's there that he reaches the next stage of human evolution: the Star Child, as seen in the now iconic final shot. It might just be the the greatest ending in cinematic history. An ending that still incites debate 40 years on. 

"2001: A Space Odyssey" has been duplicated but never replicated. Many filmmakers have tried to master and catch the magical surrealism of what Kubrick accomplished. The director tried to envision a new way of seeing the world and accomplished just that. "2001" is, to me, the apex of how masterful cinematic language can be. 

Buzz around the film was toxic before release. It was over budget, rumors swirled of the mess that it possibly was. Even worse, the film’s previews, test screenings scattered around major cities in the United States, were complete bombs. The vastness of the film must have frightened moviegoers who had no idea the journey they were embarking on. The cinematic landscape pre and post "2001" are night and day. It rewrote the way we should watch movies.

There were no concessions being made by Kubrick with the film, the near dialogue-free epic was the film that American cinema needed to be shaken up from a moderately disappointing decade. And yet, audience walkouts numbered in the hundreds at the New York premiere on April 3, 1968. Reviews were unrelenting, mostly negative. The Village Voice's Andrew Sarris called the movie “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view.” 

MGM demanded that Kubrick cut the film. Soon after the director was in the editing room, trying to refine his film. The newer version had 20 less minutes, but still had the opaque, visionary feeling that had timid audiences being scared off nationwide.


A big studio film such a "2001 A Space Odyssey" could only be made in 1968, no other year, or decade, would have had a studio bank on this kind of big-budgeted, ambitious, and bold artistic statement. It redefined the way we saw cinema in a way that easily makes it the best, and most important American film of the last 50 years. It was filmed in 1967, during the "Summer of Love." Counterculture and LSD were at the forefront of mainstream art. Kubrick took this opportunity, the open-mindedness of a changing America, to make a movie that stood the chance of being accepted on its own unique terms. There is no other year where this could happen again.


In other words, Kubrick’s film fit perfectly with the avant-garde movement of the period, the counter-cultural movement took it as its own, with even John Lennon uttering, “‘2001’? I see it every week.” And so, much to the surprise of the studio and the entire industry, "2001" became a movie event and the top grossing film at the box-office that year.