Few films can be said to maintain that mysterious quality of being “ahead of their times” several decades after their initial release. 2001: A Space Odyssey is such a movie and its presence within that tiny crowd is all the more impressive considering that it was not some micro-budget, independent art house film nor is it an example of one of those shoestring B-movie productions from the double-feature era that managed to slip under the radar of barely attentive audiences until it could be “discovered” later by critics and cineastes.
Stanley Kubrick was a major director and Arthur C. Clarke already one of the legends of science fiction when the two began collaborating on the process of incorporating certain features of the author’s other stories into the central premise found in another of short stories, “The Sentinel.” Reading Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” and trying to imagine how the 3,780 words used to describe that premise of how a shiny tetrahedral artifact found buried under the landscape of the moon jumpstarts contact with alien life transformed into the visually imaginative and almost purely cinematic 2001: Space Odyssey is probably a lesson in screenwriting worth at least a semester at any film school.
Kubrick was coming off the monster success of his black comedy about the world ending through accidental nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, when he started production on his new film with a title as banal as the title of his previous film was whimsical: Journey to the Stars.
In the post-Star Wars era of filmmaking, it may be almost impossible to fully appreciate just what a risk Kubrick was taking by making Journey to the Stars. Science fiction as a genre and especially movies about space travel had been firmly entrenched within the low-budget and rather disrespected Hollywood domains of B-movies or, worse, movie serials. While a few major productions had been attempted to bring so-called “space operas” into the more respectable mainstream, the successes had been few and incapable of producing any long-term trends. Part of this aversion was due to the cost of creating quality special effects. Even those science fiction films about heading out into space that weren’t constrained by shoestring budgets featured cartoony visual effects from the start Kubrick vowed to avoid. This commitment to creating a new standard of quality in special effects essentially meant his special effects crew would be creating a brand new way of producing the illusion of realistic space travel.
By the mid-1960s when Kubrick’s special effects team began experimenting with their new techniques, the Space Race was in full flight and excitement about astronauts and putting men on the moon was reaching a feverish pitch. In essence, Kubrick’s desire to make an A-grade mission into space movie is really an example of some artistic ideas must wait for their time. By the 1968 release of Journey to the Stars, the time had come and not only was it a case of the timing never having been so perfect, it is also a case of the timing never being so perfect again. A very strong argument could be made that all other aspects of the finished product being exactly the same, 2001: A Space Odyssey would never have become quite what it did were it released five years earlier or five years later.
Five years earlier and the countercultural zeitgeist that was right at its peak in 1968 would not have been so influential in the movie finding its audience. Five years later and not only had excitement over the Apollo missions already started to wane, but the economics of Hollywood had altered to such a degree that financing such a gamble would have become exponentially more problematic for Kubrick. The very idea of a major studio spending the modern day equivalent of ten million dollars on a film with not a single line of dialogue in nearly its first half hour of screen time and not much more dialogue afterwards, with no major stars and featuring a plot about men traveling through space without a single violent confrontation with aliens is inconceivable today.
It may have been inconceivable back then as well, but the very fact that 2001: A Space Odyssey not only exists, but exists as a unique legend in Hollywood history must surely say something about the power artistic will to accomplish the inconceivable.