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In Association with
BFI Film Classics - 2001: A Space Odyssey
Peter Krämer
Palgrave Macmillian paperback £9.99

review by Tony Lee

I was a big fan of the 1990s' batch of titles in this BFI series, particularly the 'modern classics' chapbooks, offering perceptive and engaging texts on a variety of films chosen from cult or popular genre cinema. Favourites include Scott Bukatman's aesthetical study of Ridley Scott's astounding Blade Runner, Iain Sinclair discussing the merits of David Cronenberg's disturbing erotica Crash, Mark Kermode's forthright opinions on theological horror The Exorcist, Tom Charity's politico-cultural assessment of American heroism and celebrity in The Right Stuff, Richard Dyer's erudite commentary on David Fincher's fiendishly clever Se7en, Sean French's fascinating analysis of James Cameron's The Terminator and - best of all - Anne Billson's challenging views on John Carpenter's definitive SF-horror movie The Thing.

Co-written by British author Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was US-born director Stanley Kubrick's genre masterpiece, and it remains the greatest SF film yet produced, especially when viewed as a work of cinematic art. It's not often regarded as a populist hit in terms of tabloid reception or commercial success, but 2001 boasts a unique appeal to hardcore fans of science fiction, and it wins increasingly widespread acclaim from astute critics for its visionary approach to screen narrative and art - as, each year, the film's reputation swells, its importance revalidated, though its magnificently millennial plotline is, nowadays, consigned to the alternative world of a fin de siècle past that simply never was.

Four years in the making, the film's origins and expansive history are charted in detail here, showing how the story developed from the basic notion of Clarke's short fiction, The Sentinel (1951), and borrowing a theme of evolutionary transcendence from Clarke's novel Childhood's End (1953), while also taking note of varied other relevant speculative ideas about near-future manned space travel deemed suitable for inclusion in this, "the proverbial good science fiction movie" (as Kubrick first mooted the project to Clarke, in an often-quoted letter suggesting their collaboration).

Emerging from the counterculture imagination of the 1960s, making excellent use of the technical expressions of Cinerama's widescreen format, 2001 bought together Clarke's utopian futurism with Kubrick's meticulous innovation, and there can be no doubt that such a pooling of creative talents resulted in a product of rare artistic genius. Although Peter Krämer's book struggles, at times, to find anything entirely new or refreshingly original, to say about Kubrick's grandest epic venture (largely because 2001 has already been so closely and exhaustively studied, and critically examined, on every level from conceptuality to interpretation), this volume skilfully condenses four decades of cinema studies, academic insights and retrospective analyses, and benefits from Krämer's new research in the Kubrick archive at London's University of the Arts.

Krämer asserts that 2001 is a 'film classic' because of its endlessly fascinating mysteries that are open to numerous interpretations, not despite its 'baffling' subtexts, millennia/ galaxy-spanning progressions and seemingly 'impenetrable' coda. From extraterrestrial interventions by an uncanny black monolith (the ultimate 'tall dark stranger' in town!), which prompts mankind's most daring journey - to Jupiter and "beyond the infinite" - 2001 turns away from the Cold War fears of Kubrick's earlier apocalyptic satire Dr Strangelove (1963), and looks ahead, with the greatest of hopes, for the finale's transformation of a lone human survivor from the Discovery's interplanetary expedition, into an apparently omnipotent star-child, surveying the Earth from above.

Drawing a comparison between the profound effect that fictional 'monoliths' have upon primitives in the 'Dawn of Man' sequence, and the provocative effects that viewing this film has upon most open-minded audiences, Krämer elucidates how the overwhelming psychological impact of watching 2001 has a similar consciousness-expanding influence. He stresses that the film itself is not unlike another 'alien artefact' which, either by remarkably lucky accident or cunning design, is a formidable agent of change - reminding us that we are, quite literally, children of the stars (with human bodies composed of elements created inside suns), perhaps inevitably destined to be reborn as 'star children'.

Krämer argues that 2001 is, all too frequently, wrongly perceived as presenting wholly negative or pessimistic views of a dehumanised future (with only the AI computer Hal, exhibiting any genuinely empathic characteristics!) when, in fact, Kubrick's wondrous film is a real celebration of the evolutionary climb towards a 'homo superior' (or 'homo gestalt'?), or 'homo galactus', or maybe something else that cannot be known to us, easily identified, or even named. 'Others' are coming (perhaps from within us); the Monoliths are already here. Krämer claims the 'watching' experience offered by 2001 is the look-and-learn delivery system for a message of majestic wish-fulfilment and a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I have never been able to understand the opinions or attitudes of people (especially SF fans!), who claim that 2001: A Space Odyssey is 'boring' or 'pretentious'. To me, it's the greatest film ever made, and very probably the most important work of 20th century art. Along with Clarke's sequel novels - 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), 2061: Odyssey Three (1988), 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) - and Peter Hyams' film adaptation, 2010 (1984), this futuristic saga is a popular cultural phenomenon conceived with an immense scale of genre complexity that's matched only by nearest sci-fi rival Star Trek - which required the collective narrative scope of six TV series and (so far) 11 movies to equal the impact of Clarke and Kubrick's imposing Space Odyssey.

As a film story, 2001 boldly tackles the big issues - of life, the universe, and everything - and, although it provides few answers (that's not the role of true art, anyway), the movie does at least offer all of us a chance to see and understand what the questions are. As a worthwhile addition to the growing library of informed texts about 2001, Krämer's book captures something of Kubrick's vaulting ambitions, and Clarke's impeccable mastery of SF modes, shedding bright new light on the darker edges of the mythos of the Monoliths. And, like those still eerie incarnations of 'otherness', the origins and purpose of 2001, as socio-political/ cultural artefact, are just now starting to become clear.

Further reading:

The Making Of Kubrick's 2001 by Jerome Agel (1970)

Clarke's own book The Lost Worlds Of 2001 (1972) reveals discarded sections and early draft versions of the screenplay

Filmguide To 2001: A Space Odyssey by Carolyn Geduld (1973)

The Space Odysseys Of Arthur C. Clarke by George Edgar Slusser (1990)

2001: Filming The Future by Piers Bizony (1994)

Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stephanie Schwam (2000)

Kubrick's '2001': A Triple Allegory by Leonard F. Wheat (2001)

Moonwatcher's Memoir: A Diary Of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Dan Richter (2002)

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - New Essays edited by Robert Kolker (2006)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Film) by Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster (2009)

2001: A Space Odyssey - commemorative magazine

BFI Film Classics - 2001: A Space Odyssey

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press