When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey first opened in 1968, critics and general audiences were immediately polarized. Upon its premiere, a Variety review boldly stated, “2001: A Space Odyssey is not a cinematic landmark.” Others argued that it only broke even at the box office because of the time period’s affinity for dropping acid and lapping up that righteously trippy last 20 minutes.
It is now 50 years later, and 2001 is hailed as one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. Christopher Nolan’s restored 70mm print is making the rounds in the United States, coming to my home state of Oregon. The fervent popularity of the hallucinogenic LSD has been replaced with a proclivity for the psychoactive, and much safer, THC. And that happens to be very, very legal here. In fact, the announcer at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland joked, “Have you all ingested your edibles?” before the screening began (Yes. Yes I had). In short, times have changed.
Since I first watched 2001 on my tiny laptop screen a year ago, I’d fantasized about being one of those lucky late-60s stoners, hurriedly smoking a joint in the alley before flopping into a back row seat, unaware that they’re about to experience some of the most groundbreaking cosmic images and sounds for the first time ever: the omnipresent red eye of the traitorous HAL, the dissonant choral voices that sneak all the way underneath your rib-cage, the audacious and psychedelic Star-Gate sequence.
Obviously, it would be disingenuous to claim that I grew up watching this film, but I did grow up with its heavy influence, particularly its soundtrack. Every day after middle school I’d come home and watch The Simpsons, unaware that the “The Blue Danube” featured in the “Deep Space Homer” episode was a direct homage to 2001. Same goes for SpongeBob SquarePants, a show that is usually devoid of pop culture references. The use of György Ligeti’s haunting choral piece “Requiem” in “SpongeBob B.C.” complements a primitive version of the titular sponge’s discovery of fire, much like the apes of 2001’s discovery of tools.
And, of course, I grew up with Star Wars. In 1977, director George Lucas deemed 2001 the ultimate sci-fi film, and his strong admiration shows through in his original trilogy’s production design and score. Lucas even hired the designer of 2001’s ape-men to create Yoda and the Ewoks (a fantastic potential band name, by the way), and opted for an epic, classical score instead of the electric synthesizers that tend to be customary for sci-fi film.
The immortal tendrils of 2001: A Space Odyssey have snaked their way into myriad mediums. Even today, the 50-year-old film is still inspiring various artists such as rock band Arctic Monkeys, who just released a sci-fi lounge concept album with cover artwork that lead singer Alex Turner says, “started from a picture that I saw of someone in the art department of 2001: A Space Odyssey, building the set for the Hilton on the moon.” In the same interview, he also confirms that the track “One Point Perspective” specifically draws its title from Kubrick’s unsettling tendency to frame shots symmetrically, forcing the viewer to look at one distinct focal point (our lovely editor Iana wrote a beautiful piece about the album’s cinematic influences).
And 2001 hasn’t only left its colossal impression on visual and sonic arts, but actual NASA history – the foreword for screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization claims that Apollo 13’s fateful message, “Houston, we have a problem” was influenced by HAL’s line, “Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem,” as the crew had very recently listened to the film’s iconic “Also sprach Zarathustra” theme. The ship’s command module was even named “Odyssey.”
It’s easy to laugh at the negative critic reviews of 1968, but how were they to anticipate just how powerful 2001 would become? How were they to predict that this radically experimental, almost dialogue-free, three-hour-long epic would influence the vast majority of sci-fi cinema to come? If only they would have listened to the intellectual stoner prophets who, according to the Hollywood Theatre’s announcer, helped to keep this film afloat for 10 whole months after its premiere. Unlike Variety, we at Much Ado About Cinema can confirm that 2001: A Space Odyssey is indeed a cinematic landmark.