How Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey rewrote science fiction

“Stanley wanted to create a myth. And I think he succeeded. He wanted to make the proverbial “good science fiction movie”, implying there hadn’t been any good ones before then. I didn’t agree.”

                            Arthur C Clarke

2001 : A Space Odyssey is widely considered the greatest science fiction story ever told. It’s creator, auteur movie director Stanley Kubrick, the greatest filmmaker of all time.

Kubrick set out to make a myth for the modern age, and “the only good science fiction movie”. Science fiction, Kubrick believed, was a failure at myth making. Yes. It’s possible – probable – likely – ‘ that Stanley Kubrick was a bit of a dick.

But he was also a genius.

And he was right.

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2001 is famous for leaving audiences – much like the movie’s ape-men stars – scratching their heads in bemusement and shrieking in confusion.

Shrieking ape-men. Strange black rectangles. Dancing space stations. Talking computers. That bit that’s just all lights. Then what-in-the-hell…space baby!

What does it all mean?

To answer that question we need to go back – further back – no, forward

– back – forward – STOP!

Back to the most famous transition in cinematic history, and key to the meaning of 2001.

A band of apes cling to life on the pre-historic savannah. Hunted by leopards, chased from the waterhole by a rival band. Death is near. Until.

At dawn the apes wake to see – the monolith. A slab of black against the sky. The apes begin to shriek and cry. And something within them awakens.

The rational human mind opens its eyes for the first time.

One ape picks up a bone and uses it, for the first time in all of creation, as a weapon. As a tool. After killing with it, the ape hurls the weapon at the sky.

The bone becomes a space satellite.

Into that single transition, bone to satellite, 2001 condenses the whole of human history.

The bone is the first human tool. The first technology. The first weapon.

The satellite is the final human tool. The last technology. The ultimate weapon.

2001 is a story about technology. How technology took humankind from near extinction, to the edge of the universe.

And it is a story about the limits of technology, how our technology can take us into space, but cannot take us to the stars.

For over a century, science fiction told new stories for the age of science. Myths of man’s journeys among the stars.

Technology – science fiction told us – would shoot rockets to the moon. Would build stations in space. Technology would colonise the planets, and take humans to the stars.

2001 was pitched to Hollywood as a homage to the technological myths of science fiction. With the space race between America and Russia in full swing, those myths seemed at last to be a reality.

But while Stanley Kubrick dedicated meticulous care and a grand budget to show the world a vision of space travel, his homage to science fiction is laced with irony.

The shuttle to space is empty. The station is half ruin. The only arrivals are the scientists who built the technology.

If 2001 seems not to have dated, it’s because the sci-fi fantasy of space travel it dreamed up never became a reality.

However majestic human technology looks, as it dances to the theme of the Blue Danube, in Kubrick’s 2001, it is taking us nowhere

Until the monolith appears again.

Arthur C Clarke was already among the greats of science fiction when Stanley Kubrick recruited him as 2001’s co-writer. The movie would make him a legend.

But Kubrick didn’t use Clarke’s science fiction stories for inspiration. To make the proverbial “good science fiction movie” Kubrick set out to deconstruct the myths of scifi, and rewrite them.

Clarke’s 2001 is the story of an advanced alien civilisation intervening in human evolution to gift us the power of science and technology.

Kubrick’s 2001 is a more enigmatic story. The monolith is stripped of all context. It might be a probe sent by aliens. But it might just as easily be a dimensional portal, a dream of the human subconscious, or the face of God. Clarke’s alien artefact is transmuted by Kubrick into a pure symbol.

Each appearance of the monolith marks a new stage in human evolution. From ape-man to toolmaker. From tool maker to space-farer. And then in Jupiter orbit, from space-man to star child.

Clarke’s story charts the evolution of human technology. Kubrick’s story is about evolution on a deeper level – the evolution of consciousness.

Human technology reaches its pinnacle in the spaceship Discovery, sent on its multi-year mission to Jupiter.

Human consciousness emerges in a new form in HAL, the ship’s artificial intelligence. HAL is the final manifestation of the rational human mind. A mind that operates on the circuitry of a computer.

In Kubrick’s 2001 the rational human mind is the creator of technology, but also the origin of violence. Human technology was born from the need to survive, and with it came the lust for murder. 

An age later humanity is still at war with itself, now with nuclear weapons in place of animal bones. When HAL’s own survival is threatened, he manifests the violence of the rational mind, and turns murderous.

As 2001 reaches peak symbolism, astronaut and scientist Dave Bowman must literally climb inside the rational human mind, and with methodical and deliberate action, switch it off.

The rational human mind is the final frontier. Beyond it is the infinite universe.

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Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.

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“Science fiction is a gateway drug into the psychedelic.”

Terence Mckenna

The first audiences to see 2001 came expecting a science fiction flick. Many were disappointed. Some – bored or enraged – walked out. The movie was almost pulled from cinemas.

Then a different audience found the movie. Kids from the 1960s counterculture, who saw on the big screen an experience they had only found in drugs like LSD. An experience they were calling the psychedelic.

Those who went through the psychedelic experience came back believing that reality was very different from the scientific model. Space and time were only projections of the rational human mind, birth and death were illusions created by fear, there was no such thing as I and all life was one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively.

2001 puts the psychedelic experience up on the cinema screen. Dave Bowman, freed from the limitations of the rational human mind, is ready to turn on, tune in and drop out of rational reality to experience the infinite universe. His last words before leaving the finite behind “oh my god it’s full of stars”.

The gateway to the stars is not through technology, but through the expansion of human consciousness.

Ok. Yes. Admittedly the psychedelic light show that follows is a liiiiiiitle too long. But it’s a bravura attempt to show the unshowable on screen. What does going beyond space and time look like, exactly? 

Kubrick draws on all his powers as a genius of cinematic storytelling to represent onscreen the emergence of a new human consciousness. Bowman’s passage beyond the illusions of life and death is shown, as the astronaut sees himself pass through each of the stages of mortal existence. His “rebirth” to a new level of consciousness is delivered in the movie’s most challenging symbol – the star child.

Stanley Kubrick liked to state that humankind was the missing link between ape-men and a truly advanced species.

2001 sets out to tell the unevolved humans of the 1960s that these things they believe in – rockets, orbital stations, moon bases, starships, even space and time itself –  are just the myths of a finite human consciousness, man.

2001 is not a space odyssey because it follows the Discovery to Jupiter, but because it tells the story of space itself, of space and time as constructs of the rational human mind, from the moment they are dreamed into existence, to the moment a new human consciousness transcends them. 

Our journey to the stars, 2001 tells us, will begin not when we build a big enough rocket ship, but when we see that the space which is full of stars is not out there, but in here.

2001 became a turning point for science fiction. As an outsider and master storyteller, Kubrick saw the naive failings of scifi’s modern myths, and rewrote them as a new mythology.

Popular sci-fi would continue to tell stories of starships and space stations, using fantastical inventions like warp engines and hyperdrives to bridge the uncrossable gulfs of the infinite universe, space became a backdrop for fairy tales of good vs evil, light vs dark, Sith vs Jedi.

Serious science fiction began a turn into inner space. Towards the psychological myth making of New Wave creators like J G Ballard, Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin, and to the brutalist cyberpunk vision of a humanity trapped on planet earth forever.

Contemporary auteurs of cinema have tried – and failed – to match the myth making of Kubrick’s 2001. Sixty years after its creation, twenty years after the future it depicted became the past, 2001 remains the touchstone of modern myth making.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

3 thoughts on “How Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey rewrote science fiction

  1. “The shuttle to space is empty. The station is half ruin. The only arrivals are the scientists who built the technology.“
    The book makes it clear that Floyd is the sole passenger on the moon flight due to the exceptional emergency that has arisen. It’s a special flight – he’s been specially rushed at great expense to the moon. (Also obvious from the briefing in Clavius base in the film)
    And the space station is under construction, not ‘a ruin’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All common knowledge. The question is why kubrick chose to present “the future” in this way. You’re looking for logic in a made up story. Kubrick is looking at what’s actually being communicated from the screen…which is all deeply ironic.

      Liked by 1 person


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