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Poster from 2001 by Robert McCall

Painted by artist Robert McCall, this painting was used on the first 2001 record album and the book cover. An enormous billboard of this space station painting graced Times Square for the premier showing in New York City.



The Cultural Impact of 2001: A Space Odyssey

 

Movies can have a broad cultural and social impact, affecting the way people feel, think, and act long after they have left the theater. Some movies have resulted in riots or contributed to revolutions, others have started national debates about the issues they raise. Some movies have even resulted in legislation concerning the causes that they endorse. Many movies influence the media, and particularly other movies that follow them. They can also have subtle influences as well, affecting the way people think of issues and concepts and things for decades.

 

In 1968, MGM Studios released a movie titled 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has been the most culturally and socially influential science fiction film ever made. It was produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was at the time one of the most highly-regarded directors and had produced the critically acclaimed dark comedy about the lunacy of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb. 2001 was loosely based upon a short story by one of the giants of science fiction literature, Arthur C. Clarke, who also deserves much credit for developing the concept of the geosynchronous communications satellite.

 

The movie initially provoked mixed reactions from film critics and the public. It was highly unusual because it had very little dialogue, instead trying to tell its story through imagery. The movie had three primary segments. The first depicted prehistoric Earth, where families of man-apes lived in fear of their predators until an alien monolith appears in their midst. After touching it, they quickly evolve to use primitive tools, bones to crush the skulls of their prey and their adversaries. In one of the most famous scenes in cinematography, an ape tosses a bone into the air where it is replaced by the image of a satellite in space, an editing trick that advances the story millions of years into the future in the span of only a few seconds. In the second segment, astronaut bureaucrats discover another monolith buried on the moon and when sunlight touches it for the first time in millions of years, it sends a powerful signal to Jupiter. In the third segment, humans mount a space mission to Jupiter where another monolith is orbiting. But things go terribly wrong when the spacecraft's computer, known as HAL 9000, goes insane and kills all but one member of the crew. The sole survivor, David Bowman, disconnects HAL and approaches the monolith. He passes through a fantastic light show (during showings many people would apparently take psychedelic drugs and, at this point in the movie, sit in the front rows of the theater). In a bizarre, and for many people highly confusing, final scene, Bowman grows into an old man alone, in the presence of the monolith. Just before his natural death, he is transformed into a baby who, in the final scene, is depicted overlooking the Earth. The sequence symbolized the continuing evolution of humanity into something greater than it is, with alien assistance.

 

Although the movie was not universally praised when it first premiered, it soon came to be widely regarded as a classic by film critics and historians. It was praised for its visual inventiveness, its originality and symbolism, its sound and visual special effects and its musical score. Movies that came after 2001 reflected many of its influences. For instance, Kubrick had originally hired a music composer to write a score for the film and provided him with examples of classical compositions that he thought illustrated the mood he wanted to convey. But ultimately Kubrick discarded the composer's work and used the classical music he had selected instead. Kubrick used Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" as background for the docking of a space shuttle with a space station. Not only did recordings of Strauss' music suddenly become very popular, but the music was also used in other films and TV shows, often as a comic or ironic homage to 2001. It was even played on the Apollo 8 mission around the moon. Similarly, Kubrick used the theme from Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (Thus Spake Zarathustra) in the opening of the movie to illustrate a dramatic appearance, and the theme was thereafter used for everything from high school graduations to beer commercials. In a recent television commercial for a bank, the director used music similar to the experimental music that Kubrick also featured in the film and depicted automatic teller machines as monoliths.

 

2001's sound effects had an impact on other films. 2001 was the first movie to realistically not have sounds in space. Kubrick was able to symbolize the death of one character by stopping the breathing sounds in his spacesuit. He killed off several other hibernating humans by showing only their computerized monitoring equipment change from the pulses of respiration and breathing to flat lines, "death as a statistic" as one commentator called it. Other movies and TV shows began to use similar techniques, attempting to portray events visually or through sounds that normally would have been portrayed with dialogue. 2001's realistic technological approach to depicting the near-term future of space exploration also had a strong influence on other movies and television shows, often of far lesser quality. Some copied it, whereas others rebelled against Kubrick's vision of the future. The dirty, gritty spaceships of 1977's Star Wars and particularly 1978's Alien were designed in direct contrast to the gleaming white plastic future of 2001, as was the dark, grimy world of 1982's Blade Runner. The sentient, murderous HAL 9000 computer has also provoked scientific debates about the development of artificial intelligence.

 

But perhaps 2001's most profound cultural impact was its effect on how people visualize space exploration. As space historian Howard McCurdy has noted, 2001 established the popular image of what a space station should look like. When Americans are asked to draw a space station, they almost inevitably draw a giant spinning wheel in orbit, undoubtedly based upon their exposure to 2001. Perhaps more subtly, 2001 created expectations in the minds of people that the United States would continue to aggressively pursue space exploration after Apollo and would soon develop giant orbiting space stations and bases on the Moon. When Kubrick made 2001 in the midst of the Apollo program, his advisors did not think that bases on the moon and missions to Jupiter would be extremely far-fetched 30+ years in the future. When the actual year 2001 rolled around, however, various newspaper and magazine articles either lamented that the world had not lived up to their false expectations, or snorted that the movie had "gotten the future wrong." As at least one comic joked, "It's the twenty-first century; how come my car doesn't fly?" Space exploration enthusiasts viewed 2001 as a positive predictor of the future and were disappointed that reality did not live up to their dreams. These false expectations even tended to cloud official planning for space exploration. Yet, as some have noted, the real world of 2001 did have its space stations and space shuttles, but they somehow seemed less exciting than the movie versions.

 

Many of these people tended to completely misread the movie. Unlike the positive humanistic future of Star Trek, Kubrick's depiction of a gleaming white antiseptic future was actually a dark vision and a warning that technology dehumanized people, turning them into boring drones, or bureaucrats. Various critics noted over the years that the humans in 2001 exhibited few emotions and HAL, the homicidal machine that they built, was in many ways the most human character in the film. Furthermore, Kubrick and Clarke were trying to tell a story, not predict the future. Nobody laments that the world was not destroyed as predicted by various apocalyptic movies such as The Terminator and The Shape of Things to Come. But it is a testament to the power of 2001: A Space Odyssey that people were actually disappointed that the future did not turn out like the movie.

 

- Dwayne Day

 

Sources and further reading:

 

Agel, Jerome, ed. The Making of Kubrick's 2001. New York: Signet Books, 1970.

Bizony, Piers. 2001: Filming the Future. London: Aurum Press, 1994.

McCurdy, Howard E. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Schwam, Stephanie and Scorsese, Martin, eds. The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Stork, David G., ed. HAL's Legacy. Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Wheat, Leonard F. Kubrick's 2001: A Triple Allegory. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

 

"2001 A Space Odyssey." Warner Brothers. http://kubrickfilms.warnerbros.com/video_detail/2001/

"M-G-M presents 2001: A Space Odyssey." http://members.tripod.com/~odyssey_2001/

 

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.