“I have never seen such a pile of junk in my life,” a movie executive muttered while leaving the opening-night showing of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He wasn’t alone. Many found it plodding, opaque, and—with a running time of two hours and forty minutes—too long. Kubrick and 2001’s co-writer Arthur C. Clarke watched aghast as theatergoers streamed out of the April 1968 New York premiere during the intermission.
In his meticulous account of Kubrick and Clarke’s collaboration, Michael Benson offers an inside view of this strange film that few critics initially seemed to like or understand. Kubrick had approached Clarke in 1964 in the hopes of making a film that was futuristic and artistic, sweeping in scale and philosophical in approach. In this, he was pushing at the boundaries of a lucrative but ill-respected genre, one that grew out of the “scientific romances” of the late nineteenth century, such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. With the rise of pulp magazines and paperbacks in the early decades of the twentieth century, science fiction reached broader and younger audiences. Still, the stories that made it to the silver screen were not the kind of films nominated by the Motion Picture Academy for, well, anything. Science fiction, Benson writes, “was only a step or two above pornography.”
Fresh off his critical and commercial successes, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), Kubrick sought a fresh challenge: to create a film that would break open the genre of science fiction. Not that it would be easy. Even directors who deeply admired Kubrick tried to warn him off. “Stanley, for God’s sake, science fiction?” Bryan Forbes (Guns of Navarone) told him. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Worse yet, Kubrick didn’t have a story. He turned to Clarke—science writer, space popularizer, and futurist—who had become well known for his work for the British Interplanetary Society and for stories based in scientific realism. Over the course of 1964, Kubrick and Clarke met in New York and discussed the project in-depth. Instead of adapting an existing story into a screenplay, they decided that they would write one from scratch. To make things more challenging, Kubrick thought it would work best to write a novel first. After considering a number of ideas, Kubrick found the germ of 2001 in a story Clarke penned called The Sentinel, in which astronauts exploring the moon unearth a tetrahedral-shaped artifact left behind by ancient aliens of a vastly more sophisticated civilization. Gradually Kubrick and Clarke expanded upon this idea, building an epic framework around the Sentinel plot: 2001 begins in the ancient past, when a clan of hominids discovers a monolith that spurs on an evolutionary leap in human cognition. It concludes with a mission to Saturn to explore the signal source of the monolith itself.