By now, the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey — which was released 50 years ago this week — seems etched in stone. Or, if you prefer, laser-cut into a giant black monolith.
Everyone who’s seen it can recall the basic outline of its four vast, atmospheric, mostly silent acts. (PSA if you haven’t seen it: please remedy that tonight on the biggest screen you can find. This is the legendary Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, written with the equally legendary Arthur C. Clarke. It is frequently voted by directors one of the top 10 movies of all time; it has blown millions of minds. Well worth giving it a shot at yours.)
But it didn’t have to be that way at all. As revealed by fresh research in Michael Benson’s brilliant book Space Odyssey, published Wednesday, the ideas Kubrick and Clarke batted around their typewriters went in some pretty wild directions.
Kubrick’s basic idea, right after he finished his nuclear war satire Doctor Strangelove in 1963, was simple: to make the best and most serious science fiction movie ever. To be fair, that was a pretty low bar to clear at the time. Hiring Clarke, via a flattering letter to the author’s home in Sri Lanka, meant he was almost certain to hurdle it.
But Kubrick’s first idea for the plot didn’t sit so well. He told Clarke he wanted to adapt a BBC radio play called Shadow on the Sun. This was about a mystery meteorite that blocks Earth’s light, making everyone incredibly cold. But in a very British twist, an alien virus makes everyone okay with the cold, and also … incredibly horny?
(Kubrick had a lifelong obsession with finding new ways to portray sex on screen, culminating in Eyes Wide Shut, which he was still finishing when he died in 1999.)
Clarke was no prude; he and his partner, small-time filmmaker Mike Wilson, basically lived on a bisexual multiracial commune. But he had to diplomatically reply to the mighty director that sexcapades from outer space wasn’t necessarily going to make for the best science fiction film ever, and they’d probably be better off collaborating on an original screenplay.
A bargain was struck. Clarke would become a contractor at Kubrick’s company and would stay in New York — hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel with Beat legends Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs — until a script happened. He would write a series of short stories and then a novel (for which he was criminally underpaid); Kubrick would gradually stitch them into screenplay after critiquing them every step of the way.
They noodled around a lot before hitting on the guiding idea of some kind of space version of The Odyssey, which they called “Journey Beyond the Stars.” Ormaybe it was going to be “How the Universe Was Won.” Or maybe just “Universe.”
The story took three years to evolve, as did Clarke and Kubrick’s fascinating relationship of genius recognizing genius. The genial elder Brit, the hard scientist — Clarke basically invented geosynchronous satellites — often had to nudge the impulsive Bronx-born director from what we can now see would have been. Kubrick, a hyperfocused student, absorbed more lessons than he let on.
Kubrick kept insisting the movie wouldn’t work without the payoff of actually seeing aliens at the end. Clarke knew that any real aliens would be likely to look so different from us as to be unfilmable. He deputized the then-unknown astrophysicist Carl Sagan to tell Kubrick that over dinner. Kubrick, prickly at the best of times, insisted Sagan never talk to him again. Eventually, he got the message.
Still, Kubrick and Clarke bonded like a couple of boys over their telescopes — and over their shared belief that alien life would be discovered, or discover us, any moment now. One night in New York in 1964, they were absolutely convinced they’d seen a UFO. When he came to make the film the next year, Kubrick literally tried to buy insurance in case ET came along in the next few years and made his movie irrelevant.
As finally, sparely constructed by the obsessive, perfectionist Kubrick, the movie went like this. Act 1: Pre-human apemen find alien monolith. It sparks ideas about tools. Act 2: scientist takes a trip to the moon, find another monolith, which broadcasts mystery signal to Jupiter. Act 3: mission to Jupiter interrupted when an evil AI called HAL kills and has to be killed. Act 4: Everything gets really trippy as the surviving astronaut descends into some kind of wormhole on Jupiter, dies, and is reborn as a giant embryo.
(Dear newbies: this is one of those rare movies where spoilers don’t matter. Trust me, you’re going to have a better time in this hypnotic epic with the basic handhold of knowing what the hell is supposed to be happening and where it’s going.)
But many of those details were there because of Clarke’s guiding hand. For instance, if left up to Kubrick, HAL wouldn’t have killed anyone — because Kubrick had a fear of death and had just read a book on cryogenics. “I’m afraid his obsession with immortality has overcome his artistic instincts,” Clarke wrote.
Oh, and HAL stands for Heuristics ALgorithm — to the disappointment of nerds like me who always assumed it was meant to be IBM (which collaborated on the look of the movie) taken one letter backwards. Clarke and Kubrick both went to their graves insisting that was untrue.
Not that Clarke was immune to getting it wrong. Like a lot of critics, he initially thought the final product a strange flop. He had wanted the whole thing to be narrated. And surprisingly, he wasn’t the one to come up with the Star Child ending — which didn’t emerge until filming started.
Clarke wrote Kubrick that the movie should end “in a way that will push all sorts of Freudian buttons” with the astronaut finding a ship — a “new tool” described as “beautiful … soft? warm?”. The ship rises a few inches and the astronaut “strokes it absentmindedly, almost voluptuously.” Fade to black.
The oddball sexual energy of Clarke and Kubrick had come full circle, and the director was now the one to shut the writer down. He was now more interested in making the astronaut’s journey deliberately like a drug trip; he had one of his underlings write to a university for reports on test subjects who’d taken psilocybin, or magic mushrooms. He finally found the Star Child ending when he happened to see groundbreaking pictures of embryos published in Life magazine.
There seems little doubt that 2001 will be with us in another 50 years. It is a slow masterpiece for our speedy age. It speaks to our yearning for mind-expanding space adventure, and our fears that progress means changing ourselves into a machine-driven, AI-controlled species.
And for that, it turns out, we can thank two gleeful geniuses on a roof in New York on a summer night, hopping up and down with the wonder and awe of seeing what they didn’t know was a weather balloon.
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