Throughout Space Odyssey, Benson cannot quite disguise his adoration for Kubrick or the movie he produced. Kubrick is not only “a self-educated polymath,” but also “in some ways the ultimate genre director, switching virtuosically between established cinematic categories and forms with a restless analytical intelligence, always transcending and expanding their boundaries.” The film provokes even more rhapsodic declarations, such as the claim that it ultimately “changed how we think about ourselves.”
Such gushing doesn’t prevent Benson from writing candidly about Kubrick’s personal obsessions and eccentricities, a feature that gives color and drama to this very odd couple. The quiet, obsessive Kubrick needed Clarke—gay, philosophical, self-absorbed, and magnanimous—to show him the way. A real friendship developed between the young American director and his older British ex-pat collaborator. Yet Kubrick’s obsessive need to control every aspect of 2001’s production—even when it meant cutting out Clarke’s rights to the film with ruthless efficiency—limited his capacity to get close to Clarke, or to anyone else outside of his immediate family.
Benson is not afraid to get into the weeds of his subject, and at times this sweeping saga plays out a little too close to the ground. We learn that Kubrick’s daughter suffers from croup, that Kubrick asked Clarke’s advice about buying telescopes, and that Clarke’s business partner was involved in filming a James Bond parody in Sri Lanka: “Sorungeth Soru but often referred to simply as Jamis Bandu.
Fortunately, other details are more revealing. We learn that Kubrick gives Clarke a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book of comparative mythology that identifies components—travel, hardship, transformation, and the return home—common to all hero stories. This framework not only describes Odysseus, the Homeric touchstone for the film’s title, but also—quite consciously—the structure of the film itself. We also learn that the stately pace of 2001’s spaceship scenes—unfolding to the strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube—were not merely the product of Kubrick’s aesthetic vision, but also the result of a technical necessity to keep the star fields from strobing when filmed at 24 frames per second.
Despite its rough start with critics, 2001 eventually became a box-office hit. The film’s opaque plot and lack of narration may have put off older audiences, but younger filmgoers loved its visual aesthetic, spectacular effects, and psychedelic ending. Over time, even critics started to come around. Newsday’s Joseph Gelmis panned 2001 on his first viewing but, after accepting an offer to screen the film again, printed a retraction of sorts: “A professional critic is sometimes trapped by his own need for convenient categories, cannons, and conventions.”
In the years after its release, 2001 quickly diffused into popular culture, from the songs and videos of David Bowie to episodes of The Simpsons. A generation of directors—James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas—speak reverentially of the film, with Lukas calling it “the ultimate science fiction movie.” Indeed, Lucas quite consciously used Joseph Campbell’s hero-myth cycle in his own Star Wars epic.
Yet there are other ways, too, that 2001 speaks to the present. The Hal 9000 computer would appreciate, I think, the evolution of machine learning now used by Google and other companies to drive cars and translate documents. The genre of science fiction, so derided in the early 1960s, has given rise to a canon of serious films, such as Solaris, Blade Runner, and Gattaca. Literary novelists—Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and Kazuo Ishiguro, among others—have increasingly used science fiction as the stage for storytelling. Benson only spends sixteen pages on 2001’s impact, the briefest of stops in a book that spends 420 pages on the conception and production of the film. Still, he offers a terrific ride, one that like Dave Bowman’s spaceship, Discovery One, sets the course, even if it doesn’t exactly reveal the destination.
Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
By Michael Benson
Simon & Schuster, $30.00, 420 pp.