Fifty years ago today, Stanley Kubrick’s landmark science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. Four years in the making, the film had been shown for members of the press three days earlier at Washington DC’s Uptown Theatre, a 1,120-seat single-screen cinema opened in 1936 that remains in operation today. Gary Lockwood, the actor who played doomed astronaut Frank Poole in the film, remembers attendees heckling the slow-paced movie and “streaming out” of the theater at intermission.
“It was a disaster,” he recalls in Michael Benson’s new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. “No one liked it.” Later that night, an executive with MGM Studios, the company that had bankrolled the ballooning production with growing alarm, asked Lockwood what had gone so wrong. Lockwood, annoyed at the man’s inability to appreciate what he’d seen, replied. “Wait. Just wait.”
Despite initially damning reviews, 2001 became the year’s highest-grossing movie. But simply to point out that it took in more money than Funny Girl or The Love Bug (the No. 2 and 3 earners of 1968, respectively) is to understate its artistic achievement.
Many of the 13 feature films Kubrick directed were ahead of their time, but none were quite so far ahead as 2001, a wildly ambitious adventure that posited that a benign extraterrestrial intelligence had guided the evolution of the human animal over some four million years—and would eventually lead us to outgrow even our corporeal bodies.
In between the film’s (nonverbal) “Dawn of Man” prologue and its (also nonverbal) mindbending finale wherein Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), the sole survivor of the spacecraft Discovery One’s mission to Jupiter, is transformed into an extradimensional “starchild,” came the most persuasive and arresting depiction of spaceflight yet imagined.
To design 2001’s spacecraft and spacesuits, Kubrick hired Harry Lange, a German-born illustrator who had emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and been drafted into the Army during the Korean War, serving his time drawing manuals. (Lange drew the first comprehensive helicopter instruction manual published by the United States Air Force, the Guardian reported.) After that he ended up at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. Once NASA took over that center, Lange became the head of its future projects section working with Wernher von Braun to create detailed conceptual illustrations for the ambitious spaceflight projects von Braun wanted Washington to fund.
But in 2001, human technology of the type Kubrick asked Lange to imagine carries us only so far.
Bowman’s transformation comes in the movie’s final chapter, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” After passing through the “Star Gate”—represented in the film by a long psychedelic sequence comprised in part of some of the earliest footage Kubrick shot for the film—Bowman finds himself in what Kubrick and cowriter Arthur C. Clarke had imagined as the sort of elegant cage that a superior race might conceive to try to make their captive human comfortable after his violent, consciousness-expanding ordeal.
The director and writer discussed a number of ideas of how to visualize this space with production designer Tony Masters. One proposal was for an interior even more futuristic looking and minimalist than the bright, sterile crew cabin of the Discovery. Another idea, for furniture that vanished when not in use, was rejected on the grounds that audiences might think they were seeing where the movie’s unseen alien beings live, rather than a space they had creating using imagery either captured from television broadcasts or harvested from Bowman’s own subconscious.
It was Masters who suggested the solution of a Louis XIV-era French bedroom, retaining only the softly illuminated floor from the earlier design. Bowman, presumably in his thirties in 2001, would’ve been born in the mid-to-late 1960s, but perhaps he had encountered such a bedroom somewhere. In this eerie room without doors or windows, Bowman, thanks to the makeup effects of Stewart Freeborn, is seen at various advanced ages, including as a bedridden nonagenarian seemingly moments from his death.
While Kubrick ordered the set destroyed after production on 2001 wrapped in 1967, artist Simon Birch has recreated the film’s bedroom at 1:1 scale in an installation titled The Barmecide Feast. That installation is on view at the National Air and Space Museum from April 8 to May 28 as part of the Museum’s celebration of the film’s anniversary. Visitors who are willing to remove their shoes, or put booties over them to protect the floor, can explore the room and draw their own conclusions about what it says about humankind’s future, if anything.
Martin Collins, a curator in the Space History Department at the Museum as well as a member of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s board of directors, has his own theory. “Kubrick’s interpretation is that it was from Bowman’s own subconscious… I’ve always found that explanation of Kubrick’s kind of implausible,” Collins says. “Since the architectural historical grounding of this is Louis
XIV XVI, the last monarch before the French Revolution, there is potentially—and I am perhaps overreading this—some statement about the revolution Dave Bowman himself is going through, from a youngish man to an old man to, eventually, the Star Child. Perhaps it’s a kind of cryptic reference to what the meaning of the Star Child is, the kind of transformation of humanity that may come from this experience that Bowman has had, the way the people of the late 18th century didn’t know what was going to come next.”
Dunkirk and Interstellar writer-director Christopher Nolan will introduce an “unrestored” 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cannes Film Festival on May 12. On May 18, the film will be re-released to theatres in the United States.
CORRECTED: Dr. Collins correctly identified Louis XVI as the last King of France before the French Revolution. This post initially identified that king as Louis XIV due to a transcription error by the author. Air & Space / Smithsonian apologizes for the error and shall strive to remain your No. 1 source of French Revolutionary news.