50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – five films that influenced Kubrick’s giant leap for sci-fi

As 2001: A Space Odyssey celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look at five stepping stones that led to Kubrick’s epic vision.

Samuel Wigley

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Credit: Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Probably the most cited – if unverified – inspiration for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) came from the sudden cut between a medieval falcon and a Second World War fighter plane that leapfrogs centuries of human history in A Canterbury Tale (1944). Whether or not Stanley Kubrick knew and admired Powell and Pressburger’s wartime classic, it’s safe to call this moment a direct ancestor of Kubrick’s own visionary edit: the prehistoric bone to spacecraft cut with which he sent us hurtling into the future.

While not entirely fair, it’s tempting to see Kubrick’s masterpiece as just such a jump cut in the history of sci-fi. In this view, pioneering titles like Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929) and the atomic-age trend for flying saucers and alien invaders are like just so many lobbed bones – rudimentary blunt objects that Kubrick outdated in a flash with his film’s giant-leap technological advancements.

Certainly, Kubrick took little inspiration from the sensational, unscientific sci-fi that terrified 1950s audiences. His mind was not in the cinema but in the stars. Together with writer Arthur C. Clarke, he aspired to make the ultimate film about “man’s relationship to the universe”, avidly consuming all he could read about space science and anthropology. They also watched sci-fi movies, for sure, but it seems Kubrick mainly took away inspiration for what not to do. An entry in Clarke’s journal The Lost Worlds of 2001 reads: “Stanley calls after screening H.G. Wells’ Things to Come, and says he’ll never see another movie I recommend.”

Yet a small selection of films did play their part in positively shaping 2001. Here are five of them.

Universe (1960)

Directors Roman Kroitor and Colin Low

Universe (1960)

While Kubrick was turned off by the hokey sets and science of Hollywood sci-fi, he found plenty to muse over in this 27-minute documentary funded by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1960. Co-directed by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low, it’s an explanation of the cosmos structured around one Ontario scientist’s nightly observation of the stars, contrasting snippets of human life on Earth with still awe-inspiring scenes exploring the far reaches of the universe.

It was all done with three-dimensional models in a garage out the back of the NFB, but you wouldn’t know it. The story goes that a wowed Kubrick invited Low to collaborate on 2001, but Low and Kroitor were busy preparing a film for the 1967 World’s Fair (and inventing IMAX in the process). He did, however, manage to hire the film’s effects wizard, Wally Gentleman, and get Universe’s narrator on board: Douglas Rain would provide the voice of HAL.

Allures (1961)

Director Jordan Belson

Allures (1961)

Created by Douglas Trumbull using slit-scan photography, 2001’s famous Stargate sequence, in which Keir Dullea’s astronaut travels to infinity, was a milestone in visual effects, also offering up mainstream cinema’s trippiest, most far-out imagery to date. Yet Trumbull’s work was rooted in a rich American tradition of abstract filmmaking, notably the work of John Whitney and Jordan Belson. Presenting a dazzling kaleidoscope of shifting geometric patterns and colour, Belson’s eight-minute Allures was described by the filmmaker himself as “probably the space-iest film that had been done until then. It creates a feeling of moving into the void.” Belson’s subsequent 1964 film Re-entry is another probable influence, and some sources suggest that Kubrick made overtures to Belson about a possible collaboration.

How the West Was Won (1962)

Directors John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall

How the West Was Won (1963)

Since the advent of TV, Hollywood films had been getting ever more titanic in scope in an attempt to remind audiences of the smallness of their tellies. Few came bigger than How the West Was Won, a hugely ambitious history of American settlement that involved three big-name directors, an all-star cast and three projectors to screen it in the short-lived Cinerama format. Mounted by MGM, its five-part structure encompasses pioneer life, the civil war and the building of the first transcontinental railroad, before proudly climaxing with scenes of California freeways in the modern era. Its grandness of design (and MGM’s willingness to bankroll it) did not go unnoticed by Kubrick and Clarke, who referred to their own project as ‘How the Solar System Was Won’.

Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

Director Jindřich Polák

Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

A notable precursor to both 2001 and its Soviet-bloc riposte Solaris (1972), this pioneering Czechoslovakian space travel movie is set in the year 2163 and follows a dangerous mission to the distant star Alpha Centauri. Released in the US in edited form as Voyage to the End of the Universe, it builds on the legacy of 1950s space pictures such as Destination Moon (1950) and Forbidden Planet (1956) with effects and philosophical themes that were a clear jump forward.

Kubrick is known to have screened the film during development of 2001 and even he had to concede that it was “a half step up from your average science fiction film in terms of its theme and presentation”. As Michael Brooke points out in the liner notes for Second Run’s DVD edition:

“several design and conceptual ideas found their way into 2001 – the spacesuits are very similar, as are the interior lighting, hexagonal corridors, videophone calls to loved ones, the amount of attention paid to non-narrative detail such as relaxation on the long journey, and the overarching theme of searching for unspecified (and never directly depicted) alien intelligence beyond the further reaches of our solar system.”

To the Moon and Beyond (1964)

Director Con Pederson

To the Moon and Beyond (1964) exhibition poster

To the Moon and Beyond was a film exhibit created for the 1964/65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Produced by the California-based company Graphic Films, this 70mm spectacular was filmed – like How the West Was Won – in the Cinerama process and projected three times an hour inside the 96-foot-high dome of the fair’s Transportation and Travel Pavilion. “YOU will be propelled on the most fantastic, incredible voyage through billions of miles of space,” promised the exhibit’s poster. Kubrick attended a screening in the summer of 1965 and immediately sought the collaboration of Graphic Films’ Con Pederson and Douglas Trumbull. It was Trumbull, of course, who would innovate the slit-scan sequences that send 2001’s finale into the stratosphere.

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