In cinema history, the one science-fiction work that, so to speak, flung open the stable doors for audiences and later filmmakers was Stanley Kubrick’s towering 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, released 55 years ago. Science fiction in movies is essentially as old as cinema itself, and 1950s movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet used science-fiction tropes in thoughtful ways to explore or cross-examine human nature. But Kubrick’s landmark film, co-written with Arthur C. Clarke and based on his short story, contemplated sweeping philosophical and metaphysical questions about human origins and destiny in revolutionary ways, expanding the boundaries not only of what science fiction can say, but even of how it can say it.
The long shadow of 2001 has influenced countless Hollywood movies from Superman to Wall-E to Dune. A few filmmakers have followed more closely in Kubrick’s footsteps, exploring humanity’s place in the cosmos and the nature and meaning of existence using space travel and/or hoped-for or actual encounters with extraterrestrials as metaphors of mystery, wonder, and glory.
Off-putting to many in its glacial pacing and emotional iciness, 2001’s cosmic scope, elliptical narrative, and visionary imagery offer to receptive viewers something rare in cinema, or in any art: an experience of awe, of transcendence. At the center of its mystery and wonder are the mysterious monoliths drawing humanity forward from apelike origins to an unimaginably exalted future represented by the Star Child. Despite the Nietzschean overtones of the film’s secular ascent-of-man mythology, the monoliths — and the unknown, unseen extraterrestrial power behind them — represent an “otherworldliness” at odds with the “this-worldliness” or “faith in the Earth” linked to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.
Kubrick, who was not at all religious, famously stated that “the God concept is at the heart of 2001 — but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God,” and colorfully derided certain hostile critics as a “lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.” Even the staunchly atheistic Clarke said that the film’s final act ventures “into a realm that I think can best be characterized as spiritual.” If it’s become a cliché to describe an encounter with this film as “a religious experience,” it’s a cliché for a reason. With good reason, too, the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications honored 2001 in its 1995 list of “Some Important Films” — popularly called the “Vatican film list” — and, when the year 2001 rolled around, a restored print was screened at the Vatican with Pope St. John Paul II in attendance.