A few weeks ago, I came across an article on Grantland that pushed forth the thesis that all science fiction films after 1968 are in dialogue with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and shared it with my colleague in intellectual crime, Paul. He asked the following:
No, I was thinking more of the way Solaris is about people rather than about scifi – the line the Lem famously used about people not seeking others world, just looking for a reflection of themselves. I just wonder if that’s what we used fantasy literature for. I suppose a scifi fan might argue that it’s about what the universe might look like or ultimately mean but I interpreted Lem as making an indirect point about the function of the literature as well as about man’s exploration of the universe.
In 2001‘s defense, I argue that it is not just a standard scifi film, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s creative reading of the original script by Arthur C. Clarke.
A little biography before I sink my teeth into the meat of the question. After I told an old friend that I hadn’t seen 2001, back in the summer of 2000, he bet me that I would not be able to watch the film without fast-forwarding the slow parts. He also made the claim that the sequel, 2010 was the superior film. After renting 2001, I watched it at late night, in hushed silence, letting the imagery work on me.
After I won the bet, naturally, I realized that 2001 was not a typical scifi film, one with typical scifi pretensions of the genre – like 2010.
It took me a while to figure that out, though.
The ultimate difference between 2001 and the original screenplay by Arthur Clarke is what the director Kubrick prioritized over the story: cinematic art. It all comes down to this simple formula: Symbolic imagery, pregnant with meaning over dry, objective scientific explanation.
In 2001, Kubrick poses the philosophical questions: why are we here? What is the meaning of existence? Is there a God?
In 2010: Odyssey Two, Clarke poses more modest questions, and ends on a humanistic note with an optimistic flourish. It’s just too bad that only 2010 feels dated today with its Cold War logic, unlike 2001’s triumphalist futurism.
Science fiction often relies on the following conceits: good story with solid characterization and an interesting plot. On the other hand, 2001 explored greater themes as a cinematic experience, working visually in the place of dramatic conventions.
Therefore, 2001 was not a genre piece – but a masterpiece.
It follows that the only successful scifi films after 2001 are those that transcend the conventions of scifi itself.