Floating in a Most Familiar Way: 21 Notes About Sci-Fi After ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’


1. A person — you, me, even Anne Hathaway — can survive unprotected in space for about one minute without permanent injury. This is one reason we keep making movies about space. As in movies about boats and especially movies about submarines, the backdrop is itself an antagonist. If Hathaway suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of an airlock, the Princess Diaries star has maybe 15 seconds of consciousness to do something about it. Characters in a spaceship are constantly surrounded by almost-instant death, and therefore opportunities for heroic sacrifice abound. Someone is always letting go and floating away for the greater good.

2. The other reason we make space movies is God, who may or may not be waiting for us at the far end of the universe, but persists in science fiction despite how hard science fiction works to dethrone Him or expose Him as an electromagnetic anomaly. Science fiction is a fundamentally rationalist genre that can’t stop imagining supreme beings.

3. Interstellar is a space-travel epic by a brilliant but inhumane auteur whose work weds philosophical ambition to overwhelming commercial spectacle and strikes some viewers as a teeny bit fascist. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which opened in 70 millimeter in 1968, just like Interstellar will in 2014) are unfair but probably not misplaced. It may not be Christopher Nolan’s response to 2001, but it’s not not that.

4. Besides, every realistic, “adult” sci-fi movie is to some degree somebody’s answer to 2001, the movie that gave the whole subgenre its mythic vocabulary. Kubrick’s movie is the towering influence every subsequent film about astronauts in trouble1 has to either affirm or refute, the same way every Mob movie has to make up its mind about the first two chapters of the Godfather trilogy.


5. Chances are you’ve absorbed 2001 by pop cultural osmosis. But just in case, here’s Kubrick summarizing the plot in a 1969 interview. “You begin,” he told Joseph Gelmis, “with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.

“When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.”

6. But Kubrick prefaced all of that with the assertion that plot was the least important thing about 2001. It’s not a complicated story — apes becoming men! Men becoming star children! — but the number of words generated on the philosophical and/or spiritual implications of those events could plug a black hole.

7. When it first opened in the ’60s, the “heads” would lie on the floor under the front row during the star-gate sequence, so as to better take it in, man. Not everyone was as receptive. Pauline Kael called it “monumentally unimaginative” and dinged Kubrick for casting his own daughter Vivian as NASA scientist Dr. Floyd’s kid. Andrew Sarris called it “a disaster” and “one of the grimmest films I have ever seen in my life.”2 Ray Bradbury called it an “interminable journey” with “no well-directed scenes.” Roger Ebert described it as a failure on the human level, but praised its precision and its props: “The stars look like stars and outer space is bold and bleak … This is how it would really be, you find yourself believing.” In John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, from 1971, a weeknight screening of 2001 numbs Rabbit Angstrom and his wife enough to delay a marital blowout: “It’s so long and then that psychedelic section where he’s landing on the planet before turning into a little old man in a white wig makes her head hurt … ”

8. “The film has made on me an impression of something artificial; it was as if I have found myself in a museum where they demonstrate the newest technological achievements. Kubrick is intoxicated with all this and he forgets about man, about his moral problems. And without that true art cannot exist.” That was the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, also in 1971, explaining why he’d chosen to set his adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris in as concrete and familiar-looking a future as possible. “We have no need of other worlds,” Lem wrote. “We need mirrors.” The line recurs in both Tarkovsky’s film, released in 1972, and Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake; it’s kind of the credo of Solaris-ism. The people in 2001 are affectless drones, flattened and dwarfed by the vastness of the setting. It’s as if we’re meant to see them the way a superior alien intelligence or a computer might. Tarkovsky’s Solaris rebuts Kubrick by placing grieving, yearning, passionate, guilt-ridden humans at the center of the narrative.

9. But it’s not quite an anti-2001 movie; like a weird, separated-at-birth twin to Kubrick’s film, it ponders man’s place in a similarly wide-screen cosmos but arrives at radically different conclusions. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) travels to a space station orbiting the water planet Solaris, with orders to figure out why the three scientists who make up the station’s crew have abandoned their mission. There he encounters his wife, Khari, who killed herself years earlier. He ejects her from the airlock; she shows up again. They begin to puzzle out who and what she is; the situation weighs as heavily on Khari as it does on Kelvin. The moral of the story is that we as a species should probably stay home.

solaris-clooney20th Century Fox

10. Lem actually disliked Tarkovsky’s version, saying that if he’d meant it to be about a relationship, he’d have called it Love in Outer Space. Soderbergh conceived his version, depending on which interviews you read, as either a closer reading of the Lem book or a cross between 2001 and Last Tango in Paris; the finished film is more elliptical, a ghost-story romance between George Clooney’s convincingly shattered-seeming Kelvin and Natascha McElhone as the Khari character (named Rheya in this version). God is addressed, as a concept — Clooney argues in a dinner-party flashback that our understanding of mortality doesn’t prove the existence of a higher power — but the focus is on people, sometimes pointedly. At one point, Soderbergh shoots a character speaking in front of a window facing Solaris — a big purplish-blue gas giant full of synaptic sparks, and probably a pricey special effect — but crops the shot so there’s only a sliver of the planet visible; on the commentary track, producer James Cameron tells Soderbergh he would have made sure to show it, just to justify the cost of putting it there.

solaris-soderbergh20th Century Fox

11. Only Soderbergh’s movie has Jeremy Davies hanging out on a space station listening to Insane Clown Posse. So there’s that.

12. 1977’s Star Wars is the real anti-2001 — post-Kubrick production design, magnificent slow pans across spaceship exteriors, but also orbital dogfights and lightsabers and jokes. It becomes a genre/wealth-generating machine unto itself, inspiring a whole separate cosmos of space-fantasy films about Very Special Boys pursuing Very Special Destinies around the Joseph Campbell circle, from Alex Rogan to Peter Quill.

13. Star Wars repurposes the pure spectacle of 2001, but subtracts the sensually slow pacing and high seriousness, and succeeds to the point that when Star Trek: The Motion Picture comes along two years later, its 2001-ified approach to the conceits of the TV series is a huge miscalculation. You probably couldn’t step out for a haircut during the initial shuttle-docking sequence and make it back in time for the next scene; it just feels that way. The enormous space object V’Ger behaves like an angry God but turns out to be a great alien machine built around Voyager I, a space probe made by Earthmen. Remember that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was an atheist who fought NBC in the ’60s when it prevailed upon him to add a chaplain to the crew of the USS Enterprise.

star_trek_2009_jj_abramsParamount Pictures

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Spock’s half-brother (Laurence Luckinbill) hijacks the Enterprise to the edge of the universe and Sha Ka Ree, the home planet of a big blue godhead who demands that Kirk turn over the ship to him. “What does God want with a starship?” asks William Shatner, causing the God-thing of Sha Ka Ree to freak out and reveal itself as something more like an extraterrestrial Great and Powerful Oz. So far, the post–J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies have left God out entirely, except in the sense that debates about continuity are Talmudic. “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence,” says Karl Urban’s Leonard McCoy, like Kierkegaard with a medical tricorder.

14. Here’s what’s interesting about Dave Bowman, by the way: nothing. Someone obviously thought he could hack the Jupiter mission, but beyond that he’s just a guy who encounters a series of on-the-job accidents. The forces that pull him into the beyond and remake him as a space baby don’t care that he’s Dave Bowman. Dave Bowman is what dies in that white room in order to be reborn. If you’re conditioned by Western thought to privilege personhood as a state of being, the message of 2001 is pretty bleak. Our ascension to the next level of consciousness as a species will involve the annihilation of who we were. Biological life is just a phase the universe is growing out of.


This is obviously problematic as the foundation for a long-running sci-fi franchise. So Peter Hyams’s 2001 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) ends up walking back most of its predecessor’s provocations. The wonderfully hangdog and human Roy Scheider replaces the bland William Sylvester as Heywood Floyd. The Monolith’s creators turn Jupiter into a new sun to nurture a petri dish of new life on the moon Europa, which is off-limits to human exploration; the rest of the universe is ours to enjoy, as long as we play nice with each other. The genie bottle of evolutionary transcendence is placed back on the shelf. Oh, and Dave Bowman comes back as a space ghost to brush his mother’s hair on her deathbed.3

15. The idea that we have an immortal soul is comforting. The notion that our embodied existence is a kind of rehearsal for our next life as electromagnetic star children isn’t, except in a super-abstract sort of way. The space-horror movies that proliferate in the late ’70s beginning with Ridley Scott’s Alien may be sublimations of that existential fear. Processed through the mechanics of genre, the death-and-rebirth-of-the-self concept comes back as a slavering Xenomorph, something external and gross that we can shoot with a flamethrower or blow out of an airlock. In that sense there’s at least a shred of 2001 DNA in every movie that postulates calamity as the only thing waiting for us out there, whether it comes in the form of space vampires (Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, 1985) or dirt-cheap Xenomorph rip-offs (Creature, 1985, among countless others) or devolved cannibals (Pandorum, 2009) or space bugs and a rogue Mars rover (Red Planet, 2000) or a mutated Peter Facinelli (Walter Hill’s Supernova, also 2000).

sunshine-danny-boyleFox Searchlight Pictures

16. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, from 2007, begins as a somber post-2001 Space Ideas movie about a mission to nuke our dying sun back to life and the existential burden felt by astronauts towing a bomb the size of Manhattan, then curveballs into space-madness slasher-film territory in the third act. But the most explicit restaging of Kubrick as horror is probably 1997’s Event Horizon, the first great movie by future Resident Evil auteur Paul W.S. Anderson. The allusions are all there. The long shots of objects seemingly falling through space. The glimpses of personal mementos that amplify the characters’ distance from their loved ones — Sam Neill has photos in his bunk, Kathleen Quinlan has videos of her kids on a proto-iPad. Neill onboard the titular spaceship, crawling through a Matrix-green version of the HAL 9000 mainframe. Except this is Paul W.S. Anderson, so when someone — it’s Jack Noseworthy, the Surge to Seth Green’s OK Soda — is trapped in an airlock open to the vacuum of space, we get to see his blood float around in zero-G as his eyeballs explode. Oh, and the spaceship is possessed, because Neill has made the mistake of designing it to span huge distances by traveling through a wormhole that happens to be a portal into hell.4

17. So there’s a case to be made that 2001, for all it did to shape the look and feel of sci-fi movies, also represented a dare that nobody else could step up to — that something chilly and antihumanist and essential was lost in translation as other filmmakers processed 2001 in their own work. Either the great unknown at the edge of the stars becomes a manageable monster to be destroyed or it ceases to be a factor at all; the most influential part of 2001 may be the midsection of the Jupiter mission, when it becomes a moody techno thriller about guys trying to solve a computer issue. It’s not a big leap from there to Apollo 13 and then to Gravity, in which space is just a place for Sandra Bullock to overcome the grief she left behind on Earth. Maybe it’s impossible to create a 2001 answer movie that’s character-driven and star-driven in the way Hollywood movies need to be while still preserving the profundity of the source, with its cold-comfort portrayal of how an encounter with the infinite might really feel. A few people have come close, though.

18. Mission to Mars, from the year 2001, becomes Brian De Palma’s 2001 somewhere between Earth and the Red Planet.5 A tracking shot takes us across the ship’s bow and through a porthole, behind which Jerry O’Connell is modeling a double helix — “That is the exact genetic composition of my ideal woman” — out of floating M&Ms, and Kubrick’s surveying eye gives way to De Palma’s probing camera. Kubrick gave us a Pan Am spaceflight attendant negotiating a circular corridor with Ford-model poise; De Palma has Connie Nielsen swaying to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” in zero-G, because BRIAN DE PALMA. And while we’re supposed to feel sad for the astronaut who chooses a one-way ticket at the end of the film, the movie also celebrates his decision to go where no one has gone before; his farewell to humanity is cast not as a heroic sacrifice but as a great ride we’re supposed to take.

the-fountain-aronofskyWarner Bros. Pictures

19. The Fountain, from 2006, becomes Darren Aronofsky’s 2001 every time a vast mandala fills the screen like God’s eye. It was supposed to be a pricey epic, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; when Pitt dropped out,6 it became a weirdly circumscribed epic with Hugh Jackman as the protagonist seeking eternal life for Rachel Weisz in three timelines roughly analogous to the tripartite 2001. The present-day one, in which Jackman is the kind of movie doctor to whom people say things like, “You’re reckless — and you’re losing perspective!” is schlock; the minute we get a look at the ribbon-tied leather notebook in which Weisz is elegantly calligraphing her novel, we know she won’t finish that last chapter. But the movie hits prog-rock high notes whenever Jackman’s onscreen as a presumably immortal spaceman journeying to a star named for the Mayan underworld in a soap-bubbleish craft straight off a Roger Dean album cover. He’s bald, he does tai chi, he gives himself minimalist arm-band tattoos. He’s the last hipster left in the universe, in other words, and he subsists on little pieces of bark picked off the trunk of a tree presumably grown from Weisz’s dead body. The Fountain recasts the Big Space Ideas movie as romantic melodrama, but the ideas are still there, including the notion of dying being a necessary and even creative act.

20. Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, becomes Robert Zemeckis’s 2001 when Jodie Foster’s SETI scientist — the first female to represent Man in one of these movies — follows a signal from Vega through a space-time rabbit hole and finds herself staring at a galaxy almost too beautiful to comprehend. Zemeckis shows us the view, but only for a few seconds; instead, the moment plays out on Foster’s face. “They should have sent a poet,” she murmurs into her headset. Before that, it’s a passionately agnostic movie about the possibility of life on other planets. It allows the cynicism of the modern media and echoes of the Challenger disaster into the frame, along with Hitler and Bryant Gumbel and Jake Busey as an Edgar Winterish preacher-terrorist, but tries to hold out hope anyway, at least as a thought experiment. Big Interstellar connection, too: Matthew McConaughey is Palmer Joss, the sexiest diplomat/theologian alive. The script turns his philosophical discussions with Foster into party chatter and romantic banter — “It’s like you’re saying science killed God,” she says, “but what if it simply revealed that He never existed in the first place?” — but Zemeckis keeps finding excuses to get the two of them outside at night so he can shoot them falling in love against a sea of stars. It’s the rare Big Space Ideas movie that keeps both the people and the vastness in focus.

The-Abyss-20th Century Fox

21. Is it cheating to end this beneath the ocean? Then again, isn’t the ocean just outer space with salt? The Abyss isn’t James Cameron’s 2001 — it’s too much of an action movie and puts too much effort into making us care about the raucous humanity, git-’er-done ingenuity, and dogged survival of Ed Harris’s Aliens-ish oil-drilling crew. But Cameron shares Kubrick’s intertwined fascination with and terror of technology, and if you’re looking for visual and thematic nods, they’re all over the place — the camera exploring low-ceilinged spaces linked by portals, the glow of the otherworldly in a glass face shield, the hiss of artificial respiration, the broken tether during extravehicular activity, and finally the journey through God’s navel, here represented by a tunnel inside a spaceship full of CGI water angels.

Before that happens, there’s Michael Biehn as a Navy SEAL with the deep-trench equivalent of space madness; he’s this movie’s HAL 9000, programmed to execute a mission and willing to dispose of anyone who gets in the way. The movie treats him as an obstacle preventing the characters’ escape from their predicament, but he’s also putting their chance of interacting with an alien intelligence at risk. The bad guy, in other words, is the one who’d keep us from touching the Monolith by dropping a nuke on it. When that interaction does finally come, it’s portrayed as transcendent, and the imagery that leads up to it is all about death and wombs and rebirth. The ending finds the closest thing to a middle ground between Hollywood and the star gate — two lovers are finally reunited, and God moves over the face of the waters.

Filed Under: Movies, Interstellar, Space, 2001: a space odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Mission to Mars, Alien, 2010, Coherence, the one i love, Blade Runner, Red Planet, Sunshine, Primer, Moon, Robert Zemeckis, Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky, solaris, Steven Soderbergh, Star Trek, The AByss, COntact

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.


More from Alex Pappademas

See all from Alex Pappademas

More Movies

See all Movies

More Hollywood Prospectus

See all Hollywood Prospectus