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50 years of '2001: A Space Odyssey' - the legacy of Kubrick's masterpiece in ten films

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Since its release exactly fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has come to be regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, not to mention a lasting pop culture phenomenon.

The film is divided into three parts: ‘The Dawn of Man’, in which an imposing black monolith is discovered first by prehistoric apes, then millions of years later on the surface of the moon; ‘Jupiter Mission’, in which scientist Dave Bowman faces off against sentient computer HAL 900; and ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, in which Bowman is pulled into a psychedelic ‘Star Gate’ vortex.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1) Solaris (1972)

Billed in the UK as ‘Russia’s answer to 2001’ – director Andrei Tarkovsky made no secret of his dislike for Kubrick’s film – Solaris takes a similarly metaphysical approach to the science-fiction genre, albeit with starkly different results. The film is set aboard a space station orbiting the oceanic planet Solaris, where phycologist Kris Kelvin has been sent to evaluate the mental health of its inhabitants, the scientists Snaut, Sartorius and Gibarian. Discovering the ship is home to more ‘guests’ than he anticipated, Kelvin realises that he too has been brought under the planet’s mysterious spell.

Whereas 2001 is concerned with outward expansion and our place in the external universe, Solaris is very much an introspective film, one that eschews special effects in favour of philosophical meditation on what makes us human. In fact, Solaris could be seen as a humanist manifesto against the cosmic imperialism of science-fiction and real science alike, as is captured in Dr. Snaut’s resonant rumination: “We don't need other worlds, we need a mirror.”

2) Star Wars (1977) 

The late 1970s saw the emergence of filmmakers who had grown up on Kubrick’s masterpiece – described by Steven Spielberg as his generation’s “big bang” – and who were fixated on bringing their own visions of space exploration to the big screen. One such filmmaker was George Lucas, whose space opera Star Wars went on to spawn one of the most successful film franchises of all time.

The quest narrative of Star Wars might seem world apart from Kubrick’s experimental sci-fi ‘plot’, with Lucas himself admitting that ‘it is a fantasy much closer to the Brothers Grimm than it is to 2001.” Nevertheless, Star Wars owes a massive technical debt to 2001, not only in its rendering of practical effect spacecraft – made in both films from parts of other assorted models – but also in its use of a classical score.

3) Alien (1979)

Another of those affected by 2001 was director Ridley Scott, whose film Alien took many plot elements from Kubrick’s masterpiece – intergalactic explorers and suspicious artificial intelligence among them. In visual terms, however, Alien’s grimy production design and evocations of body horror contrast with 2001’s sleek spaceship interiors.

Scott would go on to hire Douglas Trumbull, the special effects supervisor on 2001, for his next project Blade Runner (1982), and his belated Alien prequel Prometheus (2012) covered many of the themes touched on in 2001. In 2014, Scott signed on as executive producer for a 2001 sequel miniseries – which, at the time of writing, seems to be stuck in development hell.  

4) Altered States (1980)

Elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey can be seen scattered throughout Altered States, Ken Russell’s sci-fi horror film about a psychologist experimenting with sensory deprivation and drugs. The film’s centrepiece, an imposing isolation tank, is reminiscent of 2001’s monolith, and the films both touch on themes of human consciousness and evolution (weirdly enough, both also feature apemen).

Kubrick’s biggest impact on Russell, however, can be seen in the scenes of pure audio-visual trippiness. One of 2001’s most audacious and influential components is its infamous ‘Star Gate’ sequence, in which astronaut Dave Bowman’s mind-bending journey through space and time is visualised as a psychedelic light show – and which led to ­2001 being marketed as ‘the ultimate trip’. Altered States literalises 2001’s suggestive tagline, taking audiences on a series of unforgettable hallucinogenic trips evocative of the Star Gate. The result is suitably batshit.

5) Contact (1997)

Based on the novel by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan­­­, Contact is in many ways a philosophical extension (albeit a far more commercial one) of 2001’s themes of abstract extra-terrestrial communication. Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a scientist who receives a scrambled alien signal and is subsequently chosen to make first contact – which again involves journeying through a wormhole not too dissimilar to the Star Gate.

Interestingly enough, Kubrick had reportedly written to Sagan during the production of 2001 asking his opinion of how best to depict alien life. Sagan’s response was that the film should only suggest rather than actually depict extra-terrestrial intelligence – an approach adopted by both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact.

6) Moon (2009)

2001’s greatest influence on pop culture came in the form of HAL 9000, the computer in control of spacecraft Discovery One and one of cinema’s most celebrated villains. Inspiration from HAL can be seen in a plethora of A.I. characters, from the scheming robot AUTO in Pixar’s WALL-E (2008) to the manipulative GLaDOS in the Portal video-game series (2007-2011), but perhaps no homage has been as successful and entertaining as that of Moon.

Duncan Jones’ debut film sees lunar miner Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) approaching the end of his three-year solo mission to the moon, which he has undergone with only the companionship of a chatty robot called GERTY. As in 2001, Sam discovers he has been deceived about the true purpose of his space mission, and realises he’ll need GERTY’s help to make it home alive.

7) Interstellar (2014)

To say Interstellar was influenced visually and thematically by 2001 is a somewhat intergalactic understatement. Almost every element of Christopher Nolan’s critically-divisive (read: underrated) film has its origins in A Space Odyssey, including the jumps through time, a HAL-esque robot, and its very own Star Gate sequence.

Most significantly, both Nolan and Kubrick shared an interest in making their sci-fi epics as scientifically accurate as they were artistically experimental. Just as Kubrick had contacted Carl Sagan for advice, Nolan based his film on an original premise from producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, a couple who had previously worked on Contact. Thorne laid down two rules for the writing process: "First, that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations … would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter." Resultantly, the film’s rendering of wormholes and black holes, for the most part, drew praise from the scientific community.

8) A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story – the haunting tale of a ghost tethered across huge stretches of time to the house he shared with his partner – is the least science-fictiony film on this list, and as such the influence of 2001 is a little harder to spot. But it is certainly there; most notably in the film’s relaxed pacing, its weighty themes concerning human existence and in its manipulation of time.

2001’s influence is more subtly detectable, however, in Daniel Hart’s elusive score to the film. As much as Kubrick was one of cinema’s greatest visual directors, 2001 is a reminder that he was also an excellent soundtrack compiler, always able to select the perfect track for the scene. Just as Star Wars drew on the works of Johann and Richard Strauss that had been used in Kubrick’s film, A Ghost Story joins a long tradition of scores inspired by the haunting, dissonant compositions of György Ligeti, used in 2001 to accompany the appearances of the ominous monolith. 

9) Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland’s high-concept sci-fi focuses on a group of scientists entering ‘The Shimmer’, an ever-expanding area of mutated Florida swampland, on a mission to the lighthouse where the supposedly 'alien' infection begun. It’s in its astonishing final act that the 2001 parallel becomes clear; not so much ‘the ultimate trip’ as it is ‘the ultimate bad trip’, as the film goes visually haywire to fantastic effect.

It may have been showered with critical praise upon release, but that didn’t stop distributors Paramount freaking out over concerns it would prove ‘too intellectual’ for mainstream audiences. Having sold the rights to Netflix internationally, they led a half-hearted theatrical campaign that saw Annihilation flop at the US box office anyway. When compared with 2001 – which, despite a divided critical reaction, went on to become a commercial success after a nationwide tour – we might ask whether studios are somehow less willing to engage with experimental blockbusters than they were fifty years ago.

10) The Simpsons (1989-present)

With its lofty aspirations and arthouse aesthetics, it’s no surprise that 2001 has been a source of parody as much as it has inspiration, with references slipped into Zoolander (2001), Robots (2005), and a particularly memorable episode of Community (2009-15). No film or T.V. series, however, has spoofed 2001 quite as extensively and brilliantly as The Simpsons, whose creator Matt Groening is a self-professed fan of Kubrick’s work.

Most of these parodies concern the idiotic exploits of Homer Simpson: one episode has Homer dream himself as an ape in 2001’s ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence, falling asleep against the monolith while his monkey pals discover tools; in another he tries a massage chair so powerful it causes him to enter a Star Gate hallucination; in another he becomes an astronaut and appears as the ‘Star Child’ from the 2001’s end sequence. But the show’s best 2001-inspired homage comes in a segment of ‘Treehouse of Horror XII’, in which Marge purchases the ‘Ultrahouse 3000’ – a creepy robot modelled on HAL 9000 who falls in love with Marge and attempts to kill Homer, and who is voiced by Pierce Brosnan, obviously.

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