2001: A Space Odyssey, now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release, came late to the little one-screen theater in the small Maryland town where I grew up. It wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that I went to see it with my best friend from high school. By then the movie’s tag line had been switched from the originally staid and unadventurous, “An epic drama of adventure and exploration,” to its semi-psychedelic nom de cinema, “The ultimate trip,” which played on the conflation of space travel and a journey to a higher reality or consciousness. The film, with its techno-mystical motif and state-of-the-art visual effects, had picked up a following among hippies and fellow-travelers using marijuana and LSD to enhance their cinematic experience. Originally opening to mixed reviews and mediocre box-office, 2001 gradually picked up steam, partially propelled by the “alternative” consciousness counter-culture of the 60s. After that evening’s showing, the conversation I overhead outside was a microcosm of the wider national reaction to the movie. While my friend and I talked about how dazzled and entranced we were, a middle-aged man standing next to me sneered, “Somebody made a lot of money off of that.” What was true either way was that film director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke’s creative collaboration had already become a cultural phenomenon; a work of art influencing not only film-making, but also our reflection on the future of humanity, the nature of God, and the meaning of life.

An Author’s Vision and an Auteur’s Passion

After the critical and financial success of his 1964 Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick contacted Clarke—a writer and acknowledged expert in both science fact and fiction—with the idea of collaborating. From the very beginning of their work together, Kubrick wanted to do two things: to make a serious science fiction movie that was as realistic as possible, and to explore “man’s relation to the universe” in a way that was philosophically significant. 

The starting point for the plot of 2001 was Clarke’s 1948 short story, The Sentinel, in which a lunar expedition discovers a pyramid-shaped alien artifact that signals to an advanced and ancient civilization that humanity has come of age and attained space travel. For the next four years Clarke and Kubrick hammered out simultaneously a novel and a screenplay, with feedback going both ways. A “quest” theme was added to Clarke’s story, and the working title of the project became “Journey Beyond the Stars.” Eventually, influenced by the title of the Homeric epic of Odysseus, Kubrick settled on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Meanwhile, production on the film began in 1965, starting with painstaking research on space travel and its allied technologies. It was the era of the space-race, with the goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and Kubrick and Clarke wanted to project into the near-future a plausible development of then current technology. It was also the beginning of serious scientific conjecture about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, including advanced intelligent life somewhere out there in the cosmos. In 1966 Kubrick made a mini-documentary, intended as a prologue, interviewing experts on astronomy, anthropology, and evolution, about the possibility of life on other worlds. The documentary was never used, but the ideas it presented framed and formed the theme, as well as the underlying worldview assumptions, of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s vision for the movie. What they wanted, according to one of Clarke’s diary entries in July 1964, was a “smashing theme of mythic grandeur.” What they got was meticulously crafted cinematic art, expressing, for the first time in science fiction film, the trope of “salvation from the stars.”

A Bildungsroman of the Human Race

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant offered an the answer: “Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another … Sapere Aude! ‘Have the courage to use your own intelligence!’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” For Kant, and many others, the Enlightenment was to be mankind’s coming of age, the era in which humanity attained the age of majority, stood on its own two feet, and boldly stepped into a brave new future. At the same time, not coincidentally, the literary genre of the Bildungsroman was born: the “novel of education,” a story of the protagonist’s journey from youth to adulthood, finding his place in the world through moral and spiritual growth. The genre expressed the optimism of the so-called Enlightenment era, the buoyant belief that reason and science would gain for humanity the unity and harmony that religion had failed to bring. Humanity would save itself. Thus was born the modern “myth” of Progress.

Belief in the myth grew in Western culture through the 18th and 19th centuries but seemed to have been crushed by the devastation and horrors of two World Wars in the 20th century. But the peace and prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s in post-war America brought a new-found optimism towards the future. A key emblem of this optimism was the beginning of the space program and humanity’s first steps toward the stars. In 1962, President Kennedy gave his famous “moon speech” at Rice University in Houston, in which he pledged the resources of the nation toward putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” the president said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” As well as a statement of national domestic policy, the speech was a resounding restatement of and recommitment to the myth of progress, now focused on mankind’s destiny to explore, and eventually colonize, the cosmos.

Arthur C. Clarke was an early and enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, and a true believer in man’s “manifest destiny” to conquer space. That Kubrick sought Clarke out denoted Kubrick’s own fascination with humanity’s future in space. When they began their 2001 collaboration in 1964, NASA was in the middle of Project Gemini, the second phase of the moon landing program. 2001: A Space Odyssey had its general release in autumn of 1968. By December 1968, in the third phase, Apollo 8 had achieved the first manned mission to the moon, making ten lunar orbits before returning to earth (this mission became famous for the crew’s reading of the Genesis creation story on Christmas day). The movie was still in its first run when Apollo 11 put the first man on the moon in July of 1969. Optimism in a technological future in space seemed well-founded.

Clarke also invested his hope and talent in the belief that humanity was not alone in the universe. As Darwinism dominated biology in the 20th century, it gave rise to the supposition that, wherever the right natural conditions obtained, life would inevitably arise—de novo and de natura—and subsequently evolve. At the same time, astronomers and cosmologists began to reveal how truly enormous the universe was; billions of light years of space populated by billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. Other sentient beings on other worlds must exist in such a vast cosmos, some whose intelligence and technology would have evolved enormously beyond ours.

Early in the 2001 project, Kubrick gave Clarke a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s 1949 work on comparative mythology. Campbell identified the “hero’s journey” as the “monomyth” which stood behind all (or nearly all, depending on how you follow Campbell) the narrative mythology in human history. Clarke described the book as “very stimulating.” Both the book and the film of 2001 incorporated Campbell’s conceptualization of the hero’s journey but encased in a larger drama. Two hero-characters—the “man-ape” Moon-Watcher in the beginning “Dawn of Man” sequence and the astronaut David Bowman who goes through the Star Gate in the climax—are ultimately transformed through contact with alien artifacts, each a rectangular black monolith. They are the beginning and end of a larger story told of the evolution of humanity from childhood to adulthood to “new birth,” aided by advanced extra-terrestrial beings. This was the “mythic grandeur” Kubrick was aiming for, combining the concepts of human evolution, the Enlightenment myth of progress, space travel, intelligent extra-terrestrial life, and Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology, in a Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story—for the entire human race.

The supposed obscurity and ambiguity of the meaning of this story, as depicted in the movie, have been vastly overstated, due in part to Kubrick’s cinematic decision to understate traditional narrative by emphasizing visual imagery over dialogue. Clarke’s novel follows the same story arc, with more description and explanation, along with minor differences in the details. Yet even in the film the essential themes and basic plot are straightforward, as Kubrick himself explained in an interview with film critic Joseph Gelmis in 1969 [spoiler alert]:

You begin with an artifact left on earth 4,000,000 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. That is what happens on the film’s simplest level.

Despite the cosmic setting and the advanced technology, here are the classic elements of the Bildungsroman, now stretched out across all of time and space.