Remembering '2001: A Space Odyssey'

We talked to the lead actors from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece—the greatest sci-fi movie of all time.

by Lore Oxford
Dec 4 2014, 7:45pm

This article was originally published on VICE UK

That moment when a recently enlightened monkey tosses a bone into the air and it transforms into a shimmering nuclear weapon, orbiting earth. That brightly colored modernist furniture decorating the space lobbies of the future. A group of astronauts posing for a quick pic with the monolith. Sound familiar? Anybody who's ever taken even the slightest interest in film, sci-fi, or psychedelia probably knows at least one of these settings. 

My point is—to state the glaringly obvious—2001: A Space Odyssey is totally iconic. It's why Taschen published a book about its making and got away with sticking a $1,000 price tag on it. It's why it tops every "greatest sci-fi movies of all time" list and nearly every "greatest films of all time" list. It's why the BFI is rereleasing the film this month. And, let's face it, it's why someone is paying me to gush unnecessarily about its greatness, 46 years after it was made.

Any time actors Keir Dullea ( who plays Dr. Dave Bowman) or Gary Lockwood (who plays Dr. Frank Poole) go anywhere, someone asks them to recount a blow-by-blow of what it was like to work with Stanley Kubrick. What it was like to work on that movie? Even though, if Lockwood is to be believed, they were only ever cast in the first place because Kubrick decided they "looked like astronauts."

"I came onto 2001 after working on a film with Otto Preminger and, let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven from Preminger to Kubrick," says Gary Lockwood at a recent BFI conference. "Kubrick was so good with us. He never raised his voice ever, very quiet. You sensed—at least I felt I was—in the presence of genius every moment of the time. He was never demanding in the way you would imagine he would be. He was so... so prepared. The most prepared director I had ever worked with. He was relaxed because he knew what he wanted."

Like most people, when I watch 2001, I'm blown away. There was once a ​study conducted at Stanford University that led scientists to define the feeling of awe as a response to an experience that is so perceptually gigantic that we have to upgrade our usual frameworks of thought in order to understand the scale of it. For me, that's pretty much the best way of defining how I feel when I watch 2001. Even when one of the only two characters left is dead but nothing is technically happening—at least not to a viewer who's been acclimatized to the Hollywood pyrotechnics of today—and all you can think is OH MY FUCKING GOD OPEN THE POD BAY DOORS HAL, it feels like the silence and stillness is rolling out in front of you for eternity.

I could take the heavily pretentious die-hard fan route and talk about how I knew from the first time I saw 2001 that it had opened a window to a part of my consciousness that I'd never experienced before, but in all honesty I'm pretty sure I owe the first time I made it all the way through this movie to a giant TV, a surround sound set-up, and a joint that rendered me incapable of leaving the couch, even if I'd wanted to.

Gary Lockwood tells me he was stoned at the 1968 premiere of the film in Washington, DC, where one "plastic-faced" journalist told him he looked like he was "still in space." ("You have to remember, it was the '60s," says Lockwood.) Keir Dullea remembers how a couple months into the film's release "MGM realized a lot of the younger generation were attending the film having smoked funny cigarettes, so they changed their advertising campaign." The new ​posters read: "2001... the ultimate trip."

People walked out of all three premieres in 1968, say Dullea and Lockwood. From the film's reception then, no one knew that it was this monumental moment in cinema history. Reviews were mixed, with many journalists eating their words years later, after writing things  ​like, "2001 is a disaster because it is much too abstract to make its abstract points." 

The New York Times ​described the film as, "a very complicated, languid movie—in which almost a half-hour passes before the first man appears and the first word is spoken, and an entire hour goes by before the plot even begins to declare itself." But probably the most damning review I've heard is my dad's. When his older brothers snuck him into the cinema to see it that same year, all three of them fell asleep in what I imagine to be the trippiest nap of all time. 

It's true that with our ever diminishing attention spans, there are probably more people now than ever that would see 2001 as nothing more or less than the longest yawn of all time. It's why the BFI and Warner Brothers commissioned a new trailer this year, to appeal to a film viewer who wants scientific inaccuracies for the sake of drama (sorry Star Wars fans, but noise in space ISN'T A THING), oversexed female leads and probably some kind of companion app so they can tweet about it while they watch. 

At the end of the day, when Ridley Scott that said that after 2001, science fiction died, he was kind of right. And he should know, given a certain more recent sci-fi attempt (looking at you Prometheus). Sure, there have been success stories in the last couple of years. Interstellar and Gravity have both been commended at length for recreating space with such accuracy—which seems a little ridiculous given that Interstellar's hyper-realistic black hole occurred almost 50 years after 2001. "I thought the beginning of the picture was very lame," says Lockwood of Interstellar. "You know they are somewhere in the Midwest and he's in a pickup truck? I thought, OK, didn't Superman start like that one time?" 

In my mind, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin achieved that same kind of eerie disconnectedness that made Kubrick's legend so hypnotizing. But seriously? Was Kubrick just the only dude competing in the Hollywood edition of the space race? Maybe no one else was up to the job. "The guy had the eye," says Lockwood, a simplistic statement of truth. It's definitely true that Kubrick's eccentric persona added to the film's aura. Releasing a movie about the final frontier the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set out (or didn't, depending on which conspiracy you're into) to hang out with a flag on the moon was enough in itself. 

When Kubrick went on to theorize about extraterrestrial life and the origins of evolution in an absurdly long but particularly interesting interview with none other than Playboy, it only added to the allure of the movie—a deconstruction of the thinking behind the genius. Decades on, it's kind of like a modernized version of the DVD special feature, only tucked away in the depths of the internet instead, waiting to be stumbled across by avid super fans.

And like so many great cult movies—from Apocalypse Now to Pulp Fiction—there are about a billion other urban legends that surround its making, each story adding a little extra magic. Did you know Dullea got told there were rocket ships in his future by a palm reader a week before Kubrick offered him the role? Or that the title was inspired by Homer's The Odyssey? Or that 2001 was so ahead of its time that Samsung referenced the tablets the astronauts used in it to wriggle their way out of a lawsuit with Apple over ​copyright?

Long story short, 2001 is fucking great, and anyone who can sit through it that first time will probably want to watch it time and again forever and always. Every shot is perfectly framed (if it had been made today, people who make GIFs would rejoice for sure) and the soundtrack—though I can't say I've ever willingly sat down to enjoy classical music, except in this particular context—only adds to the balletic movement of the spacecrafts that roll across the galaxy and the all-encompassing epicness the film embodies. 

Hopefully, with or without the suped-up BFI trailer, new generations of film lovers will continue to give 2001 the chance to blow their comparably tiny little minds. Dullea maintains that "the genius of the film, which is all Kubrick, is that it has appealed to generation after generation." But for those who can't make it through the thing? As Lockwood so aptly notes, "Who fucking cares." 

Additional reporting by Tom Breakwell.

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