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Meanings:
The Myth of 2001

Written by Arthur C. Clarke, excerpted from Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations, ©1972 Harper and Row.

After five years largely devoted to this single project, I still find myself much too close to it to look at it very objectively. Also, it is now obvious that there is far more in 2001 than I realized when we were making it; perhaps more indeed, than even Stanley Kubrick, its principal creator, had intended.

It is true that we set out with the deliberate intention of creating a myth. (The Odyssean parallel was clear in our minds from the very beginning, long before the title of the film was chosen.) A myth has many elements, including the religious ones. Quite early in the game I went around saying, not very loudly, "M-G-M doesn't know this yet, hut they're paying for the first $10,000,000 religious movie." Nevertheless, it is still quite a surprise to see how many people realized this, and it has been amusing to see how many faiths have tried to stake claims in the finished work. Several reviewers have seen a cross in some of the astronomical scenes; this is purely a matter of camera composition. I might also mention that we have recently discovered-this was quite a shock--that there is a Buddhist sect which worships a large, black, rectangular slab. The analogy of the Kaaba has also been mentioned; though I certainly never had it in mind at the time, the fact that the Black Stone sacred to the Muslims is reputed to be a meteorite is a more than interesting coincidence.

All the mythical elements in the film--intentional and otherwise-help to explain the extraordinarily powerful responses that it has evoked from audiences and reviewers. In this we have been successful beyond our wildest drearns--certainly beyond minel I have now read hundreds of reviews from newspapers and magazines all over the world (the most important of these, together with much other material, have appeared in New American Library's The Making of Kubrick's 2001, edited by Jerome B. Agel), and a pretty clear pattern of critical reaction is emerging.

A small number of reviewers said, even at first screening, that the movie was a masterpiece and a landmark in the history of the cinema. (Some have remarked flatly that it is "obviously" one of the most important movies ever made.) Another small but significant proportion didn't like it the first time, wrote rather critical reviews, brooded for some days, went to see it again, and then wrote second reviews which were not only recantations but sometimes raves. This is the typical reaction to a new and revolutionary work of art (vide the first peformance of The Rite of Spring), but in the past this process of evaluation took years or decades. I remember saying to Kubrick that he was luckier than Melville, who never lived to see the world appreciate Moby Dick.

Moby Dick, of course, has been mentioned many times in connection with 2001; though it is asking for trouble to make such comparisons, I had this work consciously in mind as a prototype (viz., the use of hard technology to construct a launch pad for metaphysical speculations). It took about half a century before literary criticism caught up with Melville; I wonder how many college theses are now being written on 2001.

Perhaps the majority of reviews were favorable but somewhat baffled, while another minority group was vociferously hostile. But this very hostility proves the emotional impact of the film; that acute critic Damon Knight (who has written that 2001 is "undoubtedly one of the best films ever made") considers that the extraordinarily obtuse reaction of some science-fiction critics was simply due to embarrassment. They just couldn't face the film's religious implications.

There are others who, quite understandably, expected an updated Destination Moon and were baffled by Kubrick's version. But both time and the box office will prove that Kubrick was perfectly correct (indeed, the latter has already done so, for in almost all countries the film has been a fantastic commercial success). To have done a straightforward documentary-type movie--at the very moment when men were preparing to land on the Moon!--would have been to invite disaster, and would have provided no sort of artistic challenge. George Pal's Destination Moon was magnificent for 1950; we were interested in starting where that finished.

Soon after the movie was released, and the first cries of bafflement were being heard in the land, I made a remark that horrified the M-G-M top brass. "If you understand 2001 on the first viewing," I stated,"we will have failed." I still stand by this remark, which does not mean that one can't enjoy the movie completely the first time around. What I meant was, of course, that because we were dealing with the mystery of the Universe, and with powers and forces greater than man's comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure--and sometimes more than one--behind everything that happens on the screen in 2001, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simple-minded critics to the contrary. (You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick's. Nor is his necessarily the "right" one--whatever that means.)

2001 has already become part of fiIm history; it is the first science-fiction movie to do so, and its success has been so overwhelming that it poses the embarrassing problem "Where do we go from here?" in a particularly acute form. Yet in a very few years it will probably seem old-fashioned, and people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

As for the dwindling minority who still don't like it, that's their problem, not ours. Stanley and I are laughing all the way to the bank.

POSTSCRIPT

A much fuller account of the making of the film, together with material which was never used in the final version, will be found in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (New York: New American Library, 1972).

 

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