Jez Owen | Cinema

Open the book, Hal

For better or worse, I have spent a lot of time in many design studios, and judging by the amount of memorabilia standing around, there is a deep relationship between science fiction and design. Probably this has much to do with the potent mix of progressive thinking and existential crisis inherent in both. I will go further and say that there is an unofficial canon of what I call "designers films," most of which have a particular sci-fi bent and an evergreen popularity within the international creative community. This list naturally includes Star Wars but might extend to Moon, Solaris (both versions), Silent Running, The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green (insert your favorites here) … and looming enigmatically above them all, Kubrick’s 1968 magnum opus.

Books about science-fiction films are ten an Earth penny and many fall into the fanboy category, in other words they reproduce much of the visual element found on screen but offer little else except fodder for sci-fi’s reputation as a genre fit for derision. It is immediately obvious from the moment that you slide this familiar looking black-bound book from its gloss varnished slipcase, replete with iconic images and obligatory Futura usage, that this book is not one of those. Rather author Piers Bizony has written a 562-page manifesto as to why 2001 should indeed head this list. 


The book sits somewhere halfway between historical documentation and personal essay. While it discusses things Kubrickian, it could easily have traversed more experimental territory, but refreshingly, Paris-based studio M/M keep things formal, in every sense of the word. The content falls into nine logical chapters that explore the history of the film's production, from inception through production and release to the films ongoing legacy. Proceedings are wrapped with a succinct synopsis to assist in making sense of the film to both those who have seen it and those who are yet to have the enviable pleasure.

At all times, except perhaps for the penultimate chapter, where the book teeters dangerously on a precipice of pseudo-science territory, the writing is succinct and highly readable, effortlessly communicating a vast amount of detail gleaned from surviving archival materials and personal recollection from the parties involved. The visual content is similar: a huge array of production stills, development artwork, and photographic footage give us a privileged look behind the scenes of the production, in ways that most readers will have never seen before. Testament to this is the amount of items featured that are hardly noticeable in the final film, most notably development work produced by companies such as IBM on devices such electronic memory pens or tablet computers, minor details that at the time of filming were mere speculation.

The result provides a real sense of the sheer scale of the production. Even those familiar with the film will be surprised just how thorough the creation of this version of the future was, more complete perhaps than any historical epic. It is a pleasure to discover how the production team, a heady mix of the best contemporary British film industry talent of the time, alongside an incredible set of experts drawn from the aeronautical and technological industries plus, of course, a certain Arthur C. Clarke, collaborated to create a highly realized mis-en-scene that looked "right" on every level, the perfect foundation on which to build an exploration of humanity’s development and consider what an extraterrestrial existence might mean for the future. If there is a criticism to be levelled it is simply that there is a suggestion that 2001 in its final form was inevitable—that somehow it emerged complete, rather than, as with any film production, experiencing many wrong turns along the way. That’s not to say that unused or jettisoned material is not represented, it is there in small ways, but often presented as an aside.  

The book is therefore best understood as a personal invitation into the Stanley Kubrick Archive. It is not common knowledge, but housed within the University of the Arts London resides a vast resource of material related to Kubrick’s work. For many of his productions Kubrick produced an inordinate amount of research and development material. All of it was kept, although crucially, production elements themselves were always destroyed for fear of them being reused by rivals. What remains, therefore, is a vast resource of paperwork. Since the material was gifted to the college by the Kubrick family, it’s archivists have boldly taken on the epic task of cataloguing it. It must be said that what has ultimately been created is a big pile of boxes, albeit one that resides in a high-tech climatically controlled environment styled like the space Hilton itself. 

It is therefore the job of passionate projects such as this book to corral the material into a cohesive narrative. As 2001 shows us, human beings are nothing if not fallible, and so perhaps inevitably there would have always been things that are missed. Having spent many hours personally researching within the archive myself I can reveal that there is plenty of interesting material that has not been presented here (I forgive the writer because he does mention my own favorite discovery—a spectacular misfire where a comic strip created for a hamburger franchise interpreted 2001 as a knockabout space adventure).

This archival endeavor has produced a rare thing, a book that elevates the printed film companion to a suitably sublime experience, equal to that of the film. It helps us to understand Kubrick’s ultimate vision for 2001: that genre filmmaking can and should combine the best of all the arts to create nothing less than unmitigated masterpieces through which we can attempt to understand ourselves.

The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is pubished by Taschen and available here.

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Comments [2]

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