tu delft delta book space odyssey

Lifelong fan Michael Benson has written an excellent book about 2001 A Space Odyssey, the ground breaking science fiction movie by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke that was first screened exactly fifty years ago.

2001 A Space Odyssey is one of those movies everybody has heard of, but quite a lot less people have actually seen. A bit like James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which explores the same themes in the same nonlinear manner: the journey of man and, ultimately, the meaning of life. Even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg acknowledged the superiority of Kubricks masterpiece to their own science fiction sagas Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

So it is only fitting that the fiftieth anniversary of the movie comes with a lengthy but lively book about its conception, production, release and reception. Author Michael Benson first saw Space Odyssey when he was six years old. Too young, perhaps, to fully understand its full meaning, but at least not too puzzled to understand it, like many adult moviegoers at the time. The initial reviews were scathing. It would take time before its mastery was understood.

Benson picks up his story in Sri Lanka, where science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was living in the early sixties, worried by money issues and wondering if he could get into movie making. Out of the blue het receives a letter by Stanley Kubrick, then already an accomplished director. Would he like to make a film together? Sure, why not?

The story moves to New York, where both men meet and get to work. They write a script, sort of. A budget of five million dollar is secured. Kubrick, notorious for his attention to detail, starts researching to get everything right. One of the main advisers will be Marvin Minsky, the godfather of Artificial Intelligence at MIT, whose namesake Victor Kaminsky will be killed by the intelligent machine HAL in the movie.

People boo and walk out in droves. But youngsters like John Lennon and David Bowie immediately love it

Filming starts. The script becomes fluid. The budget balloons. Huge sets are built and discarded as imperfect. George Muller, the head of Nasa’s Apollo program visits the set and is stunned by its realism. Filming ends. Kubrick is not satisfied. He takes off to Namibia to shoot a whole new prelude. Then there’s postproduction. A special extra wide screen is installed in Washington for the first screening. People boo and walk out in droves. But youngsters like John Lennon and David Bowie immediately love it. That will secure its status.

Meticulous research and attention to detail is also the mark of Michael Benson on his book. He has spoken to nearly everybody involved except Kubrick himself (because he died in 1999). Space Odyssey is a fascinating read, though it may be a bit too lengthy for non-aficionados  – but go see the movie first.

Christian Jongeneel

  • Michael Benson, Space Odyssey, Simon & Schuster, 2018, pp 497, 25 euro, ISBN 978-1-5011-6393-7