It was 49 years ago this month that a movie came out and changed the course of sci-fi cinema.
That movie, of course, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in April 1968, the film was produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, and written by Kubrick and legendary science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Although there had been exceptional films released in the genre before it (including gems like Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Quatermass and the Pit, to name a few), 2001 was a quantum leap forward both in filmmaking and the portrayal of subjects like spaceflight and human evolution.
While there have been a lot of good and even great sci-fi films made since the genre was born -- heck, it's almost as old as cinema itself if you consider 1902's A Trip to the Moon as "film zero" -- there aren't many that can be said to capture the sweep, majesty and cosmic awe of the genre at its finest. 2001 did that in one evolutionary leap, creating a gold standard that decades' worth of movies since have aspired to -- and few have equaled.
Here are 10 reasons why 2001 remains the greatest sci-fi movie of all time:
1. The film's massive scope
2001 is one ambitious film: it attempts to tell the entire story of the evolution of humankind, from primitive ape creature of the distant past to advanced star-being of the near future, while also exploring ideas like man's place in the universe, artificial intelligence ("personified" by the complex computer HAL 9000) and technological progress -- and all in 137 minutes! The leaps it makes encompass time and space in a vast, overwhelming way make the viewer feel the immensity of both and the scale of the story that Kubrick and Clarke are telling. Written science fiction had been doing that for a while; only a few films, like 1936's Things to Come, had attempted the same.
2. It elevated literary sci-fi into the mainstream
Even up through the early part of the 1960s, written science fiction was considered a pulp genre relegated to magazines and cheap paperbacks. Arthur C. Clarke was one of the field's real rock stars thanks to brilliant works like Childhood's End, The City and the Stars and Earthlight. By using Clarke's story "The Sentinel" as the starting point for 2001, and bringing Clarke in to both co-write the script and a concurrent novel, Kubrick afforded Clarke -- and the genre he was associated with -- a level of respect it had long been denied.
3. It introduced aliens as benign, if still superior
Most of the filmed sci-fi of the years before 2001, with a handful of exceptions, portrayed extra-terrestrials as intruders, invaders and monsters to be feared and fought. 2001 not only introduced an alien intelligence so vastly superior to ours that the director wisely avoided trying to visualize it on the screen (with the monoliths as their representatives instead), but they were not malevolent at all: their goal was, in fact, to gently guide humankind toward a greater level of existence entirely.
4. Realism, realism, realism
When Kubrick set out to make 2001, he was determined to make a movie firmly grounded in science. That's why his ships glide silently through the vacuum of space, and even explosions generate no sound, since no such thing is possible where there is no air (Alfonso Cuaron later applied this in Gravity). His sets on the space station and the Discovery are built to simulate the rotation necessary to create artificial gravity, something never utilized in other films. From his spacecraft interiors to the surface of the Moon, Kubrick strove to make the most realistic space odyssey he could (let's also not forget the incredible versimilitude of the ape-men in the film's opening scenes).
5. Film as a visual medium
While science fiction in print and on film strove over the years to create striking, frightening or indelible images, Kubrick wanted to use the power of visuals to drive his story above all else. 2001 famously only has about 20 minutes of dialogue in its entire running time, and none whatsoever in its first or last 20 minutes. What dialogue there is is largely banalities or some degree of exposition. But that was the point: Kubrick deliberately cut out a lot of verbiage to let the visuals tell the story -- and they did, with results that are iconic and celebrated to this day.
6. The pioneering visual effects
To get the visuals he wanted, Kubrick led the effort to create or utilize ground-breaking new methods of doing special effects. Front projection, as opposed to the then standard rear projection, was used in the early Dawn of Man sequences and the walk on the Moon. All kinds of methods, including slit-scan photography and the use of negative filters, were used to create the climactic Star Gate sequence, which still stands as one of the greatest single scenes in sci-fi history.
7. The music
Kubrick set aside the traditional method of using original music composed for the film (although Alex North did compose a score that the director decided not to use) in favor of existing classical works like Johann Strauss II's The Blue Danube (for the space docking sequence) and the "Sunrise" movement from Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra (for the opening shots of the sun, moon and Earth). The poetry of the former and the majesty of the latter perfectly captured the moods that the filmmaker wanted to evoke. The use of "Sunrise," it could be argued, paved the way for the many legendary classically-inspired scores that followed in sci-fi cinema, from John Williams' towering work in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) to Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner's thrilling scores for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) respectively.
8. 2001 respects the viewer's intelligence
By cutting back on the dialogue and deliberately leaving many of the film's ideas and scenes open for interpretation, Kubrick created a surreal and often impressionistic experience that was intentionally enigmatic. At first that didn't quite fly with critics and viewers, but over the years it has been accepted that Kubrick did not want to spoonfeed explanations and motivations to the audience -- particularly when it came to elements of the story like the aliens and their role in humanity's evolution. And if you did want clarifications, there was always Arthur C. Clarke's novel, which did flesh out a few things left unexplained along the way.
9. Optimism about humanity's destiny
Science fiction can be a dark and often bleak genre, but it does contain an overriding optimism about humanity -- we will reach the stars, we will transcend our current form of existence, we will meet and join with other races out in the universe. This point of view was apparent in much of Clarke's work, although Kubrick was deeply cynical about humankind. While the director's outlook is also evident in the film -- after all, the first thing the early ape-men do when inspired by the monolith to develop a tool is kill with it -- it's Clarke's vision that ultimately wins out by showing humanity reaching for the stars and apparently deemed fit to ascend to the next stage of evolution.
10. It changed sci-fi cinema permanently
Although Star Wars came along not even 10 years later and sent the genre spinning in a different direction, there's no question that 2001 irrevocably elevated filmed science fiction. It influenced scores of films and generations of filmmakers to explore the genre to its fullest potential as a medium of often mind-blowing and awe-inspiring ideas while fashioning the most wondrous images possible. Without 2001, we might have never had films like The Andromeda Strain (1971), THX 1138 (1971), Solaris (1972), Phase IV (1974), Logan's Run (1976) The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Stalker (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Altered States (1980), The Thing (1982), Contact (1997), The Fountain (2006), Sunshine (2007), Interstellar (2014) and countless others. Yet the vision of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke stands above them all, gazing down on the genre almost 50 years later like the film's transcendent Star-Child itself.