What’s happening at the beginning (when apes discover a giant slab and hurl a bone in the air)? What’s the meaning of the ending (when an astronaut ages in space and morphs into a star child)? Not many science-fiction films encourage the audience to ask those questions. An essay on man’s destiny, 2001 was for some of its late-’60s viewers a light show, a head trip, needing no earthbound explanations. Making the first mainstream movie to foreground its special effects, Kubrick and his brilliant young technicians imagined the cosmos without today’s digital gadgets: all the wizardry was photomechanical, achieved within the camera — including the movie hyperspace that Luke Skywalker would fly through nine years later. George Lucas has said that 2001 “was hugely inspirational to me. If he could do it, I can do it.” Except that Star Wars was a very sophisticated kids’ movie, with Saturday-matinee thrills and warp-drive plot thrust. Kubrick made an interspace art film; it had wonder, as in awe and wonder, as in head-scratching bafflement.
A year after his space movie came out, man walked on the moon. But less than four years later, the manned exploration of other planets ceased. And the director died two years before the actual 2001. He left behind this very Kubrickian thought: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent … However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”