A Space Odyssey Was Far From Science Fiction

In his behind-the-scenes account “The Lost Worlds of 2001,” Clarke detailed his experience working with Kubrick on the script and bouncing ideas off him for the novel. But the author also reveals that when the director first approached him, he explained he wanted to make a science-fiction film that would “arouse the emotions of wonder, awe… even, if appropriate, terror.” Emotions I think we can all agree the viewer feels overwhelmed with throughout the movie, and especially at its end.

Which is why it’s interesting to discover that perhaps Kubrick was looking to mirror his own reactions to the prospects of extraterrestrial life. Dust off a New York Times article from 1966 and you’ll find Kubrick in his own words detailing his “Eureka!” time:

“Somewhere along my wandering reading I came across some Rand Corporation statistics on the probability of life in outer space. The ABC’s of these statistics are that our galaxy is made up of about a hundred billion stars, that each of these stars is made of the same chemical stuff as our own sun, and that planetary systems thus number in the billions, too. cold and those like Mercury are too hot–the likelihood would be that life would arise spontaneously.The Rand Corporation estimated 640,000 earth-type planets in our own galaxy – planets so much like ours that you could step out of a space vehicle, take a deep breath of oxygenated air and look up at a blue sky.Most astronomers and other scientists interested in the whole question are strongly convinced that the universe is crawling with life; much of it, since the numbers are so staggering, equal to us in intelligence, or superior, simply because human intelligence has existed for so relatively short a period.”

It’s a cold but oddly exciting realization: the crushing size of the cosmos and the imperceptibly large probability it harbors life other than our own. Kubrick felt some sense of it when he read those numbers from The Rand Corporation, much the same way I will the next time I fall down a rabbit-hole of YouTube videos or Wikipedia links dealing with all things aliens. Whether or not humans will actually ever come into contact with life outside of our solar system is another question entirely, but it’s clear the mere imagination of what that contact would look like, what it would mean for our world, had an effect on Kubrick.

But that wasn’t the only sign for the director that a movie like “2001: A Space Odyssey” needed to be made. At one of his meetings with Clarke, something altogether strange occurred in the skies above them.

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