For most of the sixties, science fiction films where much the same as the fifties; B-movie fodder. Hollywood itself was going through a lot at this time. The first half of the decade was more or less the same as the fifties in terms of filmmaking, but things began to change. The bottom has finally dropped out of the old Hollywood system. Studio heads were panicking at losses, the studios were being bought by large corporations, and no one really knew how to make movies any more. Directors and actors used this as an opportunity to take more control of the movies. This became known as New Hollywood.
A lot of these knew filmmakers grew up with films. There were schools dedicated to film now. French New Wave was bringing a new level to realism to the craft and redefining what it meant to make a film. Films began to be more grounded in terms of story, while the filmmaking and editing became more creative. Not much room for science fiction. Not to say people were down with sci-fi. President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The space race with the Russians was in full spring. Man’s thoughts were toward the skies. While movies where ignoring science fiction, it did find a place on television. Lost in Space and Star Trek were becoming part of popular culture. But still feature films did not follow suit. There were a few films that broke the mold of this era. The crowning one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.
After the completion of his dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb director Stanley Kubrick became obsessed with extraterrestrial life and wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” Kubrick found science fiction writer Author C. Clark. They chose Clark’s short story, “The Sentinel” as bases for the plot. The story follows a group of astronauts who find a strange artifact on the moon. 2001: A Space Odyssey would expand the plot greatly. Together they would craft film legend.
In stark contrast to most space travel films, Kubrick decided to try to film the space travel as realistically as he could. Kubrick was known for being an obsessive filmmaker and was heavily involved with his films and 2001: A Space Odyssey was no exception. He had a hand in nearly every aspect of production. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a technical marvel showcasing ground breaking special effects. The film used front projection with retroreflective matting. According to Wikipedia, “This is when a separate scenery projector set at a right-angle to the camera, and a half-silvered mirror placed at an angle in front that reflected the projected image forward in line with the camera lens onto a backdrop made of retroreflective material. The reflective directional screen behind the actors could reflect light from the projected image a hundred times more efficiently than the foreground subject did.” Stuff like this had been done before, remember Georges Méliès and Metropolis, but nothing to this degree. This technique would become an industry standard until it would be replaced by green screen in the nineties. Kubrick also had a 30-short-ton, 38 feet, and 10 feet wide rotating set built, costing about $750,000. He did this to help create the illusion of artificial gravity.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most well-known films, being parody and homage countless times in popular culture. The film received critical praised. Despite this it was nearly a flop. MGM nearly pulled the film but film distributors noticed that the audience was slowly growing, particularly among a younger audience, so the film stayed in theaters making a cool $56,715,371. You would think that this unlocked a new wave of science fiction, but it didn’t. I couldn’t find any concrete reasons but here’s what I think why sci-fi didn’t take off. While 2001: A Space Odyssey was big a hit among college age kids and film critics, but it didn’t really take off with the average viewer. The film is notoriously obtuse with the first 25 minutes not even having any dialogue. The film explains very little of what is happening. In a 1968 interview with Playboy Kubrick said, “How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth”—or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover”? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.” This helped 2001: A Space Odyssey become a classic but movie studios were not breaking their backs to make another one.
Not to say that Science Fiction in film was done. In fact, in 1968, the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, say the release of Planet of the Apes. The story of a man how finds himself on a planet with sentient apes only to find it’s the earth all along. The film was a hit and became an instant classic. It played on fears of nuclear war while drawing from the space race.
The seventies where a weird time in American pop-culture. Nearly everything was bleak and miserable. Our president was corrupt, we were still feeling the aftermath of Vietnam. The American people were depressed and angry. And our media reflective that. Dystopia ruled science fiction. Another Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange, showcased the dangers of brainwashing. Soylent Green was about the dangers of over population and declining resources. Westworld had our own entrainment turn against us. Logan’s Run featured a world were anyone over the age of 30 were executed. But times where changing and movies would never be the same. A new hope was coming.
Angel, Jerome, ed. (1970). The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. New York: New American Library.
Bizony, Piers (2001). 2001 Filming the Future. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Clake, Arthur C. (1972). The Lost Worlds of 2001. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Ebert, Roger (March 27, 1997). Review:2001 A Space Odyssey. Chicago Sun-Times. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-2001-a-space-odyssey-1968
George D. DeMet, The Special Effects of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” DFX 1999.