It shouldn’t be necessary to recommend Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic milestone, given an extended run at the BFI Southbank from today as part of the ambitious Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season. But there are still some who either find it boring or virtually incomprehensible.
That may be because sci-fi, however ground-breaking, is not everybody’s cup of tea, or because those brought up on Hollywood’s visions of the genre do not connect with Kubrick’s philosophically ambitious project: a film co-written by Arthur C Clarke, shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, designed by Douglas Trumbull and with music by Ligeti, Aram Khachaturian and the two Strausses, may not appeal to fans of The Terminator.
The shoot was a gruelling exercise both for those attempting to construct the Elstree sets with the precision Kubrick demanded and for the actors, one of whom had to reshoot a scene time after time because the director was not happy with the way the moisture in his eye glistened.
The film was originally called Journey Beyond the Stars and envisaged as a large-scale fictional semi-documentary that deliberately mixed the familiar with the speculative. “We were interested in starting where Destination Moon [a 1950 feature] finished,” said Clarke.
The end result was something similar but also something else entirely. The film changed both our concept of space and spaceships, with Kubrick, in a future he was guessing at, trying to emphasise both the extraordinary visuals of space and the everyday nature of space travel.
Sequence after sequence still looks marvellous, somehow relegating the ideas behind the film to the occasional nebulousness for which it has often been criticised.
The film is a blast to watch and sometimes a pain to decipher completely. But masterpieces are not supposed to be perfect. As Robert O’Brien, the head of MGM, is said to have exclaimed: “Why have Buck Rogers for six million dollars when you can have Kubrick for seven?” Actually the budget turned out to be $10.5 million.