In the spring of 1964 the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was very worried. NASA was about to fly the Mariner 4 space probe past Mars.
At the time he was deep in development of a blockbuster film about the discovery of alien intelligence. Word was that MGM had bet their studio on the film. What if Mariner discovered life on Mars and scooped them?
Kubrick looked into whether he could buy insurance against that event. He could, but the price was astronomical. Kubrick decided to take his chances, according to a new book about the making of the movie, “Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece,” by Michael Benson. (Simon & Schuster 2018)
That was 54 years ago. We still haven’t discovered intelligence or even believable evidence of pond scum anywhere else in the universe — not for lack of effort. A new spacecraft, TESS, designed to look for habitable nearby planets just vaulted into space, and an interstellar asteroid recently spotted streaking through the solar system was inspected for radio signals. Another robot is on its way to listen in on the heart of Mars. We still don’t know if we are alone.
Mr. Kubrick’s movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey,” finally debuted, late and over budget in April 1968, to baffled film critics and long lines of young people. John Lennon said he went to see it every week. It was the top-grossing movie of the year and is now a perennial on critics’ lists of the most important movies of all time, often the first movie scientists mention if you ask them about sci-fi they have enjoyed.
In honor of its 50th anniversary it is being rereleased at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday and then in various cities around the world in a shiny new version overseen by Christopher Nolan, the director of “Dunkirk” and “Inception,” among other films. He told The Los Angeles Times the original film had been a “touchstone” from his childhood.
The movie, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (whose books and stories the movie was based on), and directed by Kubrick, is a multisensory ode to cosmic mystery, fate and the future. Long stretches happen with no explication or action except the zero-gravity ballets of spaceships immaculately imagined.