The Cinema Behind Star Wars: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece reverberates in both the original and prequel trilogies.

At the time of its release in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey was polarizing amongst critics and audiences, but it has since earned high status as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. In fact, George Lucas himself remarked in 1977, “Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie. It is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned.”

It’s difficult to explain just what 2001: A Space Odyssey is about because it is such a personal experience and the ending seems to mean something different with each repeated viewing. What I can say for sure — I think — is that it’s about humanity’s evolution from the “Dawn of Man” all the way to our next phase of evolution through space exploration and competition against artificial intelligence.

While the story of 2001 didn’t inspire Star Wars much directly, Lucas has called the film “hugely influencing.” Watching it now, you can easily see how.

The film opens with a sequence called “The Dawn of Man” and shows the struggles of apes, which were created under the supervision of Stuart Freeborn. His work with creatures had made him a legend in that world, and he was hired on to the original Star Wars film and its two sequels. Most notably, he designed and created the puppet for Yoda, reportedly basing the design on his own face as well as that of Albert Einstein.

Stuart Freeborn designs Yoda

As the film progresses beyond its look at the savagery of man’s beginnings, it cuts rather dramatically to the future. Through a series of zero-gee sequences and long conversations, we realize that the people we’ve met are being brought to the moon. The ship they travel to the lunar surface in is massive, but from behind it looks almost identical to the escape pod that carries Artoo and Threepio to Tatooine. The shots of it drifting toward our moon could almost be mistaken for shots right out of Star Wars.

Inside that ship, we’re also given a view of circular hallways with modular brown pads lining them, visually reminiscent of the interiors of the Millennium Falcon.

Once the lander arrives on the moon, we’re given a glimpse of Moonbase Alpha from high up on a ridge. Though the setting is space and the characters in the foreground are in space suits, it’s striking how similar the shot is of Obi-Wan and Luke looking out over Mos Eisley. The architecture and layout of the base is even apparent in one of Ralph McQuarrie’s early concept paintings.

Star Wars: A New Hope concept art

Since Lucas is fond of revisiting ideas to create visual poetry inside his films, it should come as no shock that this moment from 2001 also found its way into another installment of the trilogy. According to the DVD commentary — and apparent to anyone who remembers the shot — the shot of Polis Massa overlooking the station where Luke and Leia are born is virtually identical to the shot of Moonbase Alpha. What’s more than that, both of those shots come at the beginning of a rebirth of humanity in a galaxy that end in babies.

Polis Massa

Those aren’t the only visual flourishes from 2001 that made their way into Star Wars. During the the Jupiter Mission, giant pods that dock with the main ship are used for travel and missions. One of these pods found itself in Watto’s junk pile on Mos Espa.

2001: A Space Odyssey pod

There is also a sequence where Dave is outside the ship in deep space, breathing heavily in his suit. The sound could almost be mistaken for the heavy, masked breathing of Darth Vader. At another point, he comes to an interior space inside the ship that is lit with rectangular red slits with rounded ends that is at once a reminder of the carbon freezing chamber in The Empire Strikes Back. The vortex of colored light that highlights the climax of the film could also be considered a pre-cursor to the Millennium Falcon’s first jump to hyperspace.

The special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the way the spaceships float through space and their lack of sound, were designed to be as realistic as possible. Lucas wanted a greater kinetic energy to the filmmaking and Star Wars could almost be considered the antithesis of 2001. Where the ships in 2001 are quiet, slow, and lumbering, the ships of Star Wars are noisy, nimble, and agile. Without 2001: A Space Odyssey paving the way in special effects, one could wonder if the effects in Star Wars would have been possible. One could also wonder if the use of classical music for the score of 2001 didn’t help inform Lucas’ decision to go with John Williams for the score of Star Wars.

Beyond the audio and visual inspirations, Kubrick helped set a standard that George Lucas would perfect for years. In the days after 2001’s New York premiere, Kubrick decided changes needed to be made to the film. Ultimately, he streamlined the pacing and cut almost 20 minutes from the film’s total running time before expanding it with a wider release. George Lucas was equally uncompromising on his vision of what Star Wars should look like in its finished form with changes made almost regularly to the film starting in June 1977. Virtually every release has given Lucas the opportunity to hone his vision of the Star Wars, and it was a precedent set by Stanley Kubrick.

For those interested in viewing the film, it’s rated G, though you might be hard pressed to interest a younger viewer into sitting for its entire running time. You might also be hard pressed to get an older younger viewer that would sit through it to derive much meaning out of it. But it’s definitely something film fans should watch at least once.

Availability: It’s a frequent selection as a revival on the big screen and if you can see it there, do it. Otherwise, it’s readily available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed for a rental fee on most streaming video services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

TAGS: , ,