Apr 20, 2018

Book Review--Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Michael Benson
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Upon its release, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) became a sensation as a sort of Disneyland ride for grown ups. With its innovative, and trippy special effects, it was the perfect flick to experience while riding high on your favorite mind enhancer. In the years since, it has become a cultural touchstone, quoted and referenced often, if rarely on anyone’s list of favorite films. In a new book, Michael Benson explores the technical and artistic journey of the film’s production and the impact it made on audiences upon release.

The book’s greatest strength is in the interviews Benson has conducted with key players in the film. His conversations with 2001 scribe Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s wife Christiane, and several members of the cast and crew enabled him to craft a richly detailed history. So much of the story is related directly by people who made the film that you get a palpable feeling of what it was like to be there. For that reason, this is an especially lively and engrossing production history.

Having access to so much first source information has also enabled Benson to dig into the complexities of making the film, where second unit location shooting often held as much drama as Kubrick’s action at the studio. It is easy to see why movies go over budget and schedule when presented with how many tasks make up the creation of a scene, let alone an entire production. Understanding the importance of all of those elements is what made Kubrick an effective, and occasionally infuriating, filmmaker.

Space Odyssey features a fascinating cast of characters, the most riveting being author Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick. Much attention is given to Clarke, a brilliant eccentric whose pre-moonwalk knowledge of space was instrumental in bringing a sense of reality to the film. He wrote the story as a novel first, with Kubrick’s input after which he had little to do officially with the production, but he is present throughout nevertheless and his unconventional thinking helps to maintain a sense of wonder in an increasingly technical undertaking.

Benson explores Kubrick’s complexities with impeccable objectivity, allowing his interview subjects to analyze a man who could be both generous and monstrous. When it came to the film, there was no crew member too insignificant to grab his attention. He was open to new ideas and would make time for anyone who had an inspiring concept. His passion for making exactly the film he wanted would sometimes go too far though and he often disregarded the safety of his cast and crew in order to get the shot he wanted. In a particularly disturbing passage, the director knowingly lets stuntman Bill Weston experience oxygen deprivation to the point of death because of his determination to get a shot.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this book is that I went into it not a particular fan of 2001: Space Odyssey and came away eager to give it another chance. Rewatching the film afterwards, I found the experience profoundly different because I had a greater understanding of the passion and intelligence behind it.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.

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