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When it comes to the wonder and terror of Artificial Intelligence in fiction, Stanley Kubrick's movie masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, starring rogue ship's computer HAL 9000, is one of the greatest ever cinematic studies of the theme.

As we watched spellbound when Tim Peake set out on his first spacewalk, when the Soyuz first took him to the International Space Station, it was impossible not to recall the infamous HAL and Dave’s pod bay doors. Something about the visual language of 2001 gets very deeply embedded, and sustains, so that even real space travel gets viewed through Kubrick lenses.

With an obsessional drive to create the most realistic and plausible view of future space travel possible, it even crosses your mind that in some senses Kubrick has helped create the imagery of space travel and his film has defined cultural and artistic responses to it ever since. It is an amazing film, bristling with brilliant visual detail. Even now, many years on, the Space Hotel sequence, for only one example, is astonishing.

For fans of the movie, then, The 2001 File is like a kind of dream.

Compiled and introduced by Sir Christopher Frayling – the heavyweight observer of genre, just ask vampires or Spaghetti gunfighters – the book is a treasure chest of information, set photos, designs, concepts and roughs. The quite staggering vision for this film and the intense process of its making is brought beautifully to life – fans will spend hours analysing in particular the fantastic line drawings of ships, clothing, vehicles … It’s almost like having an Airfix kit instruction map for the Discovery itself. If you’re a 2001 aficionado, or anyone with a keen interest in the design history of Science Fiction film, the book is an absolute must-buy.

Despite it being impossible to imagine 2001 looking or behaving any differently to the classic cut, one of the really great features of The 2001 File is the way a fascinating story emerges of a film that never was – the many ideas and alterations the movie went through, the revision to the detail, then revision again, and indeed again when it ran out of money. I was greatly struck by the removal of a voiceover, for example, and when I watched the film once more after reading the book, spent the time trying to imagine what that would have been like. As any Blade Runner fan knows, voiceovers are no trifle.

Incredible, too, that 2001 was once to be called Journey Beyond The Stars. Somehow, it just wouldn’t have been the same …

The 2001 File makes clear the enormous contribution of Harry Lange and the NASA scientists to the look of the film, and the concept drawings in the book are outstanding. No offence to the apes at the beginning of 2001, but they have often grabbed too much of the limelight of this movie – in blueprint detail this book brings the focus back on the iconic moon base, the ships, the Space Hotel, the Discovery, that amazing centrifugal construction that still staggers, even in these days of CGI – perhaps even because of these days of CGI. When we are first onboard Discovery One, when the music plays and the world spins, it is intoxicating.

There’s something of a Da Vinci notebook quality to these drawings, the re-workings of helmets, or the space pods, the passenger shuttle. Harry Lange and the real life astronautical ‘architects’ helped define for Kubrick the visual look of 2001 and in so doing, the visual approach of Science Fiction on screen to the present day: the first Alien film, Space 1999, Star Wars, Star Trek The Motion Picture, Moon, and many, many more. It’s a freighter, had a hard life, bashed up, but it’s very hard to watch Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo walking about the corridors, or view the ship from the exterior, and not feel that it is part of the same design universe as 2001. Kubrick’s film, I feel, has to be placed with super-milestones like HG Wells’s War of the Worlds in terms of significance.

Having said this, in The 2001 File I was greatly struck by how Kubrick himself to a very large extent disregarded most of the Science Fiction films that had gone before his, and thus there is an irony to the debt subsequent Science Fiction films owe to the visual style of 2001. Kubrick seemed relentless, driven to create something entirely new, something better than anything, and was discarding old movies from the frame of reference at haste. When I say driven, with Kubrick, driven with the volatility and focus of a nail gun.

Christopher Frayling captures superbly this intensity of Kubrick, his work ethic and his total drive. He is not one of the most revered film makers of all time, by accident. Frayling’s text is endlessly interesting, and at almost a quarter of the length of this 2001 almanac entire, is an essential anchoring to the flood of imagery throughout. In the end, though Kubrick emerges as a genius, for sure, Frayling’s detailed tribute to Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway means that we are in no doubt about the extent of the shared vision and their enormous talent and contribution to this groundbreaking piece of cinema.

The book is hardback, large format, and beautifully put together. There is even a silver embossed line drawing of a 2001 space helmet on the cover, no less. For 2001 geeks, it’s ultra-desirable stuff. More broadly, publishing events like this restore your faith that printed books must surely never die out completely – they are too tactile, too much things to covet, too exciting, too companionable. As the movie astronauts on Kubrick’s Discovery use their ‘newspads’ – surely an influence on the iPad – this very tension of progress and technology is vividly explored in ways that now seem incredibly prescient.

The old-times of paper though our era might prove to be, this hugely collectible, dark and stunning hardback is a wonder, and if the future is going to take away our books, for 2001 fans, it is a monolith to the kind of beautiful thing we’ll lose. Yep, it’s that good.

Now, will you open these pod bay doors, HAL …

One Giant Read

03 May, 2016

Editorial