Sight & Sound
Would our love for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey be diminished if the lunar rocket bus that transports astronauts to the monolith had wheels or even long legs with circular feet, instead of the compact, sturdy landing-legs of the final design? It glides across the screen in close-up for only a few seconds so you might think not, but Kubrick worried a lot about details like these. “Too much like a household appliance,” he scribbled on an early bus design by Harry Lange, a Nasa illustrator the director had enlisted to make his space fantasy as authentic as possible. Or what about the famous monolith? What if it had been a large transparent cube with images projected on to it, as Kubrick had envisioned early on, or any of the irregular geometric sculptures that Lange fashioned afterward? What does the sleek black tombstone give the film? A stark, piercing eeriness and a simplicity that none of these other concepts possess.
Kubrick knew that design matters. Here, in Cristopher Frayling’s selected highlights from Lange’s archive, is the visual proof: pages and pages of sketches of alternate 2001 realities to get lost in, and sometimes to ask, “What if?” What’s particularly revealing is that little design detail was specified in either Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written alongside the screenplay, or in the final script itself. Kubrick, devourer of scientific fact, would never have found Clarke’s description of “a small bus with an extension-tube like a stubby elephant trunk… now nuzzling affectionately against a spacecraft” satisfactory to reproduce on film. Throughout, we can see the impact that Lange’s imagination and detailed futuristic research had on the film (65 companies from IBM to Nasa contributed advice). His drawings for the film are so elaborate they could be mistaken for blueprints of actual spaceships. The designs for the Discovery craft reveal heat radiation panels, life-support blocks, fuel storage tanks and a realistic propulsion system. The Discovery evolved from a saucer-like design to a circular one, then a cylindrical one, until finally Lange arrived at the striking long skeletal craft that takes up the entire widescreen. Lange’s varied visions for the ship’s communication aerials are particularly beautiful – printed on black paper, his silvery graphite lines look like the sketches of an abstract artist.
There are delightful anecdotes aplenty about Kubrick’s pedantic, tyrannical behavior: showing how, for example, he got an army of designers to work on ideas he didn’t want, simply to make sure he didn’t want them. But the level of detail on show in every frame in 2001 testifies as to why this feat of filmmaking still feels futuristic a decade and a half after the year it was set. And it raises the question of whether such a grand celestial film experiment will ever be repeated on this scale. Cristopher Nolan’s Interstellar, despite Nathan Crowley’s thoughtful and non-CGI reliant production design, rather pales in comparison.
The Lange archive also provides some consolation for fans in the UK, which often feels like the only country in the world not to get the Stanley Kubrick exhibition that has been touring museums and cinematheques since 2004 – despite the director’s archive being based in London. And it fills something of a vacuum in books on film design. While there are many lavish Taschen tomes demonstrating the mastery of Kubrick, The 2001 File illustrates that even with a prodigious polymath auteur like Kubrick in charge, cinema is a collective creative endeavor.