Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke Spent Years Debating How to Depict the Aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Carl Sagan Provided the Answer: Don’t Depict Them at All

The statute of lim­i­ta­tions has sure­ly expired for Con­tact, the 1997 Robert Zemeck­is adap­ta­tion of Carl Sagan’s epony­mous nov­el. The film sug­gests ear­ly on that Earth has been receiv­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions from out­er space, but for most of its two and a half hours keeps its audi­ence in sus­pense as to the nature of the extrater­res­tri­als send­ing them. When Jodie Fos­ter’s astronomer pro­tag­o­nist final­ly gets some one-on-one time with an alien, it takes the form of her own long-dead father, who inspired her choice of career. This end­ing quick­ly became fod­der for South Park jokes, but time seems to have vin­di­cat­ed it; any look back at the CGI aliens in oth­er movies of the mid-nine­teen-nineties con­firms that the right choice was made.

Con­tact was not a straight­for­ward book-to-film adap­ta­tion. Rather, Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan intend­ed the project as a film first, and even wrote a detailed script treat­ment before pub­lish­ing the sto­ry as a nov­el. About three decades ear­li­er, 2001: A Space Odyssey had emerged out of a sim­i­lar­ly uncon­ven­tion­al process. Rather than adapt­ing an exist­ing book, as he’d done before with Loli­ta and Dr. Strangelove, Stan­ley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke decid­ed to work togeth­er on the ideas that would shape both a film direct­ed by the for­mer and a nov­el writ­ten by the lat­ter. The col­lab­o­ra­tion had its dif­fi­cul­ties, not least when it came time to bring their vision of mankind’s future to a sat­is­fy­ing close.

Enter Sagan, already on his way to becom­ing a well-known thinker about the uni­verse and man’s place with­in it. “My friend Arthur C. Clarke had a prob­lem,” he remem­bers in his book The Cos­mic Con­nec­tion. “He was writ­ing a major motion pic­ture with Stan­ley Kubrick” (then called Jour­ney Beyond the Stars) on which “a small cri­sis in the sto­ry devel­op­ment had arisen.” In the film a space­craft’s crew “was to make con­tact with extrater­res­tri­als. Yes, but how to por­tray the extrater­res­tri­als?” Kubrick had ideas about going the tra­di­tion­al route, cre­at­ing aliens “not pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent from human beings” and thus por­trayable by humans in suits, much like the apes at the mono­lith

Sagan opposed this, as “the num­ber of indi­vid­u­al­ly unlike­ly events in the evo­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry of Man was so great that noth­ing like us is ever like­ly to evolve again any­where else in the uni­verse. I sug­gest­ed that any explic­it rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an advanced extrater­res­tri­al being was bound to have at least an ele­ment of false­ness about it, and that the best solu­tion would be to sug­gest, rather than explic­it­ly to dis­play, the extrater­res­tri­als.” Kubrick ulti­mate­ly did choose that artis­tic path, result­ing in such haunt­ing, alien-free scenes as the end­ing where­in David Bow­man encoun­ters his aged self in an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry bed­room. Whether or not that was quite what he had in mind, Sagan did cred­it Kubrick­’s 2001 with “expand­ing the aver­age per­son­’s aware­ness of the cos­mic per­spec­tive” — which was more than he could say a decade lat­er about Star Wars.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Let­ter Between Stan­ley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke That Sparked the Great­est Sci-Fi Film Ever Made (1964)

What’s the Dif­fer­ence Between Stan­ley Kubrick’s & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Side-by-Side Com­par­i­son)

Stan­ley Kubrick Explains the Mys­te­ri­ous End­ing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a New­ly Unearthed Inter­view

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawk­ing & Arthur C. Clarke Dis­cuss God, the Uni­verse, and Every­thing Else

An Ani­mat­ed Carl Sagan Talks with Studs Terkel About Find­ing Extrater­res­tri­al Life (1985)

Carl Sagan Tells John­ny Car­son What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chau­vin­ism in It” (1978)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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