2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick – Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain.
From Roger Ebert’s excellent essay on 2001:
To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”
I’ll give it a shot, Rock.
I’ve been running an incredibly high fever mixed with body chills the past few days, and perhaps that is the best way to watch 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, because I had little energy but to lay on the couch and let the film roll over me. 2001 is not a movie with a typical narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end combining to take you on a singular journey. Instead, there are four separate sections to 2001 – Dawn of Man, the Clavius Base/TMA-1, Jupiter Mission, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, and the experience Stanley Kubrick creates is one of the cinema as spectacle.
The image my mind always conjures up when I watch 2001 is that the proper way to watch the movie is to dress up in a nice suit and tie and go to a theatre (instead of a theater) and just sit there and absorb the film the way you would absorb a piece of orchestral music. Part of this comes from Kubrick’s use of classical music throughout 2001, notably Johann Strauss’ waltz, The Blue Danube, and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.
Consistently in 2001, Kubrick manages to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary ordinary, and the end result is a gorgeous, epic, cinematic masterpiece. Travelling to the moon, for instance, should be an extraordinary event (especially given 2001 being released over a year before Neil Armstrong left his boot prints on the moon), yet Kubrick gets Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) to the moon in ordinary fashion, aboard a Pan Am shuttle, and then when they get there Dr. Floyd helps to run a debriefing session. In this conference room meeting, though, Kubrick starts to turn the ordinary back to the extraordinary, as we learn that the reason why everyone is freaking out about Calvius base is because the scientists there discovered something amazing – a black monolith.
The same (at least in appearance) black monolith that we saw in the first segment of the film, where we spend some non-verbal time watching two ape factions battle over a watering hole.
Whether purposefully or accidentally (or both), the monolith appears at moments that launch humanity into the next stage of their long existence. With the apes, the monolith appears just before one ape learns how to use a bone as a weapon. Next, it appears on the moon, which spurns humanity into deep space exploration to Jupiter, and then in Jupiter it pushes Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) through space where he lives out his days in a white room before being re-birthed as the “star child.”
It’s very easy to see strains of the monolith in Ridley Scott’s recently released Prometheus, with the idea of aliens leaving us an invitation to journey to the stars, but where Scott makes this “star map” into a key component of his film, Kubrick barely raises the issue. It’s there to get the thin narrative moving, but Kubrick has little interest in engaging this idea directly.
So much of 2001 is like this – Kubrick stubbornly sticks to what he wants and you’re either along for the ride, or jetting out of the theater with good ol’ Mr. Hudson.
It takes 25 minutes for anyone to say a word (ape grunting and howling doesn’t count) and nearly an hour to get to what people recognize as the actual heart of the film – Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave’s journey to Jupiter with HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain).
Instead of giving us that straight narrative, Kubrick keeps coming back to this idea of humanity on the precipice of its next step, and watches how they struggle with going forward or remaining who they are. With the apes, the conflict centers around that watering hole. Each faction wants it. Each is willing to use violence to get it, and Kubrick’s film rewards the ape faction that weaponizes itself.
Except, it’s not the turn to violence that actually propels the apes forward, but rather the use of tools. While the focus in the “Dawn of Man” sequence is of the ape being violent with the large bone, the cut to the next sequence comes when the ape tosses the bone into the air and we get a match-cut linking the bone with an orbital satellite. Now, in earlier drafts of the script, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke intended for these satellites to be weaponized, which would make violence that critical link between humanity’s past and present, but without clearly marking the satellites as weaponized, I see the link as one of tools and invention more than violence.
This read works at the end of the film, too. When Dave is transformed into the Star Child, earlier versions of the ending had him coming to Earth to destroy those war machines, but in the actual film, the Star Child simply gazes at the planet Earth. This ending is much less definitive, but it’s also much more hopeful.
My favorite section of the film is the second part, where we follow Dr. Floyd around because I just love the routine nature of the entire endeavor. I like that we spend time with Heywood on his Pan Am flight and I like that Kubrick uses the juxtaposition of classical music and futuristic space travel to perfectly complement one another. The music gives the ordinary nature of the action a sense of beauty.
The HAL sequence is the most famous in the film, but again we see just how simple Kubrick plays it. Dave, Frank, and HAL 9000 are headed towards Jupiter. The HAL 9000 computer has never made a mistake.
And then it seemingly does.
Frank and Dave believe they have to consider shutting HAL down and they go into a module so they can talk in private – except they can’t talk in private because HAL can read lips. HAL kills Frank and then refuses to let Dave back on board. Dave gets in anyway and then effectively kills HAL. As Dave is shutting HAL down, HAL is cognizant of his demise, and Douglas Rain’s cold voice reveals this machine as the most human in the film. Repeatedly begging for his life, HAL admits, “I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, I’m afraid. My mind is going. I can feel it.”
It’s tragic and pointed, as this machine that is now begging for his life just killed someone.
Dave takes HAL down and ends up at Jupiter, where he gets sent on an amazing journey that ends with him living out his days in a beautiful, old room. Again, the visuals here are breathtakingly beautiful and for all that 2001 doesn’t give you in story, it certainly delivers in visuals, and while I’m watching the film I’m no less engaged with 2001 than I am with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
And that’s the real brilliance of Kubrick in 2001 – he creates a film that isn’t typical but is still completely engaging. What does it all mean? Well, what do you want it to mean? Kubrick’s film isn’t here to give you answers as much as it is to give you something to look at. If you want to use it as a base to ponder the mysteries of life, of humanity’s evolution, of man’s relationship to the larger universe … 2001 provides the perfect launching.
But if you just want to sit back and watch the greatest and longest music video ever made, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY has got you covered there, too.