2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
  • Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, and Douglas Rain
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#15), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#6), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#43), 1 Oscar (Best Visual Effects), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Stanley Kubrick, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There was a time in my life when I would have said 2001: A Space Odyssey was my favorite movie. If it isn’t now, it’s not because of my loving it any less, but rather because it’s basically impossible to compare 2001 with your traditional narrative film. There are barely any “characters” in the traditional sense, and no dialogue in either the first 20 minutes or the last 20 minutes. Its director, Stanley Kubrick, has always had technocratic tendencies, but this is the apotheosis of all filmic technocracy. There are sections of 2001 that sort of resemble a narrative, but I’m not sure if those sections constitute even half the movie. It has a reputation for “extremely slow pacing,” something that was hardly in fashion in 1968 when this movie came out, much less today. The thing is, I’m not sure it actually is slowly paced, I think it’s just, as I said, doing a very different thing than most movies. 2001 is less a story than it is a grand artistic statement, using the same tools that would later be used to make The Avengers and Harry Potter to make something more akin to a painting by Raphael or Picasso.

Wanting to develop a story about extraterrestrial intelligence, Kubrick enlisted the help of Arthur C. Clarke, despite believing him to be an “eccentric who lived in a tree.” This was likely a product of the fact that Clarke had moved to Sri Lanka (where he would live for the rest of his life), from whence he occasionally issued science fiction stories, most prominently on the topic of aliens so advanced that humans cannot hope to comprehend them. It is Clarke who wrote the famous aphorism that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Kubrick also consulted extensively on the latest scientific thoughts on space travel and other technology. Sure, the computer displays in this movie still look a bit analog (though far beyond anything that had yet been produced in 1968) but remarkably for a movie literally named after a date, it somehow hardly seems dated at all.

The movie can be broken up into four distinct sections. First there is an initial sequence at the “Dawn of Man,” in which a group of early human-like creatures in Africa encounters a mysterious black monolith and then invents tools for the first time. Second, there is a section where Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels first to a space station and then to the Moon, famous for its satellites seemingly dancing to Strauss’ “The Blue Danube.” On the Moon, Floyd sees that the American base has uncovered an identical black monolith to that seen in the first sequence, which he is told seems to have been “deliberately buried” several million years earlier. 

The third and longest sequence takes place on the first human mission to Jupiter, manned by two waking astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, respectively), along with three in cryogenic sleep. Their ship is run by an artificially intelligent computer, the HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). After briefly voicing misgivings about “some aspects” of the mission, HAL seems to go insane, eventually killing all of the mission members except for Bowman. He manages to get back into the ship despite being out in space without his helmet and deactivates HAL, at which point a message from Floyd plays telling him the real reason for their mission. In the final sequence, named by a title card as “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” the mission arrives at Jupiter to find another monolith floating in orbit. After uttering the famous line, “My God, it’s full of stars!” he apparently flies the vehicle into the monolith, which is followed by a long sequence of abstract colors and shapes. In the final minutes of the movie. Bowman finds himself in a bizarre neoclassical room, where various versions of him seem to get older and older. As an elderly Bowman is dying, another monolith appears, and as he reaches out to touch it, he seems to turn into an enormous fetus, which is then shown floating above the Earth.

It is not uncommon for writers discussing 2001 to note that the most interesting character in the movie is a computer, either seriously or as an ironic comment on the movie’s lack of interest in its various humans as specific characters. The homicidal computer HAL is among the more iconic elements of the movie, and probably the most enduring from a storytelling perspective. His completely calm delivery is at first reassuring but gradually shifts to utterly menacing. It is all the more effective for Kubrick’s refusal to underline the drama of any of it. There is no incidental music in most of this sequence, just the beeps of technology and the heavy breathing of astronauts inside their helmets. If there’s one thing in 2001 I remember, it’s the scene when Bowman waits in his spacewalk vehicle thingie and asks, “Open the pod bay doors please HAL.” To which HAL replies, without any emotion, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” A lesser director would have a dramatic music cue here, but Kubrick trusts his audience.

Or maybe he just isn’t willing to hold their hand. Asked about the, um, fairly opaque final minutes of the movie in an interview years later, Kubrick is reported to have asked if the Mona Lisa would be considered a great work today if Da Vinci had put a little sign at the bottom that said, “She’s smiling to hide her teeth.” The point being that he wants people to try to figure out for themselves what’s going on for large portions of this movie, and isn’t about to just tell you. He always stated that he intended the movie to be “primarily a non-verbal experience,” a series of images rather than a story with words.

That non-verbal experience is greatly enhanced by some of the best special effects ever created for any movie, regardless of time period. Almost all of the effects were created “in camera,” by exposing film several times with different images. Not even green-screen technology was available to assist, much less computer graphics. Yet, the spaceships here look better than any you’ll ever see in a movie. The effects team slaved over the effects for literally years before Kubrick was satisfied.

If 2001 has any flaw in terms of its prescience, it is in being overly optimistic about where we would be in its titular year. In this version of the year 2001, humans have bases on the moon and are traveling to Jupiter. Space travel is overseen by Pan Am Airlines and doesn’t seem to be a very big deal, and there’s a Hilton on the space station. But nothing feels “wrong.” For example, the way the big space station in 2001 is built is pretty much the same way we would go about designing a space station of that size today, and it still feels real and solid. Modern viewers will likely enjoy the scene where Floyd makes a video call (a la Zoom) from the space station to his young daughter on her birthday (played by Kubrick’s own daughter). One thing I hadn’t noticed before but did on this go-around is that the Pan Am space plane has entertainment video monitors in the seat-backs, almost exactly the same way we would on most commercial plane flights today. Of course, in 1968 this might have seemed an even bigger leap than human bases on the Moon or superintelligent computers.

2001 came out a year before humans actually landed on the Moon for the first time, but it still feels a few steps ahead. Its depiction of a malevolent AI has spawned a thousand imitators throughout pop culture, but the movie surrounding HAL is almost impossible to imitate. Even George Lucas called it “the ultimate Science Fiction movie” and said he didn’t think anyone would ever make a better one. There are movies with stories and characters I love more than this one, but if the question is “What film will still be considered art in 400 years,” the same way we still marvel at Renaissance masters, the choice to me is surprisingly obvious. 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to take my breath away.

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