- Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
- Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Based on “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke.
- Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rains, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Vivian Kubrick, Daniel Richter.
- Rated: G.
When I write about a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am aware that I am not writing about simply a movie. There are some films, some books, some plays, some pieces of art, that transcend the trappings of intention, criticism, niche, genre, and art form. They become living, breathing entities of their own with the power to catapult our hearts and minds into treacherous depths or new heavens. I don’t doubt that if Paul McCartney, J. K. Rowling, or Christopher Nolan told the world to jump off of a bridge, someone would. I believe the art we experience becomes a piece of us, some greater than others, but all pieces. Movies like 2001 are the most remarkable pieces: vast, limitless, breathtaking, and puzzling.
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus is perhaps the most reluctant and enthusiastic recommendation I shall ever give. 2001 is a curious venture, an unsolvable riddle, but the riddle is told so beautifully, so brilliantly, that we cannot help but watch, awestruck, with our mouths agape. The story concerns a series of monoliths across the galaxy that supposedly aid in human evolution. Whether these creations are meant for good or ill is largely up for the viewer to decide, but I think perhaps both. Where they come from is never explained in the film; the book apparently explains them as the products of an archaic alien race. I like Kubrick’s version much better. The monoliths are there, they are related to evolution, and that is all you need to know.
Our tale begins at the very beginning. The human race is more similar to apes than to humans during the section appropriately named “The Dawn of Man”. Then a great black monolith appears before them. This scene is eerie, daunting. Some are cautious, some are panicked. One skirts around it, touches it, and repeals his hand as though the monolith were hot to the touch. It is certainly out of place among the dark crags of Kubrick’s interpretation of the Beginning. It is square, black, and defined by straight edges and planes. What happens next is even more extraordinary. One of the man apes (Daniel Richter) contemplates a pile of bones, and then - miraculously - picks one up. And so man becomes a tool-wielding race. There is a match on action with a bone flying through the air that turns into a spaceship, and we leap forward four million years to the year 2001, or rather, in great irony, Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the year 2001.
The future is cold and sterile, plagued by Kubrick’s dark irony, but my, is it filled with wonder. Spaceships float across the screen in ten minute segments to formal sounding waltzes in a show of tedium modern moviegoers aren’t used to. I wonder how many would see 2001 today and ask when the ships will go into light speed. Kubrick realizes that spaceships are extraordinary enough to hold our attention. And that’s what makes 2001 great. Everything is a wonder to behold, another treasure to leave you breathless. When watching the film, I thought that if only Kubrick would show us a porthole - there is a vast, infinite galaxy crammed with even more infinite awe.
The main story that everyone remembers revolves around a group of scientists and astronauts investigating the sudden appearance (or rather, reappearance) of the mysterious monoliths. Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) discovers a monolith on the moon, which is transmitting a signal to Jupiter. There are two astronauts on the mission to Jupiter, Dave (Keir Dullea) and his assistant (Gary Lockwood). They are largely aided by the magnanimous computer HAL 9000, often referred to simply as Hal.
Hal is used to contrast the human characters in the film, who are far from human. Hal is, in fact, the most human character in 2001. He expressed doubt about the mission and, upon discovering his two masters believe him to be in error and are trying to shut him down, displays enough judgment and passion to kill Gary Lockwood’s scientist. As Roger Ebert observed, the most meaningful and poignant bit of dialogue in the film is during Hal’s final scene, in which Dave finally manages to shut Hal down. Hal goes through stages of despair, pleading with Dave not to shut him down, as he looses his memory and sings his earliest programmed memory for Dave - a simple song called “Daisy Bell”.
Life on the Discovery One is displayed as dull and humdrum. We watch the tedious lives of Dullea’s and Lockwood’s scientists, who eat perfectly proportioned meals, exercise regularly, and lose chess games to Hal. Observe how monotone these characters are. The great vacuum of space has pulled them into oblivion. When Dullea gets a call from his parents wishing him happy birthday, they are energetic and talkative. He says not a single word to them, but they bounce back between themselves chatting about this and that. When the video call ends, he returns to his nap. There is a sharp contrast between those who’ve stayed on earth, like Dullea’s parents or William Sylvester’s daughter (played by Vivian Kubrick), and those traveling in space. It is also Vivian Kubrick’s character’s birthday, earlier in the film, and Sylester will not be present. He thinks sending a present can convince his daughter she still has a father.
The Jupiter Mission segment is by far the most cinematically rewarding. The scene in which Kubrick’s camera angles reveal to us that the dreaded Hal can read lips, or indeed the computer’s heartbreaking death scene, are among the finest caught on film. There’s great music throughout the film, too. The ballet of spaceships requires a waltz. Moments of great suspense bear a chilling, static reverberation. And of course there is the famous 2001 theme used when Kubrick thinks we need a little more wonder. Notice, too, the ominous red light with which Kubrick bathes some of his scenes, and the humor he occasionally sneaks in. It comforts me to know that, in the distant future, we will still have Hilton (space) hotels and the BBC will be in fine form. We see long lists of directions for using the restroom in space, as well as emergency instructions. I doubt that one could wait to read such an essay in either situation.
It is impossible to discuss 2001 without discussing What It All Means. There are, I’m sure, many theories, just as there are many opinions of the film itself. I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a remarkable, unique masterpiece, and I will never see anything quite like it again, but I know many who are even more passionate than I in both defending and decimating the film’s credibility. It is certainly not for everyone, and an opponent of 2001 remarked that Kubrick seemed to be trying to paint an abstract painting instead of making a movie. That’s certainly true, but I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. As for what I think it means? I think the monoliths are a great and terrible thing that aid in human evolution. Great, to turn us into tool-wielding sentients, and terrible, for turning us into warriors and killers.
Millennia later we invented machines, and further evolution and understanding was required. When William Sylvester’s daughter says she wants another telephone for her birthday, she doesn’t want a telephone. She wants communication, face to face with her father by the only mode of communication she knows. Kubrick informs us that our machines have become such an integral part of our society that they are ruining communication and individual personality. We are all slowly becoming machines, in love with progress for the sake of progress. Great science fiction stories are more prophetic decades after they are introduced to us than they were when first released. As for the ending? Dave sees himself, his life as tainted by machines, and is reborn, glorious and enlightened. Thus 2001 is a cautionary tale, but one with a hopeful ending.
The last line of dialogue in the film is spoken by William Sylvester’s scientist, via a computer screen. He speaks of the monoliths, saying “its origin and purpose [is] still a total mystery.” It gives me great comfort to know that it always will be. ☆☆☆☆