I well remember my reaction upon watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, many years ago. The star-child appeared, and the end credits rolled, and I turned to my brother and started laughing. ”What the heck was THAT???” I had no idea what to make of any of the ponderous weirdness that I had just seen, and I wondered what exactly I had missed.
But even during that first viewing it was clear that there was something special about 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s a film that stayed with me. I found myself driven to revisit the film (several times, in fact, over the years), and to read the novel by Arthur C. Clarke (which, interestingly, was written concurrently with the production of the film). I can think of few other films about which my opinion has so dramatically changed based on subsequent viewings. Each time I watched 2001 I found myself enjoying it more and more. As I peeled back the layers of the onion of the film, to use a familiar but handy analogy, what was once perplexing obtained profound meaning.
It is a challenge to provide a summary of 2001. If you’ve seen the film, no summary is necessary, and if you haven’t, I’d hate to spoil anything. I can tell you that the film is divided into several distinct sections. The movie opens in primordial times (“the dawn of man”) and then jumps forward to the year 2001, when a strange object is discovered on the surface of the moon. That discovery leads (for reasons I’ll not detail here) to an expedition towards Jupiter. The experimental space-ship Discovery is crewed by Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, and the computer HAL 9000. Things go awry. The final segment of the film is the most perplexing, and the reason for the film’s tag-line “the ultimate trip.”
Right from its opening scenes, it is clear that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction film unlike most other science-fiction films. This is a cerebral undertaking, one that is concerned with posing some BIG QUESTIONS for the audience. The film spans the entire history of human-kind — that should give you a good idea of Mr. Kubrick & Mr. Clarke’s ambitions!!
In terms of “plot,” there’s not too much that actually happens in 2001. This, I think (along with the ending, which we’ll get to in a few moments) is one of the chief reasons that this film might not work for many casual viewers. To say that the movie is leasurely paced would be an enormous understatement. Events unfold very slowly, and the movie is filled with stately, long shots in which Mr. Kubrick’s camera moves languidly through the extraordinary environments that he and his team created. There is no dialogue spoken until about 40 minutes in. The film’s most famous, and most exciting, segment — in which something goes wrong aboard Discovery, causing the HAL 9000 to turn against Frank and Dave, only encompasses about 30 minutes of the film, and we don’t meet Frank and Dave and HAL until over an hour in.
But I have grown to really love precisely those challenging aspects of the film that I have just described. Mr. Kubrick is not concerned with giving us an “action beat” every 10-15 minutes. The film’s careful pace and slow build are designed to immerse us in the new worlds which Kubrick and his team painstakingly created (both in man’s ancient past and in our near future). Mr. Kubrick expends an extraordinary amount of time to present to us all the details of these environments. Floyd Heywood’s journey to the moon (our first extended sequence once the film’s story shifts to the year 2001) is a prime example. Kubrick & co. present to us with a wealth of detail about Heywood’s journey: we see how food is served, we see how the flight attendants move through the aisles despite the lack of gravity, we even get a hint at how one might go to the bathroom in zero-g, etc. etc. These details do nothing to advance the plot but are, it seems to me, meant to illustrate how space travel might, in the near future, become as commonplace as air-travel is to us today.
This might be boring to some, but personally I relish the sensation, when watching 2001, of allowing myself to sink into the world created before me. Kubrick combines his magnificent imagery with gorgeous music to create sensations in the viewer of other places and other times. 2001 is a staggeringly beautiful film. The special effects are top-notch and have aged remarkably well for a film made in 1968. I am continually amazed by the breathtaking beauty of the outer-space effects shots. They feel “real” to me in a way that many modern films are unable to capture, despite the advanced tools available today. And the sets are magnificent, particularly the fully-realized environment that Kubrick & co. created aboard the Discovery. Watching David Bowman jog all the way around the Discovery‘s spinning central axis is still a show-stopper.
And the music. I mentioned that there is no dialogue for the first 40-or-so minutes of the film… and frankly there is very little dialogue even after that! Thus, it is the music that is required to do a lot of the heavy lifting necessary to move the film forward and keep the audience connected. Kubrick’s innovative choice of using a variety of classical pieces of music to score his film is one of the elements that elevates 2001 towards the realm of genius. His choices were impeccable — just think about how irrevocably attached On The Beautiful Blue Danube (by Johann Strauss II) and Also Sprach Zarathustra (by Richard Strauss) have become to 2001: A Space Odyssey!
One of the more difficult aspects of 2001 (and something that frustrated me to no end when I first watched the film) is the way that Kubrick refuses to give the audience a character to connect with, emotionally, during the film. When we first meet Heywood Floyd, it seems that he is being set up as the film’s protagonist. But after the encounter with the Monolith on the moon, Floyd vanishes from the film. When we finally meet Dave and Frank on the Discovery, one might think that, OK, here at last are our heroes. But we hardly get to know either one of them. Keir Dullea’s performance as David Bowman is particularly striking by the flat affect that he gives Dave. We see very little outward emotion from him. This makes it very difficult for the audience to ever know what he’s thinking — and it provides a powerful impediment towards our being able to connect with his character. As many reviewers have noted over the years, the most “human” character is the computer, HAL! He’s the only character, really, in the entire film who expresses human emotions: anxiety, fear, curiosity, etc.
It is clear that this is intentional. Not only to I find that very concept (that the computer is more “human” than any of the humans) to be compelling and thought-provoking, but I also find myself engaging more and more with Dullea’s Dave Bowman each time I watch the film. Perhaps it is precisely because of his flat demeanor that he seems like a blank slate onto which I, as a viewer, can transpose my own feelings as the film unfolds — making Dave Bowman an effective “everyman” character to take us through the film’s climax.
Which brings us, of course, to the ending. As I discuss the ending, it’s difficult to avoid spoilers so please beware if you’ve never seen this film before. (It’s amusing to consider “spoilers” in connection with a film that is over 40 years old, but I want to be sensitive to potential “newbies” to 2001.) Bowman discovers the Monolith floating in orbit of Saturn, and one might start to think “Aha! Now we’re going to get some answers!” Instead, what follows is one of the most gloriously enigmatic sequences in film history.
The first time I watched 2001 I had absolutely no idea what the heck to make of that totally unexpected (and seemingly disconnected) sequence of imagery. But subsequent viewings have, I think, allowed me to draw out the meaning of this sequence. As we witness the rapid aging of David Bowman, we see him ultimately reborn as something entirely new, and at last we can understand the meaning behind the film’s lengthy prologue set amongst the (damn dirty) apes. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that depicts the story of the evolution of man, from the primitive apes who knew nothing beyond pure animal instinct, to the cerebral men of a future century whose efforts to create technological tools eventually resulted in a sentient machine almost more human than they were themselves, to the next mysterious stage in human evolution: the star-child. There’s a certain powerful symmetry to be found there.
This is an adult, complex film. Mr, Kubrick does not spoon-feed the audience any easy answers. To the contrary, over the course of this review I have attempted to describe the many way in which he subverts and confounds audience expectations at every step along the way. This created a very frustrating initial viewing for me (and, I suspect, for many others!), but it has resulted in a film that has grown ever richer and more satisfying each time I see it.
There are so many other little details of 2001: A Space Odyssey that I find myself appreciating, more and more, upon my return visits to this film. The astounding beauty of our first glimpse of the Monolith on the moon. The masterfully edited sequence in which Dave uses explosive decompression to re-enter Discovery. The fascinating detail of the way the ever-older versions of Dave are slowly revealed in the film’s climax, in which each version sees the next, older version, and then once that older version has been glimpsed, the younger one is never seen again, and we (and Dave) find ourselves inhabiting that new, more aged figure. I could go on.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a milestone of science-fiction, and of film in general. An accounting of all the sci-fi films that have been profoundly influenced by the aesthetics of 2001 (either emulating those aesthetics, or attempting to respond against them) would be a monumental task. But 2001 is not simply an important film because of its influence. It is an important film because it is every bit as compelling and effective as it was when it was first released in 1968. In many ways I would argue it has actually improved.
If you’ve never seen it, go watch it now.
Then, go watch it again.