In 1968, a film was released which blew the minds of all the people who saw it. That film was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fifty years after its original release, Kubrick’s film remains something which has the power to fascinate, to stun,and to leave people scratching their heads in confusion. This film also has the ability to leave the viewer open mouthed in awe at what they have just witnessed.
There are so many memorable moments in the film. Who can forget the space station swirling in space to the strains of The Blue Danube Waltz? The gravity defying walking scenes inside ships and shuttles? The trippy stargate sequence, which surely must have inspired the makers of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Many people even went to the cinema to see 2001 back in the 60’s and 70’s and dropped acid during the stargate sequence, they called the film the ultimate trip.
This is very much a film that will divide audiences. Some will love every second of it and will hear no word against it. Others will find it slow, incomprehensible and even boring. I remember when I first saw this film. It was on VHS and I had no idea what I should expect from the film. It was a film I was coming to completely blind. I had only been told it was a film I should watch because I was starting to really get into classic era cinema around this time. When the film finished, I just sat in a stunned silence for quite a while. I remember being both very impressed and VERY confused by what I just seen. I also thought (and still do) that the dawn of man sequence didn’t need to be as long as it is. A couple of days later I watched it again, and that is when I came to appreciate it much more.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Kubrick as a director though. I admired his skill but found his approach to filmmaking to be quite cold and detached. Over the years he has ended up becoming a favourite of mine. His films have a unique look to them and are very visual and immersive, they are not traditional films in any way. His films are powerful and so well made, and the majority of them have an impact now just as they did upon their original release. He may well be the best director of all time due to his preparation, his directorial eye, and because of the themes and issues which his films tackle.
I think that on a first viewing this film is actually quite an overwhelming experience. It makes you think and then what you’re thinking about just blows your mind (I’ll come to my interpretation of some things in the film a little later on). Kubrick also bombards you with images, music and sound effects to the extent that the film becomes more of a sensory experience than an ordinary film viewing. I think this is what makes Stanley Kubrick such a master of his craft, his films were events and they were special. If you watch just one film of Stanley’s to get a sense of what he could achieve, then I would recommend that this is the one you choose to watch.
I also like how Stanley brings a reality to this film. Nothing in 2001 seems like it couldn’t happen, or that it couldn’t ever be invented. I also like how he moves away from the incorrect depiction of there being sound out in space. In the scenes where Bowman and Poole go outside The Discovery, all we hear is them breathing in the oxygen being pumped through their suits. In reality this is what it is like when taking a space walk. Apart from the inclusion of Pan American spaceflights and 1960’s fashion, there isn’t really anything that dates this film when we watch it now.
This is a film which inspired many future filmmakers including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. This film changed the visual look of Science Fiction films forever. The effects look real and spectacular today. When the film was first released, the effects completely blew peoples minds because nothing like these visuals had been seen in films before. The effects in this film still look realistic when they are viewed today. I think that there is nothing in this film which screams out to you ” I am a special effect”, apart from the stargate and space baby scene at the end.
Some people consider present day special effects to be amazing, but personally I find current special effects to be very fake looking and way too overused. When it comes to effects, nothing that we see today even comes close to what we see in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I also think that this film feels fresh and relevant when viewed today. It makes us think about human evolution and where we rank in the universe. It looks at the positives and negatives of artificial intelligence. It shows us how human beings are always striving for something more, and are always up for adventure and exploration. How humanity is always trying to be something more than it is. The film also shows young filmmakers just what they could achieve if they put their minds to it and put in the effort and focus.
Interestingly this film also predicted technology that we have now as a part of our everyday life. The videophone that Floyd uses is obviously the precursor to technology like Skype, webcams and FaceTime.
We now have artificial intelligence that we interact with. Although these are not as advanced as HAL is, they never the less do exist and they are quite remarkable achievements. Lots of manual jobs are now done by automation.
We see devices that look like big Ipads being used by Bowman and Poole. The two astronauts are also seen enjoying a TV dinner long before that really became the norm of an evening for most people. In this scene they are both sitting next to one another, and both of them has their own device and they are watching the same programme! This is now sadly a norm in many homes as people sit next to one another on their mobiles and Ipads instead of sitting talking to each other.
We also have an international space station now (much smaller than that we see in the film of course)and have gone to moon (although we have no bases there).
Kubrick was a very visual director and he always had a crystal clear image in his head of how all his scenes should look. He was a perfectionist and would work extremely hard until he got the shots he wanted. I think that this film is possibly his greatest achievement behind the camera. The film plays out like a Silent film in many parts, and it falls to the images in the film to draw us in for a large portion of the film. This is also a film where pretty much every shot is memorable. I think that you could walk away from this film for twenty minutes, come back and you would walk back in as another impressive scene/shot was getting underway. Most films only have a handful of standout moments, but with this film, pretty much every scene standouts and remains in your mind after viewing.
The film was based upon a 1948 short story called The Sentinal. This was written by the British author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke would later expand on that story and publish it as a novel called 2001: A Space Odyssey. He would write several sequels to this story over the coming years. Clarke co-wrote the screenplay of the film along with Stanley Kubrick.
Clarke explains in the novel what the star baby is, but in the film it is left unexplained. I actually prefer the ending of the film because it is the moment that audiences always talk about the most after watching the film. You can really draw your own conclusions about the end of the film. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend that you read Clarke’s novel and the other novels in his 2001 series.
The film is split into three sections. The first section focuses on apemen (played by actors in very convincing ape costumes, mimicking ape behaviour) and how they are merely a part of the land around them. One day a smooth rectangular black monolith appears on the ground. The apemen are wary of this object, but then curiosity becomes too much for them and they all touch it. Shortly after this one of them picks up the bone of a dead animal. He realises that he can wield this bone and use it as a tool to harm and kill others. This shot also shows the exact moment that man started to move away from being an animal and started to become aware of things beyond itself; human beings minds from this moment on are opened to bigger thoughts and ideas. The ape throws the bone into the air and we cut from the past to the future. The shot of the bone cuts to a shot of an orbiting space satellite. This is what this one spark of realisation by the apeman has led to.
The second section shows us the great achievements that man of the future has made. Man has created technological wonders and moved off the earth and ventured out into space. Man has become civilised and sentient. If these men were to be seen by the apemen, then I think they would be perceived by them as god like figures.
Dr. Heywood Floyd(William Sylvester)is a scientist who is flying out to an American base on the moon. Floyd spends some time on the international space station before travelling over to the moon. He is there to look at what has been discovered on the surface of the moon. A monolith identical to the one the apemen saw has been found. Tests indicate it has been buried there for millions of years and was deliberately buried.
When the science team walk up to the monolith they are overwhelmed by a piercing high pitched sound emanating from the monolith. The film then jumps forward again in time.
The third section finds us eighteen months on from the moon incident. Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea)and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood)are onboard the new deep space vessel, Discovery One. The ship is the first manned mission to Jupiter. Also aboard in suspended animation are three scientists who will be awakened upon arrival at the planet. Bowman and Poole have lots of work to do onboard, but the overall running of the ship is done by HAL 9000. HAL is an advanced artificial intelligence (spookily voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is supposed to be incapable of harming or endangering human life.
As the months go on, HAL becomes concerned about the mission and behaves erratically. He kills Poole and the three scientists, and then attempts to kill Bowman who manages to survive and disconnects HAL’s circuits. After this Bowman discovers a prerecorded message from Dr. Floyd explaining the real reason for the Jupiter mission. The signal from the moon was detected as being sent out to Jupiter. The crew were going to be instructed to investigate for signs of life on the planet.
Bowman leaves the ship and comes into contact with a monolith. He travels through some sort of stargate or star tunnel. This experience is beyond his comprehension. We next see him in a strange room, and he ages and is transformed into a star child. The film ends with the star child orbiting earth.
I interpret the film as telling us that mankind is small and child like in comparison with the vastness of the universe, and also in comparison with the awesome power and inexplicability of the circle of life. We have learnt much, we have created some remarkable things which would have been considered impossible centuries ago; and yet we still have so much to learn and comprehend. We act as though we are in control of all we do, when actually we are not and our lives are short and fragile. We know we will all die, and yet we still react with surprise and horror at death when it arrives. I also like that the humans are very much secondary characters in the film in comparison with the mystery of the monolith and of all the scenes showing the vastness of space. We are so small in comparison with the universe as a whole and the film shows us this fact.
The film makes me think about some very big things. I believe that none of us will ever know for certain if there is a god or not until we die. I also have a theory that god is simply the name that mankind has come up with in order to explain the unknowable force that is the circle of life. When we don’t understand something, we have a tendency as as species to have to try to explain it. Isn’t it far easier for us to say that some all powerful being created us and gave us life by magic? than to admit that we don’t know how we came to be, and that we have no idea why we are here or how and why we evolved how we did? The life cycle is something to revere though in the way that people worship god, because it is the life cycle which brought us into being. Life sustains us, it ends our lives, and it is something far beyond our comprehension.
There are so many big questions still unanswered in life. Why is our planet set up to sustain our life? Why is there gravity? Why are our bodies and organs set up the way they are? Why do most animals have shorter lives than humans? How come everything on the planet exists for a specific reason? How come we have so far been unable to find other lifeforms of equal or advanced intellect elsewhere in the universe? Why do we seem to be the only species on the planet who seem to be aware of our own mortality and ask big questions about who we are and where we came from? Why do we insist on wasting time killing and hurting each other instead of working together to cherish our planet and help increase our understanding and knowledge? This film makes me think of these things and ask all these questions.
I think the mysterious monolith represents all that we have yet to learn (be it about life, or the universe etc)and all that we don’t yet understand. I think it also represents man’s evolution and our ability to change and to grow. The monolith appears in the film at key points in mankind’s evolution. I think the space baby represents us as being as a child in comparison with the size of the universe and with the power of creation and life. At each point in human existence we think we are all powerful and are in control of what goes on around us, this film shows us that is not the case at all and we are not as invincible or powerful as we like to think we are.
I have to mention HAL now. He is actually the most developed and interesting character in the entire film. The human characters are not all that well developed and they are secondary to the story and the visuals. Perhaps this was done to emphasise their lack of importance in the face of what they get caught up in and discover?
I also think that the scene where Bowman disconnects HAL is very disturbing to watch. We hear and see this entity slowly lose his mind as Bowman pulls out his computer chips. We are seeing Bowman literally kill HAL in order to save his own life. As scary and dangerous as HAL has been up to this point, we have never the less been able to connect with him in some way and we consider him as much of a real being as Bowman and Poole are. The disconnection scene makes for very difficult and uncomfortable viewing.
The inclusion of HAL in the film also poses the question about whether or not artificial intelligence is capable of thinking beyond its programming. Can it feel emotions or not? Should it be considered as much a lifeform as we are? HAL also makes us see that technology can sometimes be promised as being perfect and safe, and yet can often break or malfunction. This is an issue we are experiencing right now as greater advancements are being made in the creation of artificial intelligence.
Fifty years on, and there are still no definitive answers to any of the questions and issues found in this film. We still have so much to learn and to do. For all our intellect, for all our ability to create and change, mankind is still sadly very primitive. We are still governed by animalistic instincts and urges (to procreate, to survive, to kill)to the extent that we hinder any meaningful progress because we’re hating each other over things like racism and religion. If only we could all come together to ponder the bigger questions in life. If only we could come together to work as the one species we are (there is no race, we are ALL human beings)and work towards a world where we live as one and share the planets resources equally.
Stanley Kubrick’s film was a game changer in film history. His film made Science Fiction a genre to be taken seriously. It pushed the boundaries of what could be made possible on screen. Planets, ships and stars all look like they are the real thing in this film. Scenes such as that featuring the stewardess walking upside down as she moved around the ship were really unlike anything seen before. This film also inspired the realistic look found in later Science Fiction films such as Star Wars and Alien.
This film also highlights the power of film to transport you to another place and how it sucks you in completely. I would say to someone who hasn’t seen this before to prepare to surrender themselves to the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t merely a film, it’s an immersive experience and it will make you ponder some VERY big and deep issues and questions. If you’re after films that cater to short attention spans, then this really isn’t the film for you. If you don’t like long films, then again, this isn’t the film for you. If you appreciate a well made film by a master of his craft, then this is one to check out.
My thanks go to Stanley Kubrick and all his crew and cast for their hard work in creating this film. That it looks new, and feels relevant fifty years on, is really a testament to the skill and genius of Stanley Kubrick.
If you want more of the story, then do check out the sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. I think this sequel (starring Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren and Kier Dullea)is highly underrated. While the sequel isn’t in the same league as 2001, it is a very good film and people who didn’t get on well with the first film may like this one better.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough I think. What do you think of this film? What do you make of the ending of the film?