2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Film does not work without images. In the same manner, music does not work without sound, and comics do not work without illustration. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick dove deep into the very heart of what gives cinema form. The result is a movie that is actually an incredibly traditional narrative, shaking off all the unnecessary exposition and focusing its lens on movement, space, both the presence & absence of sound, color, lighting, every essential component of the craft. I get entirely if someone doesn’t like 2001, and the first time I saw it, I felt very dissonant with the picture. It took some additional viewings, reading & hearings others’ thoughts, and forming a picture of what the movie represented for myself.
The film opens in the prehistoric African veldt where the apelike ancestors of humanity graze for food and live together in a large social group. One night an alien monolith appears to them and communicates knowledge of how to use the bones of a dead animal as a weapon to kill, turning the creatures into omnivores. Later, the clan uses these bones as weapons against a rival group to reclaim a watering hole.
The picture suddenly jumps millions of years later to the 21st century, where Dr. Heywood Floyd travels to a lunar base to research an artifact that has been recovered during mining. This is the same alien monolith seen by the primates all those years ago, and when Floyd and his team interact with it, a piercing signal is sent forth. Eighteen months later, Discovery One is headed to Jupiter, where the signaled was being sent. The ship is piloted by Dr. David Bowman (Kier Dullea), Dr. Frank Poole, and HAL 9000, a supercomputer A.I. Three additional scientists are kept in suspended animation.
HAL informs the two pilots that a communications array is set to break down in seventy-two hours, but when they investigate, the men find no sign of damage. They relay that HAL has made an error and the computer refutes this, claiming it to be a human error. Bowman and Poole become convinced that they must covertly shut down HAL before he harms them but find out the A.I. is one step ahead of them. The Discovery One keeps heading towards its mysterious destination in orbit of Jupiter while man battles against his own creation.
It’s an understatement to point out what a technical achievement 2001 represents. Even today, almost every special effect and model stands up. This is a gorgeous piece of cinema that makes sure to communicate the scale and scope of man, his constructions, and the celestial bodies. Kubrick also understands the connection between outer space and our perception of the divine. The planets and moons are presented in a quasi-religious fashion with a soundtrack of meticulously chosen classical pieces that convey that awe. My particular favorite is Gayane’s Adagio by Aram Khachaturian used when the audience first sees Discovery One. I absolutely love the lonely lamenting tone of the piece, matching the distance Bowman & Poole are from their homeworld, adrift in the quiet darkness of space.
Kubrick, being a good artist, refused to give his personal interpretation of the picture and encouraged people to talk about what they saw and felt coming out of the movie. An interesting divide occurred between audiences and critics, with the former seeing 2001 as an optimistic film about man’s continued evolution, while critics saw it as a warning about the inevitable destruction man would experience at his own hands one day. All the Kubrick would divulge was that his goal was to make a film that communicated with the audience on the most basic levels of consciousness about things beyond our perceptions.
The movie presents audiences with two possible human development paths, one represented by HAL and the other by Bowman. HAL refuses to accept his fallibility and does so to a degree of fatalistic violence. He would rather kill than admit he made errors. This results in his destruction. I couldn’t help but think of arrogance present in society today, where people cling to their notions to the point of mental breakdown before they would listen to someone else and evolve. In our current moment, I am terrified that this mindset could lead to our destruction sooner rather than later. HAL also represents the highest achievement of humanity to create an autonomous sentient mind. Humanity attempts to mimic what the monolith did for it millions of years before giving the spark of intelligence to something. It ultimately fails, though, because our species isn’t ready yet.
Bowman embraces the abandonment of both the technological, material and intellectual. He leaves behind the Discovery One and all its features designed to create comfort and allow the user to forget about any suffering. Using the pod, Bowman submits to the monolith that has called him and plummets into the void. Here all his preconceived notions melt away. Before, we saw this futuristic technology used to recreate Earth in other spaces beyond that planet. This goes against the desires of the monolith and its creators, who wish humanity to think beyond these forms.
Bowman sees the material world melt before his eyes encountering familiar yet alien landscapes until finally, he becomes a being unfettered by the boundaries of time. Life and death blend together into an almost indistinguishable singular point in time. Once he achieves death, he can be reborn and become one with the divine presence leading him down this path. Bowman becomes the StarChild, representative of new life and new possibilities. 2001 exists to inform us that the distance between that primitive bone weapon and orbital weapons platforms is infinitesimal compared to what humanity could be and achieve.
This picture is a meditation in the form of cinema, a filmic poem, a celluloid symphony. It’s both an exercise in pushing the technology to its limits and an opportunity to communicate something relevant to the audience. Kubrick truly loved cinema, and I believe 2001 is a movie about how we have to stretch the art to places we have never gone before. The films we make now are almost indistinguishable when we boil down the plots, characters, and themes. Kubrick believed that the images we put on the screen should be used to evoke a more intricate web of emotions and ideas, that this was an unprecedented form of communication that our species still hasn’t fully grasped but one day we will.