The first time I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had absolutely no idea what I was watching, and even after reading a few explanations of the film online, I simply didn’t comprehend the movie. Recently, however, I rewatched 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen in 70 mm at a 50th anniversary screening. Not only was the theatre experience fantastic, and was the 70 mm picture gorgeous, but I think I now have a significant understanding of the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece of science fiction. The film presents the purist form of the genre: an analysis of humanity and our relationships to technology and nature. The picture opens with a sequence titled The Dawn of Man which features an ancestral ape of man discovering how a bone can be used as a tool after encountering an extraterrestrial monolith, a large black rectangular structure. Shortly after uncovering the tool, the hominid uses it as a club to kill another ape. He proceeds to throw the bone into the air in victory, and in one of the most profound scene transitions in cinematic history, Kubrick cuts from the falling bone to a satellite, which some have speculated may be a form of advanced nuclear weapon. If so, the cut from man’s most primitive weapon to our most advanced, is penetratingly perspicacious.
When the traditionally linear plot of the film begins, it follows a space expedition on the ship Discovery One to Jupiter consisting of two men, Dr. Frank Poole and Dr. Dave Bowman, and an A.I. known as Hal 9000, with the remaining crew members in hypersleep until the ship reaches its destination. The mission was launched after another monolith was discovered on the moon, with radio waves broadcasting from it towards Jupiter. During the voyage, Hal rules Frank and Dave unfit to lead the expedition, and with complete control of the ship and its functions, Hal sabotages the mission, condemning Frank to death by the vacuum of space and murdering the remaining unconscious crew members. The juxtaposition between this narrative and the opening segment presents an extremely compelling comparison. The film opens with man’s mastery of his most primitive weapon, and apposes it to man’s subjugation to his most advanced weapon.
After disconnecting Hal 9000 to save his own life, Dave, the sole remaining occupant of Discovery One, nears Jupiter. He enters a stargate, and finds himself in a Victorian-esque bedroom. In a series of extremely creative, yet incipiently bewildering edits, Dave carries out the rest of his days in this room, until finally passing of old age. It is at this moment that the monolith appears a third time, following which, Dave is reborn into the universe as a fetus-like starchild: a transcendent state of being. Maintaining its theme of juxtaposition, 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with man in his most primordial state and concludes with his most developed state.
While the film is far more complex than this, I perceive the basic tale of 2001: A Space Odyssey to be this…
Man exists exclusively with himself and nature. Man discovers a tool, which he immediately uses as a weapon. Man’s tools develop into sophisticated technology and weaponry. That technology becomes more powerful than man himself through its excessive involvement in his life, and overpowers him. After conquering his tool, man is reborn into a state transcendent of technology where he once again exists exclusively with himself and nature, and where his tools are no longer relevant.
I find this to be consistent with monolith, which appears three times throughout the film: 1) when man discovers the tool, 2) when his tools become too powerful and too essential for his own good, and 3) when he is renewed as a starchild.
In addition to the complexly profound story, the technical achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey are likewise brilliant. Having been released in 1968, the film’s visuals have aged superbly. The effects used in portraying the space stations and ships not only still look phenomenal, but look better than most contemporary CGI effects, and the way that Kubrick displays a zero-gravity environment is breathtakingly flawless.
Two additionally defining characteristics of this picture are the editing and the cinematography. The union of Kubrick’s monotonously methodical editing and painstakingly symmetrical frames accord the film a pseudo-hypnotic ambiance. I’ve heard many consider 2001: A Space Odyssey to be “slow,” but I respectfully disagree. Rather, the unvaried pace of the film and its tedious editing mesmerized me to the magnetically and spellbindingly captivating picture.
Kubrick’s iconically ingenious use of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra accompanied by many other fantastic pieces of music contribute a sense of grandeur to the otherwise monotonous atmosphere. Being the main theme of the film, Also sprach Zarathustra has in fact become synonymous with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and deservedly so.
A uniquely interesting aspect of 2001: A Space Odyssey is its violation of one of my major rules concerning movies. I not only prefer my narratives to be character-driven rather than plot-driven, but I traditionally require it. This picture, however, shatters that prejudice. Neither Dave nor Frank are particularly compelling protagonists. In fact, synonymous with the editing and cinematography, virtually all of the performances are curiously monotonous. The narrative isn’t driven by Dave’s arc, as most successful pictures are, but it’s contrastingly compelled by the atmosphere, by the antagonist, and by forces unseen. While other filmmakers may struggle with this approach, Kubrick succeeds extraordinarily.
2001: A Space Odyssey is not for everyone. It’s an extremely and unconventionally complicated film that I required multiple viewings to comprehend, but once grasped, I believe Stanley Kubrick’s classic to be a masterpiece of the science fiction genre. The effects are breathtakingly phenomenal, the editing is monotonous yet mesmerizing, the cinematography is tedious yet captivating, the accompanying soundtrack is magnificently grand, and the film’s profound parable of a narrative is sure to withstand the test of time.