2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)



(director/writer: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriter: from Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel”; cinematographers: John Alcott /Geoffrey Unsworth; special effects: Douglas Trumbull; editor: Ray Lovejoy; cast: Keir Dullea (David Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Frank Poole),William Sylvester (Dr. Heywood Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moonwatcher), Leonard Rossiter (Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Michaels), Douglas Rain (HAL 9000), Alan Gifford (Poole’s Father), Frank Miller (Mission Controller), Ed Bishop (Lunar shuttle captain); Runtime: 141; MGM; 1968-UK)

It’s a film based on self-discovery and intellect and contemplation.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

2001: A Space Odyssey is a meditative quest, an inspirational sci-fi film that defies its genre in scope and attitude, it is a film of tremendous visual impact and innovation. It was done before Star Wars and at a time when sci-fi films were mostly low-budget productions. It is Kubrick’s ultimate masterpiece. A film that encourages our contemplation of every scene, as each scene was carefully and intelligently shot with the hope that the broadest sense of discovery was possible. It is only through our own effort to go beyond our limitations and stifling beliefs that Kubrick believes we can come away with an understanding of current scientific truths. Kubrick at first opened the film with some of today’s leading scientists explaining, as clearly as they could, what this ‘space odyssey’ was all about, but Kubrick cut that 10-minute dialogue preferring for the film to remain more mysterious. He wanted us to go beyond our narrow nationalistic political scope of seeing things and for us to understand that we must raise our consciousness levels and move beyond our antagonistic current ‘Type: zero level of consciousness’ and move into a ‘Type: 1 level of a planetary consciousness.’

It is Kubrick’s belief that the moon is the safest place for us to invite the aliens over. His thinking was that it is better to invite them there than on our soil, because of what happened when the Native Indians invited Cortez over to their homeland. This is the reason for the use of ‘moon bases.’ It is for further exploration of our evolutionary cycle, as we make contact with extraterrestrials who are in all probability more advanced than our civilization is.

The film opens in darkness 4 million years ago with the title “The Dawn of Man,” showing the apes learning how to destroy and how to create in order to stay alive (they use bones to make both weapons and tools). It ends in a bright light, a vision of evolving consciousness, as a black monolith is discovered and explored on Jupiter by the mission astronauts. They have found life outside the earth in the form of a Star Child, who is hermetically sealed in a bedroom outside of Jupiter.

It’s set in the future 33 years from when the film was released, which would be in 2001. The anticipation of computers and robots as being a daily part of life is assumed as the error free series 9000 computer, named Hal (Douglas Rain, Hal’s voice), engages the scientists in conversation and is programed to carry out every detail of the mission to Jupiter. Hal is even programed with human emotions, but we are not certain if these emotions are genuine.

The subplot shows a conflict that develops between Hal and the spaceship’s crew, David Bowman (Keir) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), when Hal is accused by ground control of making a mistake about a malfunctioning object aboard the ship and the crew secretly decides to disconnect Hal, which he discovers because he ingeniously reads their lips; even though, they took every precaution not to be detected in the pod they entered. This has been interpreted by many to mean that Kubrick has made a pessimistic film about the inevitable conflict between man and his machines, but it just might be that what he is saying is we better not rely completely on machines no matter how infallible they may appear to be.

The first half-hour of the film is filled with splendid silence showing the apes doing their destructive thing and it takes about an hour into the film before the plot starts to develop, as the infamous bone is thrown into the air by the ape and the scene slowly dissolves into one showing a space shuttle. Kubrick then zooms into a space terminal and we hear our first words in the film. It is as if the baton is passed to the higher order of beings saying we got you so far, can you take us all the way home across the finish line of evolution.

The tedious pace of the film has an hypnotic effect, contrasting the primitive bestiality of our ancestors with the polite deceptions of our future relatives. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,” which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and thereby offers no resistance to the non-action taking place on the screen. While Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, provided energy and vitality to the space flight and became the film’s very popular signature theme.

The ease and comfort of life in the new high tech world is magnified by the somnolence of space travel and by the high-tech inventions which allow for more conveniences, such as a telephone call made from a space station with a crystal clear video of Dr. Floyd’s (Sylvester) young girl he is saying happy birthday to. All this presents a rosy picture of what high tech can do; that is, if we play our cards right and don’t do something stupid, like use its technology to blow up the world.

Dr. Heywood Floyd is played to a tee by William Sylvester as the consummate politically savvy scientist leader on a secret mission to the moon’s lunar crater Tycho, who is unable to reveal the mission’s real purpose. He hides his purpose under a cover-up story that there is an epidemic on one of the sub-stations. His casual conversation with foreign scientists in the terminal lobby before his flight to the moon is polite and guarded, rational to a fault.

What Kubrick pays most attention to is the spacecraft’s design and the terminal’s details, as they are shown as if they were placed under a microscope and examined by us to see if we can pick up any faults in them.

On the moonman is confronted with strong radio signals indicating that there is a monolith on Jupiter, which is the same kind of monolith the apes confronted; and, as the first monolith led to the discovery of tools, so the second leads to the spaceship Discovery. Man has raised his consciousness and is even in partnership with the artificial intelligence of HAL 9000. Therefore, Dr. Floyd is now anxious to see what the future will bring with the discovery of the new monolith on Jupiter.

Life aboard the Discovery is routine. The three scientists are left in hibernation, monitored by Hal. The two crew members who are awake fill their time with exercises, video telephone calls, maintenance checks and chess games with HAL. They heed Dr. Floyd’s warning, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it by telling you beforehand what it is about.” Not fully knowing what the mission is, only Hal knows that, yet they are led to believe that this mission might hold answers for them in man’s evolution that might make it the most important scientific investigation ever. That science is held up as the best possible finder of our truths, was never more ably said. And that politicians hold our freedom in their hands is exemplified by the courteous but controlling Dr. Floyd, who prefers secrecy to openness and is one step away from being a benevolent dictator telling us what to think.

The most humanly dramatic moment of the film, is when Hal pleads for his life as the astronaut disconnects him. He is more human than the astronauts, who have become like the machines they work with. Hal touchingly sings a song called ‘Daisy,” that his inventor taught him, which has some affect on the crew to make them seem more human. Hal’s death, caused when he fails to please his human masters anymore and refused to obey them, fittingly comes about because of his arrogance and pride. Kubrick seems to be delivering a sound message to politicians, scientists and theologians, alike.

Next comes the psychedelic light and sound show, apropos for the mind-expansion movement of the ’60s; it is a sequence that was stunning to behold, stoned or straight. We view the astronaut, Dave Bowman, traveling through a wormhole (time becomes warped), probably, into another dimension and we see him as he discovers a well-decorated bedroom suite, eventually staying there and growing old, quietly eating his meals; and, lastly, we see him in the bedroom. But the last shot we see is of the Star Child, which adds to the mystery of the story. How did he get there? Is he an alien who could be present on Earth? Is the Star Child the natural progression of the astronaut? The aliens who created this environment are not shown as the film ends on this very mysterious note, which has been a source of much commentary and has inspired meanings ranging from: it’s all rubbish to something divine has happened.

This film, ultimately, is about the need mankind has to transcend its limited thinking and move into dimensions that are greater than its narrow aims. It is not a pessimistic film as some have suggested, neither is it an optimistic film; it is a film based on self-discovery and intellect and contemplation. It is one of the great original works of cinema, maybe even the best; it is a film that is not even a bit dated as I view it once again in 1999 still awed by the spectacle, the accuracy of its scientific statements, and its mystery.