Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: April 2, 1968
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Geoffrey Unsworth
WRITERS: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke
In the 1960s, director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clark wanted to make a film that showed the majestic nature of space. They also wanted a story that showed where humans came from, where we were and possibly where we might go. Using the mysterious Monoliths to help kickstart humankind’s evolution, we are taken on a journey with a film that can be purely defined as a space opera!
The movie begins in darkness as we hear what sounds like an orchestra warming up. Then, “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss famously begins to play as we see the Earth, the Sun and the Moon perfectly in alignment. We then see our beginnings with our ape-like ancestors as they struggle to live in a harsh environment.
One day, a tall Monolith appears and our ancestors begin to realize that they can use bones as crude hunting weapons and to help push away dangers such as invading tribes. Once the first ape-man throws his bone in the air triumphantly, we switch to millions of years into the future as a satellite descends into view, hovering ominously over Earth. Then, “The Blue Danube” kicks in and we are watching a space plane line up with a massive space station, still under construction and showing us that our journey among the stars has only begun.
Finally, in 2001, a spaceship called the Discovery is heading towards Jupiter. Onboard are three scientists in suspended animation, two pilots and an A.I. system known only as HAL 9000. While there are plenty of dangers that present themselves thanks to HAL 9000, it is ultimately David Bowman (Keir Dullea) who will take the ultimate and very mysterious journey into the heart of the Monolith orbiting Jupiter and possibly beyond what we know about time and space itself.
Kubrick is more fascinated with space and the evolution of humankind more than he is with answering any questions you might have. He leaves the ending completely up to interpretation while giving us one of the most accurate depictions of life in space. Of course, we didn’t pretty much live up to any of the things featured in Kubrick’s version of the year 2001.
You can’t blame either him or Clarke for getting the year wrong, though. 50 years ago, we were just about to land on the Moon and it seemed like even greater journeys were on the horizon. At that time, we could easily see ourselves conquering the stars by the beginning of the 21st century. Hell, enough of their ideas in this film are still perfectly valid, but maybe it’ll be 2101 by the time we reach other planets in our solar system.
Now, the movie is admittedly a slow burn. Again, the film goes against most filmmaking conventions, so if you’re looking for detailed character development or extreme action, you need to look elsewhere. Kubrick forms a mostly non-verbal experience with the mood being highlighted by the classical music he uses to show space in all of its majesty.
One thing that struck me while rewatching the film for the purposes of this review is just how well the film holds up from a visual effects point-of-view. Kubrick used every filmmaking trick in the book that he had at the time. He managed to produce a massive sense of scale that involves the aforementioned space station near the beginning to the moon bases where we discover another mysterious Monolith.
Kubrick then gets claustrophobic for the scenes set on the Discovery. Dave and his co-pilot, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), are trapped onboard the ship for several months and show no emotions as they deal with the day-to-day running of the ship and the fact that they are cut off from Earth except for the few video feeds that come in from time to time. Surprisingly, it is HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) that shows the most emotion. He expresses fears about the mission and has concerns for both Dave and Frank before he mysteriously gets homicidal, which is subtly revealed to be him trying to protect the secrecy of the mission.
Finally, there is the astounding ending that understandably confuses most people even to this day and I must admit that I can’t even begin to explain everything you see in the final act. Dave finally gets to explore the Monolith at Jupiter before being sucked into a “gate” that opens up.
It proceeds to send him to a place that can never be truly understood but it visually the most beautiful segment of the entire film. I personally think that this comes mostly from the fact that we are not sure where the human race is going and that if we do encounter a race of beings that are light years ahead of us, we may not fully understand their intentions. As a result, Kubrick takes away any form of an answer and smartly leaves it up to the viewer.
This is one of my favorite science-fiction films of all time. 50 years ago, Kubrick and Clarke created a piece of art that still resonates today. It is a masterpiece of expert filmmaking and imagination about the almost mythical nature of space itself and human evolution. Beyond being understandably dated due to what we knew at the time, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is still a film that I think will continue to be discussed for the next 50 years and beyond the infinite!