2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
Starring: Keir Dullea
I’m not sure what I can say about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn’t already been said. Universally considered one of the best films ever made, 2001’s place in the pantheon of cinema isn’t in question. 2001 is Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on human progress, and his first (and possibly only) foray into the realm of the cinematically sublime. The film, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, charts the history of the development of human intelligence, beginning with the spark of human intelligence in a group of our simian ancestors, and jumping forward into the (then) far future, where human minds had outgrown their earthly concerns and turned their gaze to the stars. The film’s speculative and visionary subject matter is reflected in Kubrick’s grandiose imagery and sublime visual poetry.
2001 opens with a segment titled “The Dawn of Man,” in which we see a group of apes begin their evolutionary journey, as they learn to use tools and wage war. Their leap in intelligence is sparked by the appearance of a vibrating black monolith, which seems to bestow knowledge upon those who encounter it. Fast forwarding millennia, the film then shows us a speculative year 2001, in which space travel has become commonplace, and in which a second monolith has been discovered in a crater on the moon. This monolith is transmitting signals in the direction of Jupiter, and the quest to find its source informs the primary plot of 2001. The film’s more narrative middle section shows us life aboard the space ship Discovery, where astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), along with their on-board computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) have taken on the quest of finding the source of the monolith’s transmission. What they find, both on Discovery, and beyond Jupiter brings into question the nature of humanity, and humanity’s role in the larger universe.
I first encountered 2001 right around the year 2001, when I was about 16 years old, and I was wholly unprepared to digest the film’s dense, philosophical themes. It was, however, the first time that I can remember being completely in awe of a film. I had never experienced a film whose visuals so greatly impacted and enchanted me, and in so many different ways. The early portions of the film perfectly capture the mundane minutiae of space travel in the year 2001, where our journey to the stars has been commodified and coopted by corporate sponsorship. The film’s final segment, in which astronaut Dave Bowman encounters the source of human intelligence, and is able to experience the evolution of man into his next form, are visually spectacular by contrast. Bowman’s journey beyond Jupiter is presented as a psychedelic blur of color and shape, assaulting the senses and jarring the viewer after experiencing the first two hours of the film which are meditative and defined by their restraint and glacial pacing. I was hooked.
Over roughly the next five years of my life, 2001 was my favorite film, and Kubrick was undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker. I shared the film with anyone who would allow me, attempting to tease out its mysteries through shared viewership and late night dorm room conversations. It wasn’t for everyone. I can remember bringing the VHS home from the public library for the first time and my father telling me the story of when he went to see 2001 in 1969. The film’s pacing, length, and lack of dialogue turned him off. He said that he walked out during the film’s famous docking sequence set to Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”, thinking, “What did I just pay money to see?” But for me, the esoteric nature of the film was a part of its appeal. Not only had I never before seen a film that posed such deep philosophical questions, I had never seen a film that felt as if it were a question that needed to be answered itself. I felt rewarded with each repeat viewing as I started to formulate my own answers to the film’s internal riddles, and the beauty of the film began to reveal itself to me with each subsequent trip beyond Jupiter.
After some time, though, I no longer felt the need to continue to revisit this classic. My familiarity with its structure, its classic shots, and its cerebral questing was total. However, as I moved on from 2001 in my early 20s, and began to revisit Kubrick’s other films, I gained a new appreciation for 2001 and began to regard it in a different light. I began to appreciate what I referred to earlier as the sublime visual poetry on display in the film. When I watched the film after having read Michel Ciment’s Kubrick, an in-depth examination of the director’s films and visual style, and after fully experiencing the director’s entire body of work, I began to be interested in 2001 less for its inherent mysteries than in its ability to elevate the cold and the artificial to a place of warmth and emotion through its visual style. 2001 may be the Kubrick film least interested in human-centered narratives, but ironically, I find it to be his most emotionally in depth work, and it is certainly the Kubrick film that elicits the most emotional response from me.
The grandeur of the Blue Danube sequence, when we are first given a glimpse of Earth from space, and introduced to the realities of space travel in the year 2001, is a perfect marriage of sound and image and an introduction to what I have been referring to as the film’s sublime visual poetry. The sequence, which is free of any dialogue, links human artistic achievement in Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” with human technological achievement and prowess in the impressive space ships. Following immediately after the “Dawn of Man” segment that opens the film and which is linked visually to that sequence through the famous graphic match of a bone with a space ship, the “Blue Danube” sequence underscores the progress that humanity has made, while also serving as a reminder that despite our technological and cultural achievements, man and his creations are still dwarfed by the awesome void of outer space. The juxtaposition of the mundane (a man falling asleep in his chair while watching television) with the fantastical or awe-inspiring (that man’s chair being on a spacecraft, where a flight attendant casually retrieves his pen before it floats away in the zero gravity environment), are at the heart of the film’s exploration of the sublime. It is a dichotomy that Kubrick returns to again and again, underscoring the insignificance of man’s activities on the Universal scale, while at the same time acknowledging man’s destiny and deserved place among the stars.
The film’s final scene returns to this juxtaposition, as Bowman goes beyond Jupiter, and is confronted with both his mortality, and evidence of man’s ultimate evolutionary destiny. At the end of his journey, Bowman finds himself in a lavishly decorated apartment where he watches himself live and age, eventually becoming a bedridden old man. The scene gives the impression that Bowman understands that he is on display, much like an animal in a zoo, as he goes through the end of his life alone, eating meals quietly. Just before he is going to die, Bowman is presented with the monolith, and as he reaches out for it, accepting both its knowledge and his place in the Universe, he is reincarnated as the Star Child. Bowman becomes the next step in man’s evolutionary development, a being of pure energy, seemingly possessive of the answers to the mysteries of the Universe. In the final shot of the film, the Star Child returns to Earth, accompanied by the strains of Wagner’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Again Kubrick is juxtaposing his beautiful images with established classical music to indicate the presence of the sublime. While there is some debate on the role of the Star Child, I believe that he returned to Earth as an ambassador, not a warrior or a weapon. His role is to elevate mankind and show the ultimate potential of humans to ascend to a higher plane among the stars.
Upon this rewatch, I was instantly reminded of the awe I felt that first time I watched 2001 as a teenager. I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in at least five years, but as I mentioned, its rhythms feel like they’re a part of my unconscious, always playing in the background of my dreams. Watching it again, on a new Bluray disc that I purchased about three years ago after realizing that I no longer had my DVD copy, I was immediately taken in by the film’s beauty. The transfer was great, and I was able to watch the film with more visual clarity than I ever had before. The sterile white of the film’s space ship interiors seemed to pop off the screen when contrasted with the vast blackness of the outer space exteriors. The colors in the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence at the film’s end were hallucinogenic and brighter than I remembered them being. I was taken in by the films rhythms, which were still so familiar, but which I hadn’t experienced in so long. Everything about the pacing is perfect, from the tense, episodic structure of the “Dawn of Man” segment, to the fluid, yet precise construction of the “Blue Danube” sequence, the film is a master work in editing. Although the only real narrative tension doesn’t appear until very late in the film’s second act, it is propelled forward by its beautiful imagery and excellent craftsmanship. I was again left with the feeling that the film was being presented as a question, or maybe as a challenge. I thought nearly a decade ago that I had unraveled all of this film’s secrets, but I’m sure now that I never really will. It should probably work its way back into my yearly rotation, though.