#15 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

by Trey Hock on May 23, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

#15 is a divisive film if ever there was one. It’s been called visionary and transcendent. It’s also been called pretentious and abysmally slow. Regardless of your take, at some point any committed film buff must engage with Stanley Kubrick’s epic space adventure 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now I think it’s only fair that I come clean about my love and admiration for Stanley Kubrick. I regard him as the leader of a guard of young filmmakers that would dominate American film throughout the 1970s and 80s. He comes before Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg, and his influence on each of these directors was evident.

Kubrick does not make films for the lowest common denominator or even the average recreational filmgoer. He expects his audience to be smart and savvy. “The Shining” and “Dr Strangelove” may be accessible to a larger audience, but the multiple levels of meaning in each film make them delightful to the film snob as well. Kubrick wants his audience to be bright and well versed in visual language. Nowhere is that sentiment more apparent than in his masterpiece “2001.”

I understand that if you hate “2001,” then there won’t be anything I can do or say that will convince you to love it. So I am not even going to try. All I am going to do is present some images and start the discussion. Feel free to join in on whichever side you choose.

Released in 1968, “2001” was an intellectual collaboration between Kubrick and renowned science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick, after the success of “Dr Strangelove,” wanted to explore ideas surrounding space travel, alien life, and what it means to be a human on Earth and in the universe.

These were ideas that were steeped in the consciousness of the 1960s, but Kubrick also wanted to explore the line that separates humans from the rest of animal kind, and he wanted to ponder the difference between humans now and humans of the future. Kubrick wanted to deal with big themes, perhaps the biggest of themes, but how to represent them visually?

Enter the monolith.

Many critics seem to take a literal approach to the monoliths. They are these strange artifacts left by aliens to propel humanity forward. I think that, though Kubrick and Clarke affirm this view in interviews, such a narrow view of these objects and the later light and special effects driven sequence limits the possibilities within “2001.”

The film is not about getting somewhere it’s about exploring ideas. Just take the scene, in which an ape, after its encounter with the ebony monolith, slowly realizes that a thick bone can be used as a tool.

Bone Becomes Tool

Throughout the film Kubrick tells the story through his visuals. The flashes of the animal falling, cut with the ape smashing the skeletal remains, shows the intuitive leap that the ape makes.

The tool quickly becomes a weapon used to subdue a rival group. Here Kubrick shows us that the weapon-wielding group hold themselves upright while the rival group, without bone clubs, still crouch like animals.

Kubrick builds “2001” around visual motifs. This leads us to cinema’s largest compression of time through a match cut, when Kubrick jumps from the bone, as it twists in the air, to the space ship, as it orbits the Earth. Both are tools created and used by humans. One just happens to be a bit more advanced.

In outer space Kubrick shows us the beauty and whimsy of human creation, as our satellites engage in a celestial dance.

Dance Amongst the Stars

The music and movement of the spacecrafts do not match perfectly, but they emotionally parallel each other. If the music matched too well then the moment could feel like a joke, instead of a moment of whimsical transcendence.

On the moon, a group of astronauts encounter a monolith, which has been buried there for four million years.

Astronauts Uncover Monolith

Again we see as Kubrick advances his story visually. There is very little dialogue, and what there is hints at, but never defines the story. The group of astronauts approaches the monolith cautiously at first, and then when all seems safe, they pose for a photo op.

The monolith sends a signal to the depths of space. Another group of astronauts gives chase, seeking the signals destination. It will takes them to Jupiter.

Two astronauts, Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and their computer, the HAL 9000, watch over the three other crewmembers in suspended animation as their ship journeys toward the target of the monolith’s transmission.

After a slight miscalculation, HAL becomes concerned that his human companions intend to shut him down. Before they can do this, HAL, using the arms of a small shuttle pod cuts Frank’s air hose while he’s on a space walk. When Dave gets into one of the remaining shuttles to retrieve Frank’s body, HAL shuts down all of the life support systems on the crew in suspended animation. Dave returns to an angry computer and dead crew.

Frank and Dave Discuss HAL

Dave struggles against his computer adversary, and finally shuts down HAL and regains control of the ship, just before his arrival at Jupiter. There he encounters the next monolith.

Though a literal interpretation of the monolith is perfectly reasonable, I prefer a metaphoric approach. I see the monoliths as historical markers, lines in the sand, which mark ruptures or leaps forward within the growth and progress of mankind.

As early humans sit on the verge of tool creation, a monolith appears to mark the event. As humans expand beyond the natural boundaries of their planet, a monolith appears, and later as they encounter alien life, or expand their consciousness from a global to a cosmic perspective again the monolith will appear.

When Dave goes out to interact with the monolith, which orbits Jupiter, it starts the sequence of events that Kubrick titles “Beyond the Infinite.” Kubrick gives us a visually stunning journey through light and motion. All of the effects were practical, and executed through clever photographic tricks or by filming different density liquids as they floated through a large tank. These special effects, which Kubrick developed for “2001” would capture the film’s and Kubrick’s only Academy Award.

Beyond the Infinite

We can ponder whether the lights and globular clusters are the alien beings themselves, Dave’s journey through the deep reaches of outer space, or a mind altering state which brings Dave to a new level of consciousness. The metaphor seems work regardless of the individual interpretation. In fact all of “2001” acts like a cinematic Rorschach test, that begs for a multiplicity of interpretations.

Once Dave makes it through the extraterrestrial rabbit hole, he encounters a place that seems to exist outside of linear time. Here he sees himself as a middle-aged, and very old man. In the scenes final moments, again driven by the presence of the monolith, Dave transforms into a fetal child.

Dave Reaches for the Monolith

This star child returns to Earth. Does he represent the dawn of a new era and new kind of humanity? Probably. Did the aliens transform Dave or was it time for humans to evolve? Sure.

Star Child Looks on Earth

Along with dazzling visuals and perfectly composed shots contained in “2001,” these types of unanswerable questions are what make this film awesome. “2001” makes philosophical thought on the existence of humans tangible and visual. While it never solves any of these existential riddles, the film gives the viewer a huge amount to ponder, and takes us on an eye-popping if not mind-expanding journey through the stars.

Hopefully AFI will keep this film on its list for many years to come. It is what great film should be, an expertly crafted visual experience that entertains while it makes us think.

Up next #14 “Psycho” (1960)

1 Year, 100 Movies #16 Sunset Blvd. (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #17 The Graduate (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #18 The General (1927)

1 Year, 100 Movies #19 On the Waterfront (1954)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier Robertson May 23, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I think I may have even posted my dislike for Kubrick on this site before but I have definitely had a turn around. I now have seen a larger number of his films and love almost all of them. 2001, Barry Lyndon and The Shining are my 3 favorites. I still don’t like a clockwork orange though, it was the 1st one of his I tried watching and I think was the source of the negativity to Kubrick I used to have.

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2 Trey Hock May 24, 2011 at 5:10 am

Xavier, Yeah “A Clockwork Orange” can be a rough one, but I’m glad to hear that you’ve turned a corner in your view of Kubrick.

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3 Xavier Robertson May 24, 2011 at 5:55 am

it is sometimes unfortunate that one bad experience like I had with A Clockwork Orange turned me off and made me apprehensive about viewing more Kubrick films because his films now rank amongst my all time favorites

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4 Reed May 24, 2011 at 9:23 am

We’re really in the heavy hitters now, huh? What a film. I think this has to be the most ambitious movie ever made. Not because it was necessarily challenging to film (though I’m sure it was), but because, as you reference Trey, it depends so much on the viewer. It is the antithesis of an Adam Sandler flick. That’s no knock on Sandler. I love his work, but I can’t admire it the same way.

There is no film that compares to this one, and every time they try, be it Event Horizon, Sphere, or uhhh 2010, it comes off more as a parody than a tribute. And it does indeed require attention and effort from the viewer. The first time I saw 2001, I was in a large theater with a very wide screen. I’m sure that enhanced the experience. At home, on the couch, with all the distractions, this movie won’t work as well. The viewer needs to be enveloped by it, in awe of the visuals, and secluded enough that their patience is compensated.

I’ve tried to get various friends to love the movie, but most have come away more frustrated than impressed. It’s a pity, really. This has been one of my three favorite films for a long time for various reasons. But I think the biggest is how much respect I have for its ambition. It will be a very long time before we see another great film as equally challenging and rewarding as this one.

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5 Trey Hock May 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Reed, yep we’re knee deep in it know. I agree that this is a heady film, and rewarding if you give it your attention. I do think that home viewing is possible, but like you said, you need to limit your distractions, because “2001″ is meant to be an immersive experience.

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6 Phil Fava May 31, 2011 at 3:34 am

Probably my all-time favorite film. I watch it in unremitting astonishment every single time. Great piece.

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7 Harvey August 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm

This film is most definintly a masterpiece, but I have one small complaint. Did Kubrick really have to make the Beyond the Infinite scene when entering that wormhole 15 minutes long? I mean, yes the effects are stunning and amazing, but it can only last so long before the flow of the film begins to waver. Other then that, great film with a lot of depth.

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