2001: A Space Odyssey
by Jon Bastian
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Science fiction is a much-maligned genre because it isn’t understood by non-aficionados. To non-fans, SciFi is all about the hardware. It’s not. Science fiction is all about the software, a prose of ideas. Even as apparently hardware oriented an author as William Gibson isn’t just telling tales of technology. He writes about the effect that technology has on humankind, and vice versa. Like its more “legit” cousins, science fiction is about people. Maybe it should be called fiction with science in it.
Now, if science fiction is looked down upon by some as literature, science fiction films tend to have a reputation as poppyschlock. The reason for that is simple — a good chunk of what Hollywood passes off as science fiction is actually fantasy. The old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials were not science fiction, the “alien invaders” flicks of the 50s were likewise fantasy, and it continues today with such non science fiction films as Independence Day, Red Planet and Event Horizon trying to claim a genre title of which they are not worthy. Even a giant like Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction. There have actually been few real science fiction films in American Cinema, but a list of some titles will demonstrate the difference: Blade Runner, Soylent Green and A.I. come to mind.
But there’s one Science Fiction film that towers above all others of the genre, as well as all other films, and that is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Warner Brothers barely released in time to actually be seen on a big screen during the relevant year. True, a lot of the predictions in 2001 failed to pan out. We don’t have regular passenger service to our space station (we don’t even have Pan Am anymore), there’s no moonbase and we’re decades away from a manned mission to Jupiter. On the other hand, we have two-way video communication, credit card reading telephones, an alliance between the US and Russia, supercomputers that can speak and listen (although they haven’t perfected that vision thing yet), and we’ve been to the moon and back many times. None of the misses really matter, though, because the 2001 of the title is really metaphorical, especially from the point of view of the world of 1967-68, when it was filmed and released. 2001 represented The Future, that long promised time when technology would solve all of mankind’s ills — or make them worse, take your pick. It was a crossing into a new millennium, another age, instant progress. Ironically, the real 2001 has turned out to be one of the most infamous years of human history, right up there with 1666, 1458 and 1291.
The story of 2001 is deceptively simple. In prehistoric times, apes wander around doing not much of import. One day, a black monolith appears out of nowhere. One of the apes, Moonwatcher (Daniel Richter), is apparently given a little inside info. Soon thereafter, his clan discovers the use of weapons and become the first Earthly superpower, as they kill their enemies and feed themselves. At the moment of Moonwatcher’s greatest triumph, he tosses his bone-weapon into the air, and 2001 pulls the first of many breath-taking moments as Kubrick jump cuts several million years. We’re suddenly watching a satellite in space, and then we follow the Pan Am Clipper, a space shuttle, as it gracefully rises through space to the tune of Strauss’s “Blue Danube.” This sequence is one of the most beautiful things ever put on film, a ballet of high tech to a song from another century, and it works perfectly. It also carries the implication throughout — everything that mankind has become began with the first hominid to pick up an object and use it as a tool.
When the shuttle docks at the space station, we finally meet the hero of the second part of the film, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester). Incidentally, this is also the first dialogue in the movie, a good thirty-five minutes in. Floyd is on his way to the moon amid rumors of an influenza outbreak at the American station. His Russian counterparts (Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack) try to get more information, but Floyd sticks to his story. It’s only after he arrives on the moon that we find out the real reason for his journey. The black monolith, or one of its relatives, is back, having been recently excavated from the bottom of a crater. As Floyd and company examine it, trying to decide what to do, the monolith decides for them. As the rays of the rising sun hit it for the first time in millions of years, it sends a signal off into space. (This is one of Kubrick’s cruelest moments, by the way — a very, very long and loud screeching sound that transcends unpleasant and makes it a good bit of the way past painful.)
Suddenly, we jump ahead again, as the space ship Discovery is well on its way to Jupiter, the destination of the monolith’s signal. On board are David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), along with five frozen astronauts, as well as the HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain), the most human character in the third part of the film. Bowman and Poole have no idea what their real mission is, but HAL does, and when the humans begin to doubt the machine, it goes homicidal in self-defense. Eventually, one of the humans wins and continues on to his rendezvous with destiny, learning the true purpose of the monolith in deep space.
It’s a big story that works on many levels and tackles various issues in different guises. Mankind’s first tool is a weapon, and yet, millions of years later, we’re still making weapons despite our progress, as evinced by the first satellite we see, a space borne missile platform. As well, mankind is still divided up into tribes, shown as American Floyd has a wary discussion with the Russians, and they lie to each other. For all our progress, we’re still no different than the apes at the beginning.
There are many possible interpretations of HAL’s apparent madness in the third part of the film. On one level, he’s not mad at all. Rather, he’s just acting exactly like the humans who created him, using any means necessary to protect himself. On another level, he represents the ultimate revolt of our tools against us. As well, his murderous behavior is a strange vindication of the human habit for the same. HAL is only doing what his programming tells him to do.
2001 is one of those films that invites discussion and analysis, even (or especially) after repeat viewings. Kubrick also takes the great risk of not explaining anything, which is one reason that a lot of people (critics included) are befuddled by this film. And yet, everything you need to know is right there before your eyes, if you bother to pay attention. The “Dawn of Man Sequence” at the beginning of the film quite explicitly covers our transition from gatherers to hunters and does it all without a word, and in the finale of the film, Kubrick has the guts to show Bowman’s encounter with alien intelligence without explaining a thing. You either figure out what you’re seeing through Bowman’s eyes or you completely miss it. There is no middle ground.
Another daring choice by Kubrick is in the film’s score. In the post John Williams world, classical sounding music and spaceships seem to go quite well together, but that was not his invention. In fact, Kubrick had to fight the studio in order to not have their idea of science fiction music imposed on the film. Instead, Kubrick uses pre-existing classical music, creating public awareness of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (known ever since as the Theme from 2001), as well as forever redefining Joseph Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” The great joke here is that composer Alexander North was actually hired to score the film the way the studio thought it should sound — very atonal, very Schönberg, very modern. His music was never used, but nobody bothered to tell him before the premier. For the record, I’ve heard his score, and the world is fortunate that Kubrick stuck to his vision. North’s version is unlistenable.
As a piece of cinematic art, 2001 is well up to the depth of its ideas. It’s one of the most meticulously crafted pieces of celluloid ever created. It was also light years ahead of all film special effects that preceded it, and nothing came close to redefining the look of a “space movie” until the original Star Wars, a decade later. More amazingly, though, Kubrick didn’t have digital technology to achieve his effects, nor the luxury of wire removal. He had to invent tricks for some of the effects in the film, but the end results are seamless. Other than a few inevitable glitches (no one had seen the Earth from space yet, after all), everything looks quite real.
Another stand-apart detail about the film, something not even attempted again until Apollo 13 — the science is meticulously accurate. Kubrick paid attention to something that most other films and TV shows blithely ignore. Space has damn little gravity and no air to transmit sound. Space ships don’t screech when they fly by, explosions happen in silence and things float around unless they’re strapped down or held by centrifugal force. This accuracy makes for some very memorable sequences: a moonbus whizzing silently across a desolate landscape, a space pod door blasted off without a noise, a flight attendant literally walking up walls. Too bad that Peter Hyams couldn’t be bothered to do the same when he was inexplicably hired to direct the sequel, 2010. That film is to 2001 what a first grader’s essay about summer vacation is to “War and Peace.”
Nonetheless, everything in 2001 aims toward one conclusion: humans are just animals that happened to figure out tools and develop technology. Yes, space is an alien environment for us, a place into which we must take everything necessary for our survival; that we are able to do so demonstrates our ingenuity. Whether we can manage to not destroy ourselves with the same technology is another question. We may not look like apes anymore, but sometimes we behave like them — the real lesson of both the film and the year 2001.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who holds Stanley Kubrick and 2001 solely responsible for his insane interest in this business.
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