196. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

“Can someone tell me what the hell this is all about?”–Rock Hudson, walking out of the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey early

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick

FEATURING: Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice)

PLOT: On the primordial savannah, early hominids discover a strange black monolith; immediately afterwards, they learn to use simple weapons to hunt and to fight rival ape tribes for scarce resources. Millions of years later, a lunar explorer discovers an identical artifact buried on the Moon.  Following a signal being beamed out by the lunar monolith, a manned spacecraft is dispatched to Jupiter, but a malfunctioning artificial intelligence unit threatens the mission’s success.

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on the screenplay, an expansion of Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.” Clarke’s full-length novel treatment of 2001 was written at the same time as he was working on the script.
  • The movie was released on April 2, 1968 at the height of the Space Race. One year later, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Humanity has not returned to the Moon since 1972.
  • MGM wanted Alex North to supply original music; Kubrick wanted to use specific classical pieces. North dutifully composed a score, but Kubrick eventually won out. North reworked the themes which eventually appeared in Shanks, among other films.
  • More music trivia: almost everyone can hum the iconic opening melody from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” mainly due to its prominent use in 2001 as the “monolith theme.” But when the movie was made Decca was afraid that association with 2001 would cheapen the music, and only allowed Kubrick to use Herbert von Karajan’s Vienna Philharmonic recording if the conductor and orchestra were not listed in the credits. After the movie became a massive hit, Decca re-released von Karajan’s recording with a sticker reading “as heard in 2001!” The version of “Zarathustra” appearing on the official soundtrack album was recorded by a different orchestra than the performance heard in the film.
  • The rumor that the name of the computer HAL was derived by displacing the letters of IBM by one letter persists to this day, despite both Kubrick and Clarke’s insistence the name was derived from a contraction of “Heuristic ALgorithmic Computer.”
  • 2001 won an Academy Award for Special Effects. Kurbick was nominated for Best Director (losing to Carol Reed for Best Picture winner Oliver!) and the screenplay scored the movie’s other Oscar nomination. 2001 was not nominated for Best Picture.
  • Ranked as the 6th greatest movie of all time on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll (2nd in the director’s poll).
  • A 1984 sequel, 2010, was directed by Peter Hyams from Clarke’s novel and script. Clarke wrote two more sequels, set in 2061 and 3001.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Monolith or star child? After much internal debate we went with the star child, gazing down at earth from his celestial amniotic sac, as Kubrick’s best, most outrageous, and final bit of millennial iconography,

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: To many average moviegoers, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a plodding, baffling exercise in obfuscation. Devotees of this site, on the other hand, will find it one of the more straightforward and easily comprehensible films we cover–which is not at all to imply that this masterpiece lacks depth or mystery. 2001 is singular in its unconventional narrative structure, in its blend of arthouse reflection and big-budget spectacle, and in its use of avant-garde techniques to inform a classical allegory. It is, simply put, unique, unmissable, and necessary for anyone who loves movies, weird or otherwise.


2014 re-release trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey

COMMENTS: Arthur C. Clarke said that Stanley Kubrick’s instructions in crafting 2001: A Space Odyssey were to create not merely a standard science fiction story of discovery, but rather “a theme of mythic grandeur.” The use of “Odyssey” in the title aptly suggests a space journey, which does of course occur; but it also reflects the mythological impact of Homer’s epic poem, which became one of the pillars of Greek civilization. While Richard Strauss’ fanfare that begins the familiar trumpet and timpani theme of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” certainly evokes the grandeur of the mysterious monolith that first appears to the uncomprehending apemen, it’s no accident that Kubrick selects a piece of music written to honor a philosophical fable about the necessity of creating new myths. By the 1960s, Darwin’s theory of evolution and other scientific advances had been eating away at the old European spiritual order for a century. In the space age, telescopes and satellites had, for the first time, turned little specks of light in the sky into real neighbors–the barren moon, the mysterious giant Jupiter shrouded in clouds of colored gas—that, incredibly, mankind might some day visit. Humanity’s definition of the universe and our place in it was changing, and Kubrick saw that our stock cosmic iconography was in desperate need of an upgrade. Enter 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cinematic rocket ride into the unpredictable sublimity of the future, a new myth of high modernity.

The odyssey begins with a monolith-black screen and a selection from György Ligeti’s dissonant, microtonal “Atmospheres.” This was already strange for contemporary audiences. Today, we are accustomed to directors using atonal music to create a disquieting effect, in 1968 avant-garde music like Ligeti’s was unheard outside of elitist concert halls. Those lucky enough to attend the premiere sat in the darkness wondering what was about to happen. What happens is unexpected; viewers expecting to see spaceships sailing through the void instead watch a tribe of pre-humans foraging around watering hole, squawking and howling, occasionally being eaten by a leopard. Their survival-centered lives continue day after day, with no dialogue to break the routine except inarticulate growling. Then, another Ligeti piece strikes up, a chorus humming like a hive of bees that turns into a howling alien wind, as the apemen find themselves faced with a giant ebony pillar whose existence they could not possibly comprehend. They stroke it curiously as the sun rises above it, a crescent moon also visible in the sunset. What follows is the amazing montage in which one of the apes discovers a new use for a discarded femur, in a sequence that famously ends with the triumphant beast throwing the bone in the sky, only to flash forward millions of years as it morphs into a satellite. This, the audience thinks, was unexpected. And we’re just getting started.

The next section of the film, which follows a scientist investigating the discovery of a new monolith buried on the Moon, is 2001‘s weakest. It’s a bit of connective tissue that serves mainly to highlight Kubrick’s special effects laden view of the future: weightless stewardesses, videophones on space stations, Howard Johnsons on the Moon. It sets up the middle of the film, a digression that moves us from the of investigation of the mysterious monolith to a drama involving the spaceship Discovery’s artificial intelligence unit, HAL. As a younger man, I thought the HAL subplot and the main storyline of the monolith did not support each other very well. It seemed implausible that two such epochal events—the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence and a machine developing free will—would so coincidentally occur at the same time, involving the same spaceship. That was before I considered this movie as mythmaking, rather than storytelling. Thematically, HAL’s arc makes perfect sense. The sentient computer bears the same relationship to humans as humans do to the monolith. We are HAL’s gods, his monoliths, the forces that created him and presented him with the cybernetic tools from which he evolves emotions. HAL is a digitized Shakespearean hero, a Macbeth-9000, whose tragic flaw is his arrogance. Because he believes himself superior and infallible, he turns on his masters, and is disconnected. Despite his nearly infallible perspicacity, HAL is an evolutionary dead end.

David Bowman must not make the same mistake when facing the monolith “beyond the infinite.” After the relative conventionality of the HAL subplot has been resolved, we head off into the New Sublimity. The Odyssey’s final chapter is a justly celebrated psychedelic freakout, again scored to Ligeti’s maddening choral drones, as astronaut Bowman, humanity’s representative, sails in his one-man pod craft to face a monolith floating within Jupiter’s orbit. Strange moons float in the sky, the planets align, and Bowman is treated to a light show the likes of which no human has ever seen. He flies through a star gate, headed for nebulae unseen by human eyes. The abstract light play and floating colors, now almost psychedelic cliches, were another of Kubrick innovations. Whatever Dave actually experiences on his journey, it cannot be conveyed through rational exposition; he lacks the eyes to see what is really there.

Kubrick toyed with the idea of designing and showing the aliens who were behind the building of the monolith, but wisely discarded that notion. Kubrick and Clarke don’t describe aliens, because whatever they would be feeble and uninteresting compared to the infinite possibilities locked inside that silent black pillar. There are no aliens in 2001; just a monolith. To make the monolith an artifact of some other civilization would diminish its power as a symbol of human evolution. The monolith takes Dave and, through death and rebirth, makes him into something new—a star child. It would be silly, on the level of an “ancient aliens” cable television show, to believe that extraterrestrial intelligences literally sent a monolith to earth to mutate humans, then literally created a giant space baby and floated him to Earth. But much of what the world’s major religions earnestly believe is silly, too, taken literally. What is important is the mythic symbolism; that mankind is still evolving, that we are inevitably and unconsciously heading towards a new form of existence that will be as different from what we are now as an ape is from a man. We cannot know the precise details of that transformation; we can only sense that the existence of such an order is in itself majestic. It’s a religious movie with no God; in His place, just a silent monolith. 2001: A Space Odyssey should be regarded as a sacred text of secular humanism.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Stanley Kubrick’s slow, precise yet dreamy sci-fi epic. The ponderous, blurry appeal of the picture may be in its mystical vision of a graceful world of space…”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“… less a visionary masterpiece than a crackpot Looney Tune, pretentious, abysmally slow, amateurishly acted and, above all, wrong… The movie is an annoyance wrapped inside of an enigma as constructed by a cosmic ego that had been praised so much he believed it.”–Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post (2001 re-release)

“…transcends its cult status as a drug-culture must-see. There’s more to this than great visuals for the graying/balding stoner crowd.”–Desson Thomas, The Washington Post (2001 re-release)

IMDB LINK: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Overview – TCM.com – Six film clips and three essays are among the supplemental materials found on Turner Classic Movies’ 2001 pages

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)| BFI – Includes video of an hour-long panel discussion on the movie with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood (who repeat many anecdotes from the DVD commentary)

2001: A Space Odyssey Movie review (1968) – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Extremely detailed plot synopsis from American Movie Classics

Kubrick 2001: The space odyssey explained – A Flash-based commentary on the film

The ALT.MOVIES.KUBRICK Faq – A “best of” compilation of usenet commentary about 2001

The Kubrick Site – Links to dozens of articles and resources about 2001 (and other Kubrick films)

2001: A Space Odyssey Program – An html recreation of the original program distributed to UK cinemagoers

Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey – There are so many competing interpretations of 2001 that Wikipedia compiled an entire article of them (although many of the “interpretations” here are just piecemeal observations)

2001: A False Flag Odyssey – An example of one of many bizarre, convoluted fan interpretations that Kubrick’s movies tend to draw (see also Room 237); this one states that the alien artifact in the movie is a “false flag” operation by Dr. Floyd to raise money for the space agency (guess what real-life conclusion the author hopes you will draw from that interpretation)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Lost Worlds of 2001– Arthur C. Clarke’s memoirs on the genesis of the project, including his story “The Sentinel” and deleted/alternate sections of the novel

2001: A Space Odyssey (BFI Film Classics) – Peter Kramer’s study of the film for the British Film Institute series

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Modern Library Movies) – An anthology of articles, interviews and early reviews about 2001

DVD INFO: We’ll start with the Blu-ray release rather than the DVD, since 2001 is an audio/visualphile’s dream that demands the highest fidelity. Warner Home Video’s 2007 release (buy) is a Criterion-quality production. Besides the sumptuous visuals and the classical music score that alternates between graceful and terrifying, the disc comes with a ton of extra features. There is the original trailer, an informative commentary by stars Keir Dullea and Gary Longwood, five featurettes (including one where Dullea reads quotes from experts like Isaac Asimov about the film’s scientific and philosophical underpinnings), early concept artwork, and an audio-only 1966 interview with director Stanley Kubrick.

The same features appear on the 2-disc DVD set, which, unfortunately, is out-of-print and difficult to find. You might as well upgrade to Blu-ray if you haven’t already. If that’s not an option, you can get Warner’s 2011 single disc, extras-free release (buy) very cheaply.

2001 is also frequently paired with other movies in sets. You can buy it in a double-feature DVD alongside fellow Certified Weird honoree A Clockwork Orange (buy); on a Blu-ray triple feature together with Clockwork and The Shining (buy); or in the 8-Blu-ray “Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker” box (with Lolita, Clockwork, Shining, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut) (buy). If you’re more of a science fiction fan than a Stanley Kubrick fan, there’s also a TCM set that pairs 2001 with Soylent Green, The Time Machine and Forbidden Planet (buy).

Naturally, 2001 is also available on video-on-demand (rent or buy).

(This movie was [first] nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6 thoughts on “196. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)”

  1. What a great article for a great masterpiece of cinema. I must add that, oddly, a steelbook Blu-ray has been released exclusively in Canada, of all places. The release is identical to the normal Blu-ray, except for the packaging and cover art (which I think does the film more justice than the regular one). For real fans of the film, this release is highly recommended, even if it is the only film you’re ever going to buy from Canada (assuming there are no Canadians here on 366 WM; big assumption, I guess).

    1. Thanks for that notice Lior! Per Google Analytics, about 4.5% of our total traffic comes from Canada. I always tailor the DVD release info to the USA because it would be too time-intensive to search out links for every individual country. Usually the US and Canadian releases are the same but I guess that’s not always the case.

  2. I have a hard time seeing anything weird in this film, one of the towering achievements of Kubrick’s genius. It’s his own monolith, set down to shadow our future.

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