2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Well... I have finally decided to come face-to-face with the seemingly insurmountable task of trying to write something about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cue the superlatives.

Let me preface this all by saying that 2001: A Space Odyssey is, without a doubt, the greatest film of all time (in my opinion, of course). The fact that this film was made by a human being (although sometimes I am convinced that the extraterrestrial entity responsible for the monoliths is also responsible for this masterpiece) absolutely astounds me. I have literally lain in my bed at times, completely dumbfounded, laughing at how incredible this glorious cinematic feat truly is. Now, away from my fanboy time and onto the actual writing. There is literally something to analyze in every single shot so I am going to have to skip a lot and just try to hit on some things. 


The film kicks off with a 3 minute-long overture, followed by the iconic Also Sprach Zarasthustra title sequence emerging from behind the shadowed Moon. Though I'm not aware of it, I'm sure there is some deeper meaning behind the particular alignment of the three celestial bodies shown in this sequence. I find it hard to believe that Stanley Kubrick, of all people, would not create his title sequence with the utmost attention and detail. 

The Dawn of Man

We're then introduced to the first of three sections, appropriately titled "The Dawn of Man," with a sequence of landscape shots establishing the environment; the first of which (the dawn of the sun) being a play on the section's title phrase. Soon after, we are introduced to a tribe of apes (excellently performed by a group of mimes), led by Moon-Watcher, alongside a group of tapir. Skipping ahead some, the first of the film's four black monoliths makes its appearance in the ape-inhabited desert terrain, as Ligeti's ominous Requiem fills the atmosphere. As the sun rises over the desolate land, Moon-Watcher and the apes curiously examine the mysterious slab in their presence, and the frame cuts to a shot of the monolith from below. Moon-Watcher is then shown examining a set of bones, and the frame briefly cuts back to the previous low-angle monolith shot. As it returns to the bone shot, we hear Strauss' grand Also Sprach Zarasthustra begin to build, and see Moon-Watcher inquisitively look around, as if he has discovered a new ability. Finally, he picks up a bone, and begins to violently smash the remains of the skeleton. 

As the slow-motion shots of ape swings and Strauss' triumphant score illustrate, mankind had now gained a substantial advantage over animals and its competing environment. Before the discovery of tool usage, the apes were forced to compete with the inhabitants of the nature surrounding them. The discovery afforded them a clear, strategic advantage, and the ability to defend themselves properly, collect more food, and most importantly, the ability to control nature at their own will. 

To finish off the 4 million year-old section, Moon-Watcher is seen throwing the bone in the air, which iconically cuts to a spaceship above Earth, representing technology as a defining feature of humanity. Kubrick uses this transition as a comparison in the size and importance of the two objects. Although they greatly differ in their physical size and complexity, they were equally important steps for humanity. Whereas archaic tools provided prehistoric mankind a method of food collection and self-defense, the advent of the spaceship allowed for great achievements in space exploration for modern mankind.  

Dr. Heywood R. Floyd and the Moon

This is really a subsection because Kubrick obviously intended for this part to be included in the “The Dawn of Man” section, or else he most certainly would have made it its own section. I'm just separating them in this review for the purpose of creating a new talking point. 

After the bone-to-ship shot, a series of spaceships are shown orbiting Earth as Strauss' The Blue Danube Waltz (which is probably my favorite piece of music ever orchestrated) starts to build, and we then see the Orion III spaceplane transporting Dr. Heywood R. Floyd from Earth to Space Station V. Side note: Britain's first operational nuclear weapon was called the Blue Danube; Kubrick's choice of music reinforces the notion of technology's threat upon man, and most likely foreshadows HAL's demise. Skipping ahead some, Floyd takes the Aries 1-B shuttle to Clavius Base, where he meets with American lunar officials regarding the "epidemic" on the Moon. Following his meeting there, he takes the Moonbus to the Tycho crater, where TMA-1 (the second monolith) had previously been excavated. When he arrives alongside a handful of astronauts, he approaches the black enigma and reaches out to touch it. The crew then gathers together for a picture in front of the monolith. Soon after the picture is taken, the sun rises up from behind the lunar horizon, and TMA-1 gives off a very powerful radio emission, aimed directly at Jupiter.

Jupiter Mission

Eighteen months later, we see the Discovery One spaceship floating in deep space, with Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite playing as we're introduced to the most well-known characters of the film: Dr. Frank Poole, Dr. David Bowman, and HAL 9000. Skipping ahead some, HAL and Frank are seen playing a game of virtual chess. There's something hidden in this part that's pretty important in the grand scheme of things. In the final moves of the match, HAL says: "I'm sorry Frank, I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate." Frank resigns without questioning HAL's analysis, and without noticing that he has been deceived: "Yeah, looks like you're right. I resign." But HAL's description of the queen move is technically incorrect– the move is really described as "queen to bishop six". Also, there's some other chess jargon stuff that happens with HAL's mate that Frank could have forestalled, but I'm not familiar enough with chess to further elaborate on that. Knowing Kubrick's perfectionism and his avid fandom of chess, this "goof" is entirely intentional. Another important thing to note is that Frank is seen mouthing his thoughts on what his next move would be during this game of chess. So HAL wins by not only incorrectly calling his moves, but also by reading Frank's lips in the same way that he did when Dave and Frank were discussing their thoughts on HAL's fate in the pod. This "goof" ties in to a bigger idea concerning the complicated relationship between HAL, Dave, and Frank. It's kind of hard to explain so bear with my quick thoughts. HAL tests Frank in the chess game by successfully lying to him, reaffirming HAL that he has psychological control over Frank. In a later conversation between Dave and HAL, HAL tells Dave that he has "been troubled by the rumors of something being dug up on the moon" and asks Dave for his opinion on the matter. The viewer later discovers that HAL's "troubles" are disingenuous when the video recording in the Logic Center reveals that HAL knew the truth all along. Dave then says to HAL "You're working up your crew psychology report," and HAL replies with "Of course I am. Sorry about this. I know it's a bit silly." But then the crucial line: HAL says to Dave "just a moment," but repeats the line twice, as if he had become stuck in a loop for a couple of seconds, which we could assume (considering the speed and power of his thought process) would only happen if he went through a mammoth series of calculations. In this moment of repetition, HAL realized that Dave could not easily be psychologically deceived, compared to Frank, who did not think to question HAL or anything he had said. To test Dave further, HAL promptly informs him that he has "picked up a fault" in the AE-35 unit. Instead of just replacing the unit and moving on, Dave chooses to consult Frank and report the fault to mission control. Once the "faulty" unit is replaced, Dave curiously gives the recovered unit a manual functionality test and finds that it is in perfect working order. At this point something has become quite obvious: whether it be by pure technical difficulty or by choice, something is wrong with HAL.  

Later, in one of the most genius moments in the history of film, HAL reads the lips of Dave and Frank to discover that they plan on shutting him down.

Intermission (Still Jupiter Mission)

Post-intermission commences with Frank taking an EVA pod out to conduct the second AE-35 replacement. It seems right to assume that HAL was hoping that Dave would take care of it, which would have eliminated HAL's greatest threat first. Unfortunately for HAL, Frank is the volunteer and is killed via severed pipes in his breathing apparatus. 

As Dave takes another pod out to try and retrieve Frank's body, the frame cuts to some eerie shots of the other three crew members in hibernation, including a shot of their vital signs monitor, which soon displays "COMPUTER MALFUNCTION," "LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL," and "LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED" error messages. Soon after, Dave ditches Frank's dead body and makes his way back to the Discovery, where he is met by HAL's refusal to open the pod bay doors. Dave then must use the explosive bolts on his EVA pod to blast himself inside, and, in a fit of rage, walks directly to HAL's Logic Center to shut off his internal systems. 

"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage, but you'll look sweet upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two."

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

The third, final, and most ambiguous section of 2001: A Space Odyssey kicks off with a shot of the Discovery heading towards Jupiter, followed by a sequence of shots tracking the third monolith of the film orbiting the gas giant. 

Then... Star Gate... I won't even try to elaborate too much on the Star Gate sequence because it is most literally "the ultimate trip" section of the film and far too complex for my words to do justice. I've heard two interpretations of the Star Gate and I can see both as being plausible. The first being that there is meaning hidden deep in each different component, and the second being that Kubrick simply wanted the sequence to be a visceral experience that brought a sense of strong feeling through visuals rather than intellectual thought. I almost think I lean more towards the latter just because that seems like the Kubrick thing to do, even despite the fact that he is the king of always-a-deeper-meaning filmmaking. My take on it is that it's most likely a combination of both interpretations. 

Following the Star Gate, we're brought to a King Louis XIV-era French bedroom. We're then introduced to a slightly older-aged Dave who proceeds to explore the premises, to end up finding an even older version of himself eating at a table in the main bedroom. While reaching for his glass, the older Dave's hand slips and knocks the glass off the table. As he bends over to pick it up, he sees an even older Dave, who seems to be in his last minutes, lying on the bed. The frame then cuts to a side-shot of the oldest Dave lying in the bed, and as he reaches out as if we was trying to touch something, the frame cuts to a straight-on shot of the fourth and final monolith standing upright in front of Dave's bed. After a few cuts back and forth between the monolith and Dave, the frame returns to the bed to reveal that, in place of Dave, lies a newborn in fetal position, enveloped in a sphere of light, who soon looks upon the Earth with the gaze of a supreme ruler... the Star-Child. 


Random thoughts:

-Arthur C. Clarke's book is great as well but I definitely favor the direction Kubrick took it.
-The visual effects are mind-blowing. 1968 and they still hold up better than anything I've ever seen. 
-Stanley Kubrick is a genius. No other film director will ever surpass his level of brilliance.
-Dave shutting off HAL is my favorite film scene of all time. HAL's dialogue is so powerful. 
-I know there are some strong religious themes in the film that I haven't looked into much and need to further research.
-It's pretty absurd how many underlying themes there are. Among them are the perils of technology, evolution, the capacity of man, space exploration, mortality, isolation, etc.


As HAL says: "I never gave these stories much credence, but particularly in view of some of the other things that have happened, I find them difficult to put out of my mind." 

-The monolith is a representation of a widescreen cinema screen rotated 90 degrees.
-The opening three-minute-long black overture is a monolith that the viewer is staring at without knowing it. This is obviously a huge reach but there is some interesting evidence to support it, including the widescreen cinema screen thing I mentioned above, as well as the recurrence of Ligeti's Requiem (which play during the overture) each time a monolith is examined and an evolutionary leap occurs. Possibly Kubrick was making the suggestion that the viewer watching the film was in some way related to another evolutionary leap.
-There is a complete lack of handheld shots in the “Jupiter Mission” section up until Dave re-enters the Discovery from trying to retrieve Frank, possibly representing that Dave was freeing himself from HAL's psychological prison (stiff camera work to free, loose camera work).
-There's a long, complicated theory that there is an anti-IBM message hidden throughout the film. Dave's wrist device, light reflections on Dave's face that seem to resemble "IBM," and the HAL/IBM connection are among the pieces of evidence. 
-Some of the Star Gate visuals are connected to Dave's green helmet and the scene of his shutdown of HAL.
-Some possible foreshadowing of Frank and his EVA pod spinning through space in an earlier shot of two meteorites flying by with the Discovery deep in the background.
-There is a direct side-shot of the Discovery that, when rotated 90 degrees, (because there is no sense of orientation in space) is resemblant of a ball and chain. This is possibly a representation of technology acting as a ball and chain on humanity. 

Favorite quotes, in no particular order:

"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."

"I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you."

"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." (My senior quote)

"Thank you for a very enjoyable game." (Almost senior quote)

"Dr. Floyd: 'What's that? Chicken?' Dr. Bill Michaels: 'Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.'"

"I've just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's going to go 100% failure in 72 hours." 

"That's a very nice rendering, Dave. I think you've improved a great deal. Can you hold it a bit closer? That's Dr. Hunter, isn't it?" 

"I am feeling much better now."

Needless to say, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unrivaled masterpiece. I am so grateful that this film exists and that I have the ability to return to it, at my pleasure, as a source of joy. Thank you Stanley Kubrick. Thank you so much. I have two tickets for two separate 70mm showings of this in mid-July and I truly cannot put my excitement into words. I'm expecting tears on multiple occasions. Kubrick crafted one of the most complex, fascinating, awe-inspiring, influential pieces of science-fiction that, to this day, remains relevant in every sense of the word. It challenges our thoughts; it stimulates our imagination and emotion; it deepens our sense of mortality; but most importantly, it offers us itself as a treat of cinematic brilliance.

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