2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

When I first saw Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey circa 2005 or so (during my 7-year hiatus from higher learning after high school), it was late at night and I was impatient with it. I thought it long, boring, drawn-out, and pointless. I kept intermittently falling in and out of sleep and just couldn't understand the praise it was given.

I want to go back in time and punch younger me in the throat for his incredible fucking stupidity.

I would revisit the film in my college years when a professor showed highlights from the film and explained the symbolism and just about all the reasons to absolutely adore this particular Kubrick masterpiece, which sparked a renewed interest, so I told myself alright, I'll give it another try.

Sure enough, I adored it, and my love for 2001: A Space Odyssey was cemented in my own personal history. Despite all that, I haven't revisited the film until now. Since this is my first viewing since having a Letterboxd account, it's only natural I'd want to write about it. So here goes.

At the dawn of man, primitives discover a monolith that appears from nowhere, and they worship it in curiosity and fear. The first ape picks up a bone from the remains of a dead animal and smashes them in rage. Man discovers tool. He throws the bone into the air and it transmogrifies into a space vessel in a very retro 2001, on its way to a space station orbiting the moon. Thus begins mankind's path towards controlling his tools, and ultimately towards higher evolution.

The iconography in this film is legendary, with plenty of homages and spoofs from multiple sources. Man-ape learns to control his primitive bone tool. Man and his more advanced space vessel tool. Man versus his artificial intelligence tool. Tool controls man. Man conquers tool. Man is granted evolution. Bone. Vessel. A.I. Monolith. All tools.

I think to fully appreciate the depth of 2001, one has to first read the short story by Arthur C. Clarke. In it, the "Firstborn", the caretakers of the universe, create four monoliths to help guide humankind through their evolution: One on Earth, one under the surface of the moon, one in orbit around Jupiter, and one in a 3-dimensional construct in the 5th dimension. Just knowing that alone can help navigate and even decipher the confusing final 30 minutes, which it did immensely for me.

When the astronauts arrive on the moon, they act as tourists around the second monolith, unlike the fearful and curious apes with Monolith 1, instead taking pictures as souvenirs they can bring back to their families on Earth. Without warning, Monolith 2 emits a piercing, high-pitched sound that leads humanity further out into the solar system to Jupiter, where the signal ends.

We Have to Talk About HAL 9000. After all, a review of 2001: A Space Odyssey wouldn't be complete without him/it. As the most iconic being in this film, he (it) is arguably the film's antagonist. That overly calm and collected voice sends a shudder down the spine of any who hears it. Being the brain of the ship, HAL has access to and control of everything, from life support to navigation to food dispensers to just about everything else. One might even go so far as to call him/it a God figure, omnipotent & omniscient. He can keep life afloat, but he can also rip it violently away. That makes him exponentially dangerous.

At a certain point in the voyage to Jupiter, HAL 9000 begins to malfunction, and the two crew members who aren’t in hibernation conspire against the malevolent artificial intelligence in an attempt to save everyone on board. They believe themselves clever by entering a pod and switching off communications, but little do they realize, HAL reads their lips through a glass window in the pod and knows damn well what they’re planning.

Again we come back to the iconography of tools: man believes he controls the tool (HAL 9000), but the tool controls them. Man attempts to regain control of his tool. Tool murders man in an attempt at self-preservation. Other man tricks tool and regains control by murdering tool with another tool (a screwdriver). Something can be said about the inherent violence of the human race in this film, beginning with the bone at the dawn of man and ending with the destruction of HAL. Is that type of behavior all we know? Both Kubrick and Clarke seem to believe so.

Jupiter orbit. Monolith 3. Man regains control of tool. Man is granted a shot at evolution. Monolith 3 acts as a stargate, or wormhole, if you will, to the farther reaches of space and time. What we don’t get (and what is left to interpretation by Kubrick in the film) is that Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), our central protagonist, is being transmitted the secrets of the universe passed down to him by the Firstborn, and it is just too much for the poor ape’s brain to handle. All this is visually represented by the psychedelic light show the audience is bombarded by outside the ship’s window. We get sudden stills of the look of horror on Dave’s face as he is bombarded with every secret the universe holds.

Dave, confused and weary, finds himself in a white room of neoclassical design. What is not said by Kubrick in the film is that Dave is being observed by the Firstborn, and this is the equivalent of a human zoo, created from his own dreams and imagination. Dave, it would appear, is being vetted for the evolutionary process. Consequently, time moves differently here: when he arrives, he emerges from the ship a middle-aged man. He sees his older self eating a meal at a table. His older self drops his wine glass and the perspective changes to that of the older self. He looks up at the doorway where his younger self was, swearing he saw something and dismisses it offhand. Perspective changes continue in this manner until he is on his deathbed and the Final Monolith appears before him at the foot of his bed. He reaches out for it in fear and curiosity, mirrorring the apes at the dawn of man.

The Firstborn are satisfied with him and he transforms into a “Starchild”, a fetal Firstborn (the next step in human evolution). Kubrick likens Dave at this point to “an angel, a superman”, as he observes Earth as an intangible, non-corporeal entity, which is the point upon which Kubrick ends the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey wouldn’t be complete without the iconic orchestral pieces, such as Also sprach Zarathustra, Lux Aeterna, and The Blue Danube, as well as the sinister sounds of the score by Alex North, all of which create an audio sci-fi atmosphere that cannot be duplicated outside of homages and spoofs.

The cinematography is as high quality as one can get with Kubrick (which is to say it’s...wait for it...stellar—see what I did there?), the set design and miniature models are highly detailed. I loved the rotating platforms and camera trickery that simulate artificial gravity. I love the costume design for the apes, the gravity boots and the space outfits. I love the clinical white spaces with their retro furniture on board the space station and the ship. I even love the dated technology, such as videophone, and those buttons and levers that make all 1960s-era sci-fi look hokey yet interesting. But there’s something about that as well that lends to the overall Kubrick-ness of it all. And I dig it.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing short of a masterpiece. Its exploration into what drives humanity, its neverending quest for better tools & dominion over all, its violent nature (despite human nature having been in later years proven fallacious), the film’s use of visuals, sets & costumes, everything. It is one of my all-time favorite films after having seen it only three (3) times, and a source of great inspiration to the genre since its release.


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