Over 50 years after its initial release, 2001: A Space Odyssey aged like a really expensive and existential wine.
I like to think of Stanley Kubrick as our Ingmar Bergman. Despite having a shorter body of work, I can’t think of anyone from the states quite as prolific, emotive, or influential as Kubrick’s body of work. As I watch this movie for the hundredth time, I can say one thing about it: I don’t think I’ll ever be too sure of anything, especially this picture.
Kubrick believed film should be more like music, “a progression of moods and feelings” with plot coming later. There’s a moral argument to almost every story, but not many had the emotional eclipse the thematic from start to finish like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Bronx born director was coming red hot off of the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which received critical acclaim and established his versatility after previously directing and writing various films, from historical epic, film noir, anti-war, crime, to drama. A strenuous and meticulous process was nothing but expected from the auteur; this became his masterpiece.
The science fiction epic’s run time of 2 hours and 41 minutes divides the story into three critical distinctions of equal importance. The first distinction, or the “Dawn of Man”, is a desolate voyage into the transition from ape to man. Gyorgy Ligeti’s haunting “Requiem” gradually swells through our ears as we witness the monoliths grand introduction, which both play as effective emotional cues throughout the film. It’s here where our undivided attention must be maintained to the picture’s very end, otherwise, we’ll end up deprived of the true experience.
The picture begins with 30 minutes of no dialogue, on the contrary to other blockbusters on the market in 1968, such as Planet of The Apes. The monolith, an alien test of mental capacity and the marker of the dawn of man, appears before the eyes of the apes one morning. This is one of the pure examples of how the film provides the essentials for us to piece it all together by the end. Arguably one of the greatest transitions in modern cinema, cut by Ray Lovejoy, in which a frantic ape chucks a buffalo bone, cuts to millions of years away; to a sequence of one of man’s greatest achievements: space travel- the year 2001 and the movie’s “Jupiter Mission”, of which the infamous HAL 9000 is a part.
What’s consistent about this picture is that it often sacrifices short attention spans for visual stimulation. In other words, the film takes no shortcuts in it’s attempts to immerse you in the vastness of space and silence. In 2001 we center on the moon, where the monolith has reappeared. In classic government fashion, its kept top secret, only known to science and military officials. By this point, the set design, done by Harry Lange, Anthony Masters, and Ernest Archer, flexes its muscle throughout the film with a fusion of late 1960’s culture, the neo-classical, and something out of the future, making for fresh, yet familiar composition. Our plot begins when it’s discovered that the monolith is sending radio signals to the planet Jupiter- and as humans are wont to be, we must explore and conquer.
The two men aboard the Discovery One ship, David Bowman and Frank Poole, are accompanied by three hibernating crew members and the super-intelligent HAL 9000 computer. Kubrick explores the flourishing relationship between man and machine by examining how we’ve grown so accustomed to them, keeping in mind at this time in 1968, the decade the Apollo program began, supersonic flight was made possible, and the compact disc was manifested.
Yet when the AE35 unit (the Discovery’s communications link) is at risk of experiencing 100% failure in roughly three days, the humans become suspicious of HAL’s reliability. Little to their knowledge, HAL becomes suspicious of their loyalty to the mission. As a result, Frank Poole perishes in the void of space at the hands of HAL. Inevitably, the hibernating crew members follow.
Throughout the picture, Kubrick chooses to disregard common sci-fi tropes of the time- such as monsters or melodrama- in favor of reversing archetypes. Bowman seems to have taken the place as a cold, emotionless killer as he disconnects HAL who begs and pleads to Bowman “I’m afraid, Dave.”
Proceeding these events is the appearance of another monolith making contact with Bowman’s space pod and what follows has come to be known as the Star-Gate sequence in the final distinction “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” In a sequence lasting almost 10 minutes, it’s complemented with the Requiem score and feels like they’ve been waiting the entire film for this moment to perfectly transcend each other’s comprehension. I’ve never been genuinely frightened by a movie’s mise en scene- a major factor of it is how effective the score’s emotional cue is when facing the unknown.
By the end of the star-gate, Bowman has aged decades and lands in a place beyond his time or anyone’s- somewhere extravagant and heavily neo-classically influenced, almost as if he serves some special purpose. He’s on his deathbed as the last monolith towers over him; thus, the Starchild is born, bringing on the next phase of evolution beginning with the rebirth of David Bowman.
With last spring marking its 50th anniversary, there’s much speculation behind the story, as Arthur C. Clarke intended: “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed.” Unlike many films today, 2001 respects it’s audience by not giving us what we want, but what we need. Its relevance is rather timeless in an age of NASA powered computers fit in the palm of our hands and cars drive themselves.
Regardless of the film requiring multiple viewings, it’s rewarding in that we earn something new from it each time. Like a novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey leaves a lot to offer someone when finished, groundbreaking ideas that changed the face of science fiction forever. What are these intelligent beings? Do they serve a purpose for us? Is this our true manifest destiny? The answer is up for interpretation, as is the movie.