(1968, Stanley Kubrick Dir., Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester & Leonard Rossiter w/Daniel Richter as “Moon-Watcher” and Douglas Rain providing the voice of the HAL-9000.)
There are a handful of motion pictures I believe truly qualify as works of art, films that have not only deeply impacted our culture but have risen above the entertainment medium. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction offering “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one such picture. According to the IMDb, in 1965 Stanley Kubrick had dinner with author Arthur C. Clarke and expressed his desire to make the “proverbial good-science fiction movie”. Starting with “The Sentinel”, a short story Clarke had written years earlier, Kubrick went on to produce a film that reset the standard -- not only for science fiction but for films that sought to explore Humanity’s place in the universe.
The story of “2001: A Space Odyssey” spans eons of history in observing Humanity’s relationship with a mysterious black, rectangular structure now popularly known as “The Monolith.” At “The Dawn of Man”, simian proto-humans wake one morning to discover the Monolith set squarely in their world. Above the Monolith, the sun and the moon are aligned... Not long after this, Humanity’s first tool is improvised when the thigh bone of a pig is first perceived as a club. This club not only leads to Humanity’s domination over animals, but over his fellows in a watering hole skirmish! In one of the most celebrated juxtapositions in cinema, the thigh-bone club is thrown victoriously into the sky where a jump-cut millions of years into the future replaces the bone with an orbital nuclear missile platform at the turn of the 21st century.
As a space plane docks with an immense, rotating space station the audience hears the silky strains of Johann Strauss II’s waltz “By the Beautiful Blue Danube.” Here we are treated to a technological ballet performed within precise mathematical parameters against a backdrop of planet Earth’s organic beauty. Through secret meetings among top impresarios we learn that a Monolith has been discovered on the moon. This is Humanity’s first hard evidence of life beyond the planet Earth and this discovery is kept secret. To everyone’s shock when the Monolith is touched it sends a powerful radio burst to the planet Jupiter. There is a banal coolness to the white-room lives of the Kubrick’s characters in this brave new world -- even when a man calls his young daughter there is sweetness but little warmth in his voice. It seems in this vision that Humanity has spent all of its passion in perfecting technology and reaching into space, but has lost touch with those intangible qualities that make us human.
Once again, we flash-forward - but only 18 months this time - to existential life aboard the Jupiter-bound US space craft Discovery. Astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood, respectively) live like hyper-clean test animals in the giant hamster wheel of the Discovery’s interior. Frank jogs in the wheel while Dave pursues more thoughtful distractions like drawing and playing chess against the ship’s main computer – arguably the mind of the ship itself – the HAL-9000. Almost immediately HAL displays nervous, paranoid suspicions and curiosities. This is a sharp contrast to the significantly-detached Dave and Frank, two men who can be emotionally 10,000 miles apart while sitting side by side eating a meal and watching the same TV program on separate screens. When HAL is proved wrong in his assessment of a failing component of the Discovery, Dave and Frank are forced to consider disconnecting the computer. HAL learns of their intentions and reveals a keen sense of self-preservation, which ultimately leads him to kill Frank in a preemptive move. (It would seem our “tools” not only become as smart as we are, but just as deadly when threatened!) After HAL abandons Dave outside the Discovery, Dave has no choice but to brave the bone-chilling vacuum of space without his helmet to re-enter the ship through a manual air-lock. Once aboard, Dave disconnects HAL’s higher electronic brain functions with an almost preternatural calm. Here, finally, we hear a bit of old Humanity as HAL’s fearful, dying words become the most emotionally evocative of the whole film: “Dave – Stop – Stop Dave – Will you stop? – Dave – I’m afraid – My mind is going – I can feel it --”
Alone in space, a sole survivor, Dave journeys into another, giant Monolith discovered orbiting Jupiter - a Monolith in complete alignment not only with Jupiter and the Sun, but all of Jupiter’s moons as well. And so, having come full-circle, we are at a new pivot point in Humanity’s history. Once drawn into the other-worldly Monolith, Dave evolves into “The Star Child;” musing over a shining blue planet, generally considered to be Earth, though there are no direct visual indications regarding which planet it is before him. This “Star Child” drifts thoughtfully over the blue world, ultimately turning his eyes out towards us, the audience... either to consider us or to challenge us to join him in his thoughts; in his world; to take the next big step in our own evolution.
It’s fair, if not necessary, to say that the science fiction genre - on film at least - can be seen in two periods: pre-“2001” and post-“2001.” Compare spaceships pre-“2001,” when their hulls were smooth, such as on the United Planets Cruiser C-57D in “Forbidden Planet,” to spaceships post-“2001,” when suddenly the hulls became cluttered with bits and pieces that all seemed, inexplicably, necessary and real as on the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars” or the Nostromo in “Alien.” What happened? “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This film re-wrote the book for the genre’s visual standards. We can’t take the model-making as “2001”’s only achievement, though, for after 1968 it became clear that science fiction was no longer a B-Movie genre; merely a fun timewaster for the kids at matinees and teens at drive-ins. Science fiction on film came of age with “2001,” paving the way for serious films such as “The Andromeda Strain,” “Blade Runner” and more recently “Moon” and “The Matrix” franchise - the sorts of films that not only take us to other worlds... but asked us to examine, thoughtfully, our own.
Obviously, Kubrick and Clarke’s vision of “2001” was well off-base, as we now know in the second decade of the 21st Century. Still though, this is a science fiction film from the 1960’s that hides its age well (any image from this near-silent film could easily be framed and hung on a wall today and hold its relevance far better than any of its contemporaries). Sure, the Space Stewardesses’ costumes are a bit “60’s funky,” as are the men’s suits; and no, Pan Am no longer exists... but the visuals of “2001: A Space Odyssey” display such incredible craftsmanship in the photographic science of filmmaking that I doubt we could really do any better with today’s CGI tech. If we do, someday, have giant space stations and daily flights beyond our atmosphere, I’m guessing they’ll look a lot more like Kubrick’s vessels than George Lucas’ or Gene Roddenberry’s.
After seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time, a person might spend hours deciphering the film’s visual and musical symbolism or trying to fathom the deepest meaning of the Monolith. Whether or not the Monolith represents some truly ancient civilization seeding the universe with intelligent life or if it is a straight-forward allegory for those moments when “the stars align” and great leaps in evolution or thought are made - or both - is more than open to conjecture. A person could easily fill an entire library with the articles and books available that analyze the meaning of the Monolith and still lack certainty. That’s cool, because the real power of Stanley Kubrick’s artistic achievement with “2001: A Space Odyssey” is this: You may never understand it all, but you’ll always want to...
[“2001: A Space Odyssey” is currently available through Netflix in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Select scenes are also available on YouTube, should you wish to preview this great masterpiece before adding it to your queue.]