Revisiting "2001: A Space Odyssey"
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's sprawling 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly ranks as one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. Some viewers will go so far as to say it's THE greatest, period. More than 50 (!) years since it was first released, 2001 still tops "best of" lists on a regular basis and it is widely recognized as a game changer in the art of film making - not only in the sci-fi and fantasy fields, but across all genres. Nearly every film maker in Hollywood today speaks of the influence that 2001 had on them in hushed tones of awe...
...but I've never quite understood why.
Perhaps I should explain. The first time I saw 2001 was in the early 1980s, when I was about 12 years old—and I was definitely not the right "demographic" for the film. My experience with science fiction at that time was limited to action-packed shoot-em-ups like the Star Wars films, or TV series like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Since 2001 was a "science fiction" film, I expected to have square-jawed heroes with laser pistols, spaceship battles, big interstellar explosions, gooey alien creatures, and robots. I was NOT prepared for the epic length cosmic mind-f*ck that Stanley Kubrick laid down on my pre-adolescent brain!
I will give my 12-year-old self credit for actually sitting through the entire movie, even though it wasn't making a lick of sense to me (I doubt that either of my two kids could do the same today!). Being a typical snotty 12-year-old, of course, I dismissed the movie with a haughty "Ehhhh... that sucked!" and then I probably watched Battle Beyond the Stars for the 12th time.
I may not have been bowled over by the film at first glance, but the mystery of 2001 continued to fascinate me over the years. After all, everyone and their dog seemed to think that 2001 represented the absolute pinnacle of science fiction filmmaking. I wondered what I was missing, and I truly wanted to "get" it. I read the novelization by Arthur C. Clarke while I was in high school, which helped crystallize some of the film's rather arcane concepts, and I also enjoyed the garish, wonderfully schlocky 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series (!) written and drawn by the legendary Jack "King" Kirby and published by Marvel in 1976-77.. Kirby was no stranger to large-scale cosmic epics, and his 2001 comic book contained all of the things that I'd felt the movie lacked - garish, slam-bang action sequences, big ugly alien monsters, and of course, lots of huge explosions!! I have always wondered if Stanley Kubrick ever saw an issue of Kirby's 2001 comic. I have a feeling that he would've said, "This guy didn't get it at all!" Marvel cancelled the comic series after a mere ten issues, which was probably a good thing as it was far from the King's finest hour, but it had a totally oddball charm all its own.
In the years since I last saw 2001, I've seen most of Stanley Kubrick's other films and enjoyed the bulk of them (1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1979's The Shining are perennial faves, and I also particularly liked Dr. Strangelove and even the controversial Eyes Wide Shut)... so I decided that it was time to tackle 2001 again. I borrowed a 2-disc "Special Edition" DVD of the film from my public library and made an evening out of it, sitting down in a darkened living room to watch the film on a chilly winter's evening, ready to have my mind blown. Two and a half hours later, after the final bombastic strains of Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" had faded away....
....I still don't think I totally "got" it.
What Just Happened?
(** WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS**)
As an adult, I can appreciate 2001 on levels that wouldn't have occurred to me as a pre-teen. Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail, of course, is obvious throughout the film. The set designs—particularly in the "Moonbase" scenes and the rotating, centrifuge bridge of the starship Discovery One—are a visual feast, and the special effects have held up amazingly well for a film that is more than 50 years old. The spaceship sets and models in 2001 can still hang with anything that's being pumped out of Hollywood's dream factories today, which is especially amazing when you keep in mind that all of this stuff was built from scratch, by hand. There was none of that newfangled, fancy-schmancy CGI stuff in 1968, kids!
If you've ever been curious to see what an LSD trip looks like without actually having to try some, look no further than the climactic, colorful and somewhat terrifying "Beyond the Infinite" sequence. (Vintage advertising shows that MGM played up this connection in some of their marketing materials, even using the tag line "THE ULTIMATE TRIP." 2001 apparently become a bit of a "head" movie due to the ad campaign, atttracting curious hippies who would "tune in" at the proper moment and groove on the film's visuals. Far out, maaaaaan.)
To Infinity...and Beyond!
The story made a little bit more sense to me than it did when I was a kid. I'm sure it never occurred to me when I was twelve, but 2001 is set up as a drama in four acts, similar to a play or an opera. (There's even a brief "intermission" in the middle of the film, where the screen goes dark for a moment!) In the first "act," we're taken back to the Dawn of Man, where the mysterious alien Monolith—a huge, humming slab of smooth black stone—nudges the collective intelligence of a tribe of shrieking, cave-dwelling ape men. Touching the stone suddenly gives them the smarts to develop tools and weapons which they use to take back their water hole from a rival clan of pre-humans. In the second "act," set in the far-flung future of 2001, a Monolith is discovered buried beneath the surface of the moon, providing humans with their first tangible proof of alien intelligence. In Act III (the longest of the "acts") the massive starship Discovery One's exploratory mission to Jupiter goes horribly awry when the ship's too-human-for-its-own-good artificial-intelligent computer, HAL 9000, begins to malfunction with tragic results. Astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the lone survivor of HAL's rampage, manages to escape destruction and encounters a Monolith in orbit above Jupiter, which sends him on a lengthy "trip" (in both senses of the word) through the "stargate" and beyond the "infinite" in Act IV, eventually transforming him into a "Star-Child" or "New Seed"—a cosmic fetus-like being who stares sagely down at Earth from space as the film ends.
Does the Star-Child represent the next stage in human evolution? What's the deal with the Monolith, anyway? Is there more than one of them, or have we been seeing the same Monolith throughout the movie? Is the Monolith some sort of cosmic guardian that drops in on Earth every few million years to give us another kick up the evolutionary ladder? Uh... yeah, I guess so. Kubrick was famously mum about the movie's "meaning" but it's been dissected and discussed in any number of books by film scholars and science fiction geeks over the years. Rather than try to "explain" the movie (which will cause the "comments" section under this article to explode with people telling me how wrong I am), I'll simply shrug my shoulders and say "Ehh... I dunno for sure." I enjoyed 2001 more this time than I did 30+ years ago, even if I still don't think I totally "get" it. Would I watch it again? Sure... maybe in another 30 years.
© 2013 Keith Abt