Movies That Everyone Should See: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

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The year was 1968.

America was in the midst of “The Space Race” with the Russians. Man had yet to set foot on the moon, but the Apollo program was in full swing. The world was only a year away from taking “One small step for man”.

There was probably never more attention and fervor surrounding space exploration than during that specific period in time. And that year, Stanley Kubrick released “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

One of the most ambitious films of all time.

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“2001: A Space Odyssey” begins with “The Dawn of Man”.

In a fifteen minute segment to lead the movie, Kubrick shows a tribe of apes before and after they’re “visited” by an obsidian obelisk.

Prior to seeing the obelisk, the apes are shown living amongst the pigs, picking fleas, attacked by a leopard, and having a territorial shouting match with another pack of apes over their water hole.

They’re animals.

After encountering the obelisk, however, one of the apes sees a bone on the ground in a new way. He uses it to pound on the skeletal pile he found it in, breaking the bones he’s hitting into pieces. Shortly thereafter, the previously herbivorous apes are shown eating meat. Presumably they’ve used the bone weapon to kill a pig and eat it.

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But the larger benefit of the discovery of this tool/weapon is in the conflict with the rival tribe of apes. Armed with bone clubs, the apes easily defeat one of the members of the other pack, possibly the leader. As they beat him to death with their clubs, the remainder of the enemy tribe is shown cowering back in fear.

Through the discovery of using a tool, the apes separated themselves from the other animals, and became men.

In victory, the ape flings his bone club up into the sky. Whereupon Kubrick shows the bone being replaced by a cylindrical spacecraft floating through space. The obvious implication being that the “tools” which separated us from the animals have evolved as well. Man is throwing a much more complicated bone into the sky now.

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The film famously features extensive dialogue free segments with filled with classical music. In fact, whenever music is used, there is no dialogue, and anytime there’s dialogue, there is no music. As opposed to most films, which feature original scores, “2001″ features famous classical pieces, legendarily opening with Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, and here as we’re brought into space, Johann Strauss II’s waltz, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”.

We’re taken to an orbiting space station, and follow a man onboard. He briefly contacts his daughter via videophone, and then sits briefly with some contemporaries. In stark contrast to the flea picking, bone wielding apes, these people are cordial and civilized. Polite. Sophisticated. A group of international doctors sharing a drink in a lounge area on a space station.

The talk turns serious. The lunar substation “Clavius” has fallen out of contact. Those attempting to reach it are receiving error messages, and it recently denied a request for docking. There’s suspicion of an epidemic outbreak.

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But we’re soon taken to a meeting on the substation where we learn the “epidemic” is a cover story. In reality, there was a discovery of a magnetic anomaly on the lunar surface, and it’s being kept from the public. The anomaly is being caused by an object that apparently was deliberately buried on the surface of the moon more than four million years ago.

An obelisk.

The same kind which elevated man from ape.

And now, it’s been unearthed (can you say that on the moon?). As the scientists gather around it, it emits an ear-splitting signal.

It’s sending a message off into space.

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The movie then jumps ahead eighteen months to the Discovery One mission to Jupiter. They are being sent to investigate where or what the signal was sent to. Manned by two astronauts, Discovery One is carrying three scientists in hibernation. The majority of the operational functions are handled by the ship’s onboard computer – a H.A.L. series 9000. “HAL”

In an interview with the news back home, HAL is introduced to the audience.

“Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor,” HAL tells the interviewer, “The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.”

It’s every bit as ominous as it sounds.

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HAL doesn’t so much become “Self Aware”, as he is self aware to begin. And with self awareness comes self preservation.

When the foolproof computer returns an inaccuracy, the question becomes, can the crew rely on it at all? If it can’t be relied upon, it will have to be taken offline. Only, HAL doesn’t want to be taken offline. And he’s integrated into every facet of the ship.

Having the computer in control of every aspect of the mission turn on you is a dangerous proposition. A fact that the passengers onboard learn the hard way. Yet the most frightening moments of HAL’s arc don’t lie in the cold, calculated actions HAL takes against the humans on Discovery One, but in the plaintive begging he makes for his “life” when he’s facing shutdown.

“I’m afraid”, and “I can feel it”… HAL keeps repeating over and over. Very human emotions. Was HAL indeed alive?

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But “2001″ isn’t a movie about a conflict with an onboard computer. Nor does it end when HAL is taken offline. Instead it continues when Dave, the final crew member alive on Discovery One, encounters the obelisk.

What proceeds is famously open for interpretation. An extensive barrage of flashing lights and visual effects comprise a sequence signifying… time travel? Inter-dimensional travel? Evolution to a non-corporal being? Death? Kubrick refused to state explicitly. No dialogue accompanies this final segment of the movie. It unfolds like a work of art in motion.

It culminates in the sudden arrival of the pod in an all white room, decorated with pieces of fine art, containing a bed and a dinner table. There, Dave sees… himself. Aging, dying, evolving.

“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” sounds again as an embryonic being of pure light looks out over the surface of the Earth from outer space.

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You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. – Stanley Kubrick

Evolution, exploration, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, other dimensions, reincarnation… this is not a film that shies away from profound themes.

In 1991, this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It premiered on AFI’s 100 years… 100 Movies at #22, and rose to #15 on the Tenth Anniversary Edition. In their Top Ten series, they selected it as the greatest science fiction film of all time. HAL is their #13 greatest villain.

This is a movie that challenges its audience. It has incredible aspirations. It paints across an enormous canvas, poses the deepest of questions, and then gives no easy answers. It shows, it does not tell. It makes the viewer think and feel, without telling them what to think and feel. This movie is the antithesis of modern movies that cater to the lowest common denominator. It is unafraid of pushing the boundaries of the medium, and breaking away from convention. Even with effects works over 40 years old, the movie still has the power to astound the viewer with it’s beauty.

Imaginative. Impressionistic. Evocative. Thought Provoking. Astonishing. Epic.

It’s definitely “A Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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35 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

  1. Fantastic write-up, Fogs. For the first time since I saw it all the way through about 20 years ago, you almost have tempted me to see it again.

    This one falls into a category though — “Movies That Everyone Should See Once”. Other movies in that category are Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane. Movies that are historically relevant, from which American culture has taken more than a little from, but are not in and of themselves particularly entertaining.

    • Thank you K2, and I know exactly what you’re saying.

      However, after watching it this week for this write up for the first time in years, I would recommend you upgrade it to “Movies People Should See a Couple of Times”. LOL. It was very, very impressive. Does it require patience? Oh my god yes. I’m sure most modern viewers wont have the patience for it.

      But is it rewarding? Hell yes. This is about as close as it comes to Art via the cinema. It really is.

      Now, as to MTESSO… can we get “Lawrence of Arabia” on that list? :D

      • I may give it another chance eventually, only because its so highly regarded, and I would hate to omit a movie that everyone truly should see… but let’s just say, it’ll be awhile. LOL

  2. So, I gotta be honest with you.
    Do you remember Awsomely Shitty’s series, “Classically Shitty”? Well, for me, this is one of those movies. I just can’t stand it. I can see that it can be seen as poetic, but i just find it boring and cold. I definitely acknowledge its importance and the greatness of its techniques and meanings, but I just can’t “get in touch” with it.

  3. Hi!

    I’d like to show something that I realized casually about having a clear synchronization between the music of Beethoven and the Kubrick film. The clips below were edited by me from a complete assembly where the symphony is repeated for four and a half times during the film:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NihSprngqhE

    These excerpts are two of the four movements that make up about 30 minutes performance of the symphony. In the descriptions of the videos I posted more stuff explaining how the song cycle of Beethoven in 2001 and some considerations.

    This will make even more sense for someone who really knows the movie and the dialogues to the point of knowing who says oq scenes, even without the original audio. Especially the clip where two rolls stress between HAL and Dave.

    Although the film’s own narrative is far more suggestive than visual and explained in dialogue fosters track scenes to the 5th Symphony.

    Worthy to 2001, I asked, would have been a precious secret of Kubrick as an editor or even more is a mystery beyond the monolith and the Infinite?

    The first time I saw this film many years ago and I was very young, obviously without the burden of life needed to begin to see this film with fresh eyes.

    It is much more than the largest science fiction movie ever made. It is the largest audio visual work already done by a man in all history and nothing will be done but reverence and reference, but never again do something better. It is the pinnacle of creativity to a metaphysical level, I think. The art also has its messiah and Kubrick is one of them.

    Regarding sync albums rock / classic films, the same phenomenon occurs between the film “The Wizard of Oz” and the album “Dark Side Of The Moon” from Pinky Floyd, but with one essential difference:

    While in 2001 Beethoven’s music tells the story almost q happens in the movie The Wizard of Oz Pynk Floyd’s music is another interpretation for the children’s musical, and unsuspecting doing another reading at certain points even frightening so many meanings congruent.

    In this case, it was the reverse: the film is 1939 and the album is 1973 and there lies a mystery more intriguing because I think q is easier trimming a film with high quality music ever composed of q compose an excellent and final album by caprice compass it with a movie.

    Finally, for lovers of cinema I recommend it as curiosity, I’m sure will become an astonishment, at least!

    • It’s kind of cool Marcelo, I’d turn on embedding though if you want to embed the video places. Without that, when you try to play the video above, people have to click on “Watch On Youtube”

      • Thanks for you’ve enjoyed these. I’ve changed the embed video config on my channel too see its as miniature’s posts. ;)

        Unfortunately I can’t to post more clips because of regular 15 minutes youtube’s videos post rules and others parts of this film/symphony mixing need more time to make sense as entire “narrative part”.

        These same symphony parts serves to tell others film’s parts, but I’ve chose these parts because its serves as efficient demonstration, but not extrapolate the maximum allowed 15 minutes.

  4. I entered this movie sober, and exited stoned.

    I’ve always said Kubrick is almost always 50% narcotic and 50% narcoleptic. Pick a movie, watch it, half of it will put you to sleep, half of it will make you wish you were stoned… or in this case… do the job for you.

  5. I think that I’ve seen little parts of it but never the whole thing. I will have to watch it all the way through, because it does sound like that type of movie that makes you think after the credits are rolling. Plus, I remember watching it and thinking it was a younger movie with the special effects, but that is just amazing what they did back then and that it’s actually an older movie!

  6. Great write up Fogs!

    This is definitely one of my all time favorite movies and one that had a very strong influence on my choice of career and where I work now (for those who don’t know me, I am a Producer/Editor at NASA) When Blu-ray came out this was the very first disc I bought. The accuracy of portrayal of space and space travel was the first thing that attracted me. First time I saw it (probably 1969 or so… I was 5) I didn’t understand much, but I was hooked on the portrayal of space. I remember getting a thrill when I flew to L.A. on Pan-Am, because I KNEW they also flew to that big wheel in space. To this day when I am working with Space station footage I frequently have waltz music playing in my head while I edit. Space is definitely in 3/4 time, thanks to Kubrick.
    As a movie, my only qualm is the HAL portion. I know it’s most people’s favorite part, and that’s fine, but I’m always wishing they’d get back to the exploration part. Not that the HAL part isn’t entertaining and scary and all, it’s just that it feels like a completely different movie to me.

    Absolutely a Movie that Everyone Should See.

    • Ah, I knew you’d have my back on this one Gelf!

      Early returns weren’t coming in strong, but I was like, that’s alright. Gelf’ll throw me a bone.

      Heh. LOL. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

      • I know, I was starting to sound more ‘troll’ then ‘Ogre’, right? hee hee.

        Back to the topic at hand though, another topic of conversation which this film illustrates is Movie/literature confluence. The process of creating 2001 was one of the best collaborations between Author and Director ever. The novel evolved side by side with the script and few times in cinema history has there been such a clearly shared vision between the literary art and the visual.

      • I came across that a lot in my research on this.

        Apparently Clarke and Kubrick really put their heads together on this one.

        If we’re going to extend it to a broader conversation though, I prefer to keep films seperate from their source material as much as possible. Differences, comparisons, etc, etc… the movie is about what’s on the screen.

        But in this case… and the Godfather, too, the author of the book made a substantial contribution to the film. Unlike say, Jaws, where Benchley’s script had to be trashed and they brought in Carl Gottlieb.

        (Oh and LOL at that old school in-joke. :D)

  7. Still need to see this one personally, though of course I’ve seen some parts of it here and the large amount of discussion of this film in movie and sci-fi circles means I know a fair amount of what goes on already (of course, with a great film, that’s not a detraction.)

    Whereas Gelf comes at this from the angle of a NASA worker, my anticipation for this film comes from my programming background. I’m sure I’ll find the HAL sequences more interesting than the space exploration sequences (though like a lot of kids, I did have my astronomy phase, so I doubt it’ll be boring.) And that introductory quote from HAL, about “no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake”? To a programmer that’s not just ominous, that’s an overt “Oh crap” moment. Because we know. No matter how many automated processes are involved, there was a human involved in the creation of the system, even if it was back when the great-grandparent generation of computers was being made. And humans make mistakes. We know there’s no such thing as bug-free software or hardware. HAL asserting that he is such is as good as a neon sign saying “I’m going to go crazy and kill everybody eventually.” Back in 1968, when nobody knew the details of this movie without having seen it first, and computers weren’t well understood, and people were filled with optimism about the space program, there were probably several viewers who watched that quote and thought “Great! They’ve got a system that’ll really ensure they make it!”… and then looked over at their university computer tech buddy and wondered why he was looking nervous.

    • It’s a fascinating subplot. And probably the most famous aspect of the film.

      But that may frankly be because its the most accessible. There’s hardly any dialogue in the other segments. It’s definitely an interesting subplot though.

      I think the biggest thing to recommend this movie on, aside from its cultural influence and significance, is the fact that its SO different from modern films. “They dont write ‘em like that anymore”. Maybe they never did. LOL

  8. I watched this for the second time a few months ago, this time at a sleepover with my friends. I definitely didn’t think it was a party movie, but they asked for it–and they were actually riveted the whole way through, and by the time the white room scene came around, a room full of high schoolers was freaking out like the apes at the beginning. Contrary to what some others are saying, this movie is one of the most successful at building up sheer tension and has some of the best cinematography anywhere.

    • Huh! Didn’t think that THAT was where that comment was going to wind up!

      It’s cool to hear a younger audience can get into this movie… I’ve been saying all along that I didn’t think modern audiences would have the patience for it. It’s great to hear! You must have some friends with good taste. :D

      Although… You’re totally right. This is just about the LAST movie I’d ever choose for a party.

      Thanks for sharing, Steve!

  9. The first time I watched 2001:ASO I absolutely hated it. But then I went onto the internet and read some articles about the movie and okay, I guess it has more meaning than I thought… but still, it’s so boring -.- if you are not some highly-scholared film critic, how can anyone watch 2001:ASO and think it’s one of the best movies of all time. I don’t get it -.-

    • Well, I’m not some highly scholared critic, and I think it is… It’s definitely slow though, like I said I know that modern audiences will have trouble with it. I can imagine people watching that pod docking and saying “Hurry the &$%# UP! Gawd!!” lol.

      But it’s a classic, I stand by it.

  10. 2001 boring!? NO!!!! A true epic masterpiece. I try to watch this every month. Its so compelling, and mysterious. Again, the atmosphere is what really brings me into the film like Alien does. The silence, the tension of space. The visual canvas of this film is so gorgeous. Despite what others say, I think this film is one of the most emotional resonate films I have ever seen. Okay, I’m done LOL.

    • Every month? Blain, you are CRAZY!! :D

      I love it too, but like, once every three years or so seems about right to me… :D

      Meanwhile, thanks for your support. While I can totally see the trouble that modern audiences might have with it, I definitely recall launching this MTESS and being shocked by the mixed response.

      It may have gotten more mixed sentiment than “Kung Fu Panda” LOL :) At least that one I expected…

  11. Just so you know, Fogs, I recently bought this movie on Blu-Ray. Purpose: my wife was having trouble sleeping, so I got a movie that would take her to Slumberland. :) This is not an indictment of the movie, mind you. I also got a bunch of John Wayne movies, and I love John Wayne movies. The sonorous voice of the Duke, though, never fails to make her want to take a nap. I figured that 2001 would have similar somnabulistic qualities: long stretches of silence, very comfortable classic music pieces, and endless scenes of spaceships docking.

    I should let you know that my experiment was only somewhat successful. She went to sleep somewhere after the introduction of HAL, but woke up to see the weird finale (after the acid trip sequence, fortunately). It struck me that she probably saw a far more lucid movie, since I described to her what happened: “HAL killed everyone, Dave is the last astonaut, and that monolith has been taking care of him.” Which makes absolute sense! And then the Starchild space baby showed up and she was confused again.

    I have to say that I really love this movie. I marvel at all the special effects, still looking very modern despite being done in 1968. And I’m surprised by how accurate some of the future predictions were. A sort of space shuttle. Video phones/Facetime. And … are those two iPads that Dave and Frank are watching the news on? Yes they are. I also love the extremely slow pacing, which is something very few movies attempt these days. The closest was “Moon”, I think, and even that had too many ramped up stakes to capture the interest of modern audiences. 2001 is how I always imagined sci-fi books should be: slow, meticulous, and pondering things that are beyond human understanding.

    Incidentally, if you haven’t read the Arthur C. Clarke book, you should do so. I think it is actually a movie adaptation, and if so, is probably the best movie adaptation ever written. It sorta makes sense of the last half hour; though, like that Kubrick quote you posted earlier points out, that’s just one interpretation of many.

    • Ha! :D This was a fun comment Santo. Cracked me up a couple of times… Hey, I can understand this one putting someone to sleep. It does have a ton of dialogue free sections with classical music. No doubt.

      My take has always been the encounter with the Monolith at the end evolved Dave into a post-human state. His higher functioning gave him an enlightened vision of the nature of his physical body… Which was destined to age and fade, but his Spirit… The Starchild… Was eternal.

      Least that’s what I like to think. :D

      Not a big reader, nowadays to tell you the truth. Been too busy writing!! Im sure it is good though, the novel was “concurrently written” with the screenplay, which Clarke co-wrote, as I’m sure you know!

      Thanks for circling back to share, buddy, it’s a great feeling to know people love to talk movies here.

      Oh! And who doesn’t love John Wayne movies?! :D

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