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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.