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2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ****
2001: A Space Odyssey

Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Country: UK / USA

Length: 139 min / USA: 156 min (premiere cut)

MPAA Rating: G

Released: 1968

I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content...I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does...You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film. - Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey resonates in people because it touches on the instant our wonder – not only our wonder about space, but also our wonder about time, our wonder with our relationship to the Deity perhaps – because you get as many interpretations of what the film means as you do almost people who have seen it. That’s true of almost any great work of art – if you see a Picasso, is it important to know what Picasso intended, or is it important to know what your relationship is, your emotional reaction is to it? - Keir Dullea

The Dawn of Man
A film publicist from Columbia Pictures who was a close friend of Arthur C. Clarke urged Stanley Kubrick to contact the British science fiction writer in order to possibly collaborate on a film. Kubrick had already made up his mind that his next project was to be part of the science fiction genre because there had never been a serious epic science fiction movie made before, and he wanted to be the first person to make one. Teaming up with Clarke was perhaps the best thing that could have happened for them, and for us as well, because their collaboration brought the world of cinema one of the most enigmatic and controversial movies ever made, and still, after 35 years, remains as a bench mark for art house cinema.

Kubrick invited Clarke to a meeting in order to discuss ideas about a film and they decided together to make one based upon a short story called The Sentinel written by Clarke for a magazine. Their idea was to write a novel first, then adapt it to a screenplay later, but what wound up happening, was that both the novel and screenplay were written simultaneously and were finished around the same time. Kubrick took the tentative script to MGM in order to pitch their idea for the film, and because MGM was suffering such extreme financial problems, they quickly agreed to the idea and gave Kubrick free reign since he had proven himself a rather lucrative director. If these particular circumstances hadn’t existed, there is no telling whether the movie would have turned out the way it did. Kubrick began shooting on December 29, 1965, with much of the script still going through massive amounts of rewrites. It was to be almost three years before the film was complete, and three months after its original release, Clarke’s novel wound up on the shelves.

Space Station 5
The premise of the film is this: Nearly four million years ago at the Dawn of Man, a mysterious black monolith appears, prompting our distant ape ancestors to learn how to use the first tools to kill for food and defend themselves. In a shot that is known to be the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema, an ape tosses a bone into the sky, then in a flash, changes to the Orion III Spaceplane on its way to Space Station 5. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), the Chairman of the National Council for Astronautics, takes a routine trip to the Moon. It is revealed to us that a four million-year-old monolith, named Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), has been discovered buried 40’ feet deep in the lunar crater Tycho. Obviously, it had been buried there intentionally. When exposed to the light of the sun, after millions of years in utter darkness, the monolith sends out a powerful electronic signal. Later we find out that the signal was directed towards Jupiter. Eighteen months later, we are aboard the first manned space mission to Jupiter. The U.S.S Discovery’s human astronauts, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), are forced to consider disconnecting the super-intelligent, and English speaking, HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain) that runs their ship when it makes an error. Fathoming their intentions, HAL succeeds in killing everyone but Dave, who disconnects it and finds out about the previously secret discovery of the lunar monolith. Arriving at Jupiter, Dave discovers another black monolith orbiting the gas giant, and after flying into it, he is taken through a wormhole in space, eventually landing in a room that could literally be any hotel room on Earth. There he ages rapidly before encountering the final monolith, which turns him into a newborn Star Child and returns him to gaze upon the planet Earth from its orbit.

HAL 9000
The story seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Because what Stanley Kubrick made, which could have been a simple science fiction tale, turns out to be a philosophical look at humanity, and what its potential role is in the cosmos. Not only that, he also takes a look at what our technology could eventually become. At the end of our evolutionary peak, we may create technology that actually surpasses us in its perfection, and then becomes the new masters of our galaxy. These points are only a small part of a larger mosaic of ideas and ideologies that make up the film. Clarke wrote a masterful science fiction story, that is beyond question, but it was Kubrick that made the film so much deeper and insightful. Take, for example, the scene when Dave is in the room near the end; he knocks the wine glass of the table shattering it, yet the wine remains. This is a symbolism of what the next phase of our evolutionary chain may lead to. The body is gone, yet the ‘spirit’ remains. It shows us that the next step would be to alleviate our need for flesh and to become sentient matter. Another part is during Dr. Floyd’s trip to Clavius. Onboard the shuttle, everybody is relearning things like walking, eating, even how to void themselves. We are only babes when it comes to this point in our lives, everything that we have accomplished to become masters of our planet is moot once we leave it and put ourselves within reaching distance of the heavens. I could go on like this all day, because the movie is literally stuffed with this type of imagery. Kubrick was never a man that put things in his films just for filler. Everything had meaning, and he enjoyed it when people had to come to their own understandings and conclusions. That’s why he made films; to make the audience think.

Some of the things that make this film so great for me are also what might make this film so boring and irritating for others. The fact that there is so little dialogue causes some people to leave the theater or to turn off their VCR’s. There are parts of the movie that go on for twenty minutes or more before a single word is spoken. Most of the movie is music that is painted with imagery. That may not make sense unless you’ve actually seen the film, but after viewing it, it will make perfect sense. Kubrick’s use of Johann and Richard Strauss’ music was the perfect choice for the film. Both men wrote music that penetrated the mind and went directly to the soul. It is music that invokes emotion and romance within the spirit of mankind; all who listen to it reaches a different level of consciousness. Since that is the entire idea of the film, there couldn’t have been a better choice. The music used when the monoliths are discovered is also superb. I can’t imagine what it would really be like to find something that proves, without a shadow of doubt, that an alien race has once visited our world. The music used when these discoveries are made is two separate tenor groups moaning and wailing to varying degrees and the effect is quite haunting. It creates an apprehension and can even induce a terror within oneself that I think is befitting to subject matter it represents.

Star Child
So, the story is spectacular, the music is sublime, and the symbolism is exceptional. What are left are the awe-inspiring visuals. Consider this, when this movie was made man had yet to land on the moon. There weren’t any photographs of Earth yet in existence. Yet, Stanley Kubrick was able to paint a picture of space so accurately that it is beyond the scope of coincidence, and belongs in the category of pure wonder. Kubrick hired spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange, who had assisted some of the major contractors in the aerospace industry and NASA with developing advanced space vehicle concepts, as technical advisors on the film. With their help, everything in the film was changed from pure science fiction to soon to be science fact. To this day, 35 years later, almost all elements of the film are what actually transpire in zero gravity and space walking. Even the surface of the moon, which hadn’t been probed at the making of the film, is completely accurate to what was learned later. The idea of revolving forced gravitation is a concept that is implemented today, and what future Space Stations are to rely on. It is mind boggling to see a movie made so far in the past represent the current day so pitch perfectly. It is because of this, more than any other element of the film that makes it so easy for the film to stand the test of time.

2001: A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s greatest achievement in filmmaking. With this movie, he strove to challenge a generation of filmgoers to look beyond the present day and to wonder what their role really was in the greater scheme of things. Not only did he do that for a single generation, but for all generations to come. More than any other film in history, this one still affects people in ways that can be life changing, or at the very least life affirming. It is a purely transcendent film that will probably never be surpassed.