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2001: A Space Odyssey

Director's Dissection

2001 the first year of the third millennium and the first year of the 21st century
…a year of the future.

Odyssey a long wandering or voyage, either intellectual or spiritual,
which may have many changes of fortune along the way
…a term of the past.



Stanley Kubrick's ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ calls for an epic clash between a compilation of contradicting contrasts and a quest of imposing and intimidating questions, where the grand space of the universe is the only place wide enough for unfolding these elements properly. It is a journey of evolution and revolution where the very solution is up to us…

Opening to the sounds of carefully constructed musical compositions, giving us a callback to the classical era of music, set to the images of the unparalleled natural happenings of space, we are clearly in the world of Kubrick here. When entering the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence, we once again feel the loving frustration of a Kubrick film; drawing in the audience with a sensual bombardment, securing our attention, before drawing out the plot, seeking our appreciation. Once again, I sense this weird perversion in Kubrick’s work, bewildering our perception by butchering our expectation of what we are about to experience. I’m aware that the film is based on a novel, but there is also a reason why Kubrick wanted to adapt it. After launching his audience into space during the opening credits, he leaves them almost levitating in a meditative state of mind, lingering on earth and the dawn of man. There is also a reason why the ancient term “odyssey” is used in relation to space and the future – while the movie comes in sci-fi packaging, it is essentially the all-embracing odyssey of mankind more than anything.

There have been many suggestions as to what the monolith really means and trying to direct a vague discussion into more determined and definite areas would probably become pointless the deeper you went, because for one, it isn’t specific in itself nor exclusive to one scene or one moment alone. It gains a somewhat thematic momentum for the story in the way that it is introduced and the way that it ignites something or someone within the story. It evolves to become a key element in the story and the different acts of the movie, building thematically in size and in complete synchronization with its towering complexity. The way that it pops up through time and space and between beast, man and higher power it definitely holds something historical to the story, as well as something holy and sacred in an almost religious way, while also becoming about science, the future and evolution itself.

Some big and broad terms here, but essentially you could boil it down to the effect it has on those who encounter it. It may have a broad significance but that very significance is different to whoever might hold it and from there springs the essential element of it – the monolith always seems to trigger a shift in mindset, awareness, psychical or mental acquirement and overall evolution for mankind – all for the sake of advancing intelligent life in one way or the other. It is supposedly alien-related and does different things to different beings, but always as a handy tool of sorts for what one wants to accomplish. The author himself has called it “the alien Swiss Army Knife” and that is actually absurdly agreeable. I would add that it is almost the alien Swiss Army Knife of the conscious mind and thereby the monolith is representing something in physical form, which otherwise has no form. We all learn from experiences, encounters, affiliations, successes, failures and so forth – all of which is something the monolith attempts to encapsulate or represent. Essentially, the monolith magnifies the meaning behind itself for the audience, by appearing in psychical form as a returning reminder of its themes and plot points, ultimately underlining central parts of the story, trying to make a complex film more apparent, more coherent or at least more creative with its complexity… but it sure is complex.

‘2001’ is definitely Kubrick’s most complex and ambiguous film and after ditching the planned narration for the film, it truly embraces the concept of visual storytelling and relies completely on the sensual experience to elevate the hefty themes of the movie. It really is more of a journey for the audience to embark on, rather than the destination they end up in. Of course, the climax completes the journey, but every act is important to the “odyssey of mankind” and the understanding of the evolution of the themes, which is more important than the evolution of the characters, which conversely, is sometimes one and the same. But it isn’t so much about the characters as human beings, as it is about the characters as themes or tools to that same matter, making the evolution for intelligence and intelligent life more clear.

Evident from its title, there are many references to the Greek epic ‘Homer’s Odyssey’ along the way – an obvious one being that of HAL – the artificial antagonist starring back at you with a singular glowing eye, like the Cyclops that Odysseus encounters in the ancient story. For one, there is something truly interesting in seeing HAL using the three artistic proofs, coined by Greek philosopher Aristotle, using both pathos, ethos and logos throughout the film to manipulate our main characters. HAL is of course also the classic confrontation of man and machine, where the man-made intelligent life ends up out-smarting its own makers. The whole thing about man being the creator and man’s creation being the destruction of man is perversely paradoxical. And again, in relation to “the odyssey of mankind”, it might not just be the destruction of man, but the overall extinction of mankind as well, since the film seems to try and cover mankind in its entirety, from the dawn of man, or the birth of humans, to the progression towards its ultimate potential all the way to its eventual demise, which is presented in the climax of the film.

On the whole discussion of birth, many have seen the journey towards the climax to be an allegory of conception and I could definitely see that. Our main character(s) last journey is almost like the seed being planted to the new life that springs from it in the end; complete with sperm-looking spaceship and the “surreal flashing lights” before the birth of another life form. The whole last section of the movie is a sensual overload and I love the way that Kubrick chose to present this part of the story. How our main character is caught in a time warp of sorts and experience his own demise from the sideline, gradually going through a selection of moments from his life, which is shown to us from a POV-shot, making us part of this crazy paradox. Having our entire life flash before our eyes is another element that is played with here and the climax is almost like the spiritual and the scientific colliding with each other – like the big bang of the future of life’s evolution – ending with the “star child” representing the new beginning. And unlike an actual fetus, it has its eyes wide open, looking down on earth, doing so literally and as the superior primary life as well, until finally turning towards us, the audience, doing the very same, by turning cinema itself into its very own monolith, where Kubrick presents the possibilities of the medium and represents the advancement of the intellect within of which he has gained – and the sheer power it holds – and does so in a way that seems to confront us, encourage us and maybe even mock us.

Like the grand turning point of its numeral title and the adding of the ancient expression, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ seems to represent both the beginning and the end, the birth and the death, and a key element to evolution and progression, mostly leaping out of the monolith-aspect of the film. In a way, the monolith can also be dubbed “a reflection”. We can see our own reflection in it, we can reflect on it and overall it speaks to our inner natural reflex of survival and our will to evolve… it absorbs and we can project things onto it… with time, the evolution of life changed into the monolith and with that the monolith revolutionized life itself. The monolith is many things to different beings, so if the monolith is cinema to Kubrick, then the monolith is Kubrick to me... because of the determined dedication and intellectual involvement needed, his movies are light years away from being easy to dissect… but when Kubrick himself throws me a bone, however the size and subtlety of that bone might be, I’m eager to pick it up every single time; even when everything’s up in the air. Why? Because it’s my job to dissect it... my duty… my destiny… my very own odyssey.