2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

Intro to Cinema Week 5: Science Fiction

There is a conspiracy theory that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) director Stanley Kubrick helped the US government fake the moon landing. Some eagle-eyed (or crazy-eyed) fans of The Shining have even interpreted certain symbols in the film to be hints about the Apollo landing. These theories are a testament to the power and efficacy of Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi epic. It is so well-done Kubrick could have faked the moon landing.

It is perhaps easiest to divide the film into a few sections. The first section follows the birth of humanity and their combat with each other. Apes are confronted by a mysterious monolith that will play a key but highly ambiguous role in the film’s story. The fifteen-minute ape section morphs into a new cold, dark future in space section. Spacecraft orbit the earth. The future is just as corporatized as the present. A Pan-Am spaceship. There is a Hilton and a Howard Johnsons in the space station. Bell Telephone has created the “picture phone”. Alas, like all things, there is a beauty behind the cynicism. The ship docking in the station. The earth rotating around William Sylvester’s head. This second section transitions from the abstract nature of the ape scene to a captivating yet pessimistic speculation on the future. Sylvester’s Dr. Heywood is investigating a strange item on the moon—a monolith. That cannot be good. Humanity has changed once again.

The third section takes place eighteen months after the last one. Keir Dullea, the closest thing this film has to a protagonist, plays Dr. Dave Bowman. He is on a mission to Jupiter on a ship controlled by the AI HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Remember that name, you will soon want to forget it. As his creepy red dot for an eye foretells, this computer AI guy is no good. Keir and his colleagues do not notice. Intermission. Well, that AI guy is no good. Keir fights with HAL and wins. The fourth and final section of the film sees Keir embark on an epic psychedelic journey through time and space. He sees himself become an old man and is confronted by that blasted monolith. Now this guy is an embryo? Credits rolled. Mic dropped.

2001: A Space Odyssey is quite a lot of film. Beyond its superficial long runtime, there is a lot to chew on here. Apes, monoliths, Howard Johnson’s, et cetera. Put simply, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest piece of analog fantasy/science fiction in the history of cinema or even art. That is a big statement but think about it. What film comes anywhere close to the practical effects, cinematography, sound design, compositions, and vision of 2001? Pause this movie at any moment and you have a painting that would fit in nicely at the Metropolitan. In a runtime of 142 minutes, the viewer will experience the totality of human history and experience. Birth and death. Real and fake. Past and future. Howard’s and Johnson’s. Some critics have said the film is style over substance. Letterboxd user Mary Conti brutally describes it: “This is Transformers for the art house crowd. Pure style over substance” (2013).

2001: A Space Odyssey does have more style than substance. However, for the substance to match the style, it would have to be pretty damn profound. And it is profound! The monolith represents the evolution of humanity and its inner and outer conflicts. The first time the monolith appears it causes the apes to become violent. The second time the monolith appears it signals humanity’s coming conflict with AI or created being. The final time the monolith appears it sees humanity, personified in the avatar of Keir Dullea, return to its original state—an embryo. Alpha and omega. Beginning and end. Past and future. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a director, crew, and society at a peak. As HAL says, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can hope to do”. Actually, Kubrick is a lot like HAL. I am not sure if that is a compliment. Like the film’s broad look at the history of mankind and nature, the astounding production gives one a broad look at the potential and actual wonders of the cinematic art form. A masterwork if one ever existed.

One could write a book on the development, production, and meanings of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One thread in the film among many is about the mysteries of authenticity behind appearance. HAL has feelings but does he really? It tastes like chicken but is it really? This film is all effects and camerawork but is that all it really is?


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