Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.
Starring: Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr. Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr. Heywood R. Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moon-Watcher), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Andrei Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Ralph Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Dr. Bill Michaels), Douglas Rain (HAL 9000), Frank Miller (Mission Controller).
The word “visionary” is thrown around far too often these days in regards to films and filmmakers – somehow even Zack Snyder is a “visionary director” according the previews of his films. But one of the few films in history that could legitimately be described as visionary is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s one of the few films in history that look seriously at man’s place in the universe. It is the best science fiction ever made, but it’s more than that. It has been described as spiritual film, even if the ultimate view of the film is one of an atheist. It contains some of the most stunning sequences ever put on film, and has perhaps the best ending of any film ever made. I placed the film on my list of the 10 best ever made when I did that list back in 2012 – and watching it again, I thought it was even better than I had remembered.
The film is basically made up of four movements. The first is entitled the “Dawn of Man”, and shows us apes, who very slowly evolve over the roughly 20 minutes Kubrick spends with them. They slowly start to learn – especially with the arrival of some sort of monolith in their word. This jumpstarts the apes intelligence – given one of them the idea of picking up a bone, and using it as a tool – a tool of violence, but a tool just the same. After the best smash cut in history – in which millions of years go by in the blink of an eye – we are in the second movement. Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) is called to a base on the moon in the year 1999. Something strange is happening there, and we only slowly learn what that is. Another monolith has been discovered – and no one knows what it means. But it is not man made, and it is not natural. The third movement is takes place 18 months later – when a team of astronauts are sent on a journey to beyond Jupiter – although they are not made aware of why until right near the end of their journey. Three astronauts are put into hibernation – and the other two, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are to pilot the ship to where it needs to be – with the help of the most advanced computer in history – the HAL 9000 – which never makes mistakes, and speaks like a real human. The last movement takes place after the journey has gone wrong – and Dave goes through a star gate, and ends up in a different place – which leads to one of most iconic final shots in cinema history.
To talk about 2001 in terms of plot is to miss the point. The film certainly does have a narrative, but it is hardly the narrative that the film is about. Nor is the film really about its characters – the most memorable character is clearly HAL, which is nothing more than a red light, and a great vocal performance by Douglas Rain. The astronauts themselves – Bowman and Poole – are pretty much interchangeable, and are given little to no depth. That is by design of course – the film isn’t about these specific men – but rather it is about mankind as a collective.
The film is also about the visuals. Kubrick worked for years on the film, in conjunction with special effects guru Douglas Trumbull – which created some of the best special effects sequences ever put on film. To write about the docking at the space station early in the film, or the various shots of people walking upside down, or Bowman’s “murder” of HAL or the star gate sequence would not do them justice. Nor would talking about Kubrick’s brilliant use of classical music, which doesn’t underline the action the way scores do, but do help enhance both the sequences and music. This is just one of those films you have to experience or you will never understand just how brilliant it all is.
The film’s ending is much debated, but really isn’t all that hard to figure out. Bowman follows the path of whoever put the monoliths there, and ends up, after a mesmerizing star gate sequence (that remains a favorite among stoners, although its effect is great even if you’re completely sober when you see it) – and ends up in a different place – where he sees himself at various stages of his life – for a moment there are two Bowman’s, until there is only one. And then Bowman, as we know him in human form is gone – replaced by the iconic star child. The film is ultimately about how far humanity has evolved from when we were nothing more than apes – but also how much further we have to go.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films ever made – and yet I have a hard time writing about it. It is a film that has to be seen to be believed – and then seen again and again to contemplate its deeper meanings – or simply to sit back and watch with wonder at what Kubrick has achieved in the film. It says something about the film that it is the most hopeful of all of Kubrick’s film, yet is still completely in line with his dim view of humanity that is on display in all of his films.