Fifty years ago this month one of the most written about films ever made was released. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a film unlike any other, and I don’t think there’s been one like it since then. I’ve seen it at least three times, but I still don’t understand all of it, and I don’t think anyone is supposed to.
The film is basically told in four parts, as if it were movements of a symphony. The first, “The Dawn of Man,” features hominids on the African savanna. They eat only vegetation. One day a strange black monolith, looking like a giant candy bar, appears, with a sound like a choir. The hominids are first afraid, and then embrace it. Presumably this gives one such early man the idea to use a bone to kill something. Next thing you know they are eating meat, and eventually use it to kill one another.
We can assume that the monolith was planted by an advanced civilization that is furthering human evolution. The next time it shows up it is buried under the lunar surface, so it is clearly in place for when man is advanced enough to find it. This section is the weakest of the film, with stilted dialogue and boilerplate sci-fi stuff. It also has a scientist using a videophone to call his daughter for his birthday. Even Kubrick and his collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, didn’t anticipate cell phones.
The third portion is the one most people know and is straightforward, as well as being suspenseful and even a bit funny. Two astronauts, along with three others in sleep pods, are on their way to Jupiter. They don’t know it, but they are headed to the third monolith, adrift in space. Their ship is run by a computer, HAL 9000, who is more human than they are. When he starts to take over things get a bit dicey. “Open the pod bay door, HAL,” is a memorable quote. When Keir Dullea gets back in the ship to shut him down, HAL, voiced wonderfully by Douglas Rain, says things like, “I can see you’re upset about this, Dave.”
The fourth movement is anybody’s guess. Dullea takes a space pod into some sort of gate, where there are psychedelic colors that probably were pretty groovy in 1968. He sees himself as an old man, and then becomes a fetus the size of a planet, aka the “Star Child.” I read that at one point the script had the Star Child exploding all the nuclear bombs on Earth, but Kubrick blew up the world in his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, and didn’t want to do it again.
Today the film is recognized as one of the greatest ever made but it took a while. Pauline Kael oddly thought it was “unoriginal,” while I think Penelope Gilliat hit it on the head when she said it was “somewhere between hypnotic and boring.” True, parts of it are boring. There is almost a fetishistic lingering on spaceships gliding through the ethos and men pushing buttons and doors opening. It takes maybe fifteen minutes for Dr. Floyd to get from Earth to the Moon in a spaceship, as we see the flight attendants serving dinner. I suppose the special effects were cutting edge and maybe Kubrick was showing off (he designed the special effects, and he won an Oscar for it, the only Oscar he ever won).
But, as Gilliat said, the tedium can be hypnotic. There are a lot of shots of ships, and one of the most famous cuts in movie history has the bone tossed by the hominid turning into a spaceship, a leap of four million years of human evolution in one edit.
I suppose I admire 2001 more than I love it, The HAL sequence on its own is a terrific short film, as is the Dawn of Man. A friend of mine mentioned that it couldn’t be made today, and that’s probably true, at least not how Kubrick made it. However, it was the highest grossing film of that year. It made Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra known to everyone, and it inspired one of my favorite Mad Magazine parody titles: 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.