2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Writer-director Stanley Kubrick is no stranger to spectacle sized filmmaking. Just eight short years prior, Kubrick delivered to us Spartacus, a monumental achievement in filmmaking that dates back to the silent era where historically profound biblical epics were told often with the same scale that Kubrick made very little effort to achieve. Yet within the grandiose Spartacus, the film has an intimacy behind it when the focus shifts to a couple of people together that is just as skillful as shooting hundreds of people in a battle scene way off in the distance. With his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick pushes the boundaries of what a filmmaker can achieve with the scale that an entire universe presents itself with.

Set to numerous pieces of classical music, including several repetitive uses of sprach Zarathustra including the opening of the film set 65 million years ago, 2001 plays out like the very symphonies Kubrick uses to establish his film. Right away the music sets the tone, letting us in on the secret that 2001 is no ordinary science fiction film. It’s THE science fiction film, an extraordinary piece of storytelling backed by the mastery only Kubrick himself can put on screen. The very one that can be looked at to inspire stories to come decades later even influencing the advancements of technology in the real world.

As I sit there and let the film completely hypnotize and wash over me from the very beginning of the prologue to the final moments millions of years later, Kubrick achieves the impossible by keeping his story as simple as possible. Sure the ideas that push science forward by understanding life as we know it are as advanced as they come – dealing with themes of artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, technology and evolution, Kubrick simplifies each thematic element without sacrificing the story being told.

Throughout the film, Kubrick uses very little dialogue between characters to tell his story. Based on the short story The Sentinel written by Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, It’s the silence that says so much more than any character could. The production design, controlled by Kubrick is flawless and holds up by today’s standards of effects. Colors pop off screen when paired with the stark whites of the Discovery One and dark blacks of space. Id imagine in another 5 decades time, 2001: A Space Odyssey will still hold up and even put new films to shame.

There are 4 parts that make up 2001 into an unforgettable mind-bending experience. Each one critical to the themes that Kubrick adds to his film. The first, the prologue taking place 65 million years ago in the South African desert. There isn’t a single line of dialogue spoken due to the subject matter being a tribe of hominins going about their basic days. Out of nowhere, an alien monolith appears which throws the hominins into a panic and quickly the monolith revolutionizes the species – they advance rapidly by learning how to use tools, even becoming aggressive and deadly against rival tribes.

Without a single line of dialogue spoken, Kubrick has our full attention and never lets go of it. Shots of the horizon establish the scale of this vast desert while the camera stays right where cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth places it, in full view of these hominins as they rapidly advance from peaceful coexistence to a dominant force of nature. Out of the near 143 minutes of runtime, this first sequences lasts roughly 30 minutes of purely captivating melodrama, all brough about by the idea that extraterrestrials existing in the universe brought about a necessary push in evolution.

Next, 2001 jumps millions of years into the future which establishes mankind’s presence in the vacuum of space. Chairman of the United States National Council of Astronautics Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is traveling to the Clavius Base lunar outpost to investigate a monolith within the crater Tycho. The film then jumps 18 months into the future aboard the spacecraft the Discovery One piloted by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with three others in suspended animation during the journey to Jupiter. Discovery One is home to and controlled by a HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain). A computer series that has no faults in its code nor does it make any errors.   

The final part, after a brief intermission follows David as he reaches Jupiter and the discovery of another yet larger monolith orbiting the planet. From investigating the phenomena, Dave is thrust into an endless display of light, maybe sucked into another dimension or travelling forward in time. I see it as the latter given the final sequence of Dave witnessing himself in the 3rd person  through various stages of his life.

Along with the entire film, the bright colors, blurred visuals and disorientation in this final sequence captivates even further – looking away from the screen will be a disservice to the masterpiece that is being shown on screen. Among the many tricks up his sleeve Kubrick’s best weapon as a director is the ability to tell a story visually parallel with the dialogue between characters. If there was no dialogue whatsoever in 2001, the level of mastery wouldn’t take a hit, however, the level of excellence would be even higher given the skill Kubrick directs with.

55 years since its release, 2001: A Space Odyssey is just as relevant today regarding the theme of technological advancements with AI as it was back then. AI has the ability to make life that much simpler, taking the difficult tasks like flying a spacecraft to Jupiter, controlling every aspect of the journey so human error can be taken out of the equation. And in 2001’s case, both David and Frank understand the possibility that HAL could be dangerous within its programming. Kubrick sprinkles in these monumental alterations that sees HAL 9000 growing beyond its capabilities. What David and Frank see as a potential error in the coding, HAL 9000 sees itself as evolving beyond what its makers had in mind.

There should be no debate about it, 2001: A Space Odyssey from the practical effects, to the costumes to the production design to the acting and finally the directing is a timeless work of art. Stanley Kubrick has constructed his film to be the very epicenter of how genre films are made and it’s his brilliance that continues to inspire decades later. Every frame that makes up 2001 is a painting that stands out individually but together is driven by its dazzling visuals that haven’t aged a day and will still be crisp in the future.

Screenplay By: Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth

Starring: Kier Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

Edited By: Ray Lovejoy

Release Date: May 15, 1968

Running Time: 2 Hours 23 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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