Home > Adventure, Mystery, Sci Fi > 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick directed a little sci fi film that remains one of, if not the hardest science fiction film ever. Based largely on “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke (whose day job was in astrophysics), 2001: A Space Odyssey deals with topics such as the evolution of man, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, though a lot of theatergoers of the day generally just snuck into theaters to drop acid during the last act. Today, critics consider 2001 to be one of the greatest films ever made, even though they can’t agree on what the hell it all means.

The film is divided into four sections, each labelled with a title card. “The Dawn of Man” centers around a troupe of ape-men who, after being defeated and driven away from a prized watering hole by a rival troupe, encounter a mysterious black monolith that kick-starts their evolution, allowing them to discover tools and weapons, allowing them to drive off their recent conquerors and become hunters. This segues into “TMA-1”, set on a space station where Dr Haywood Floyd arrives for a layover on his trip to Clavius Base on the Moon. Rumors abound of “odd events” on Clavius, leading to speculation about an epidemic, but Floyd declines to answer any questions. At Clavius, Floyd heads a meeting of base personnel, stressing the importance of the secrecy surrounding the real mission: investigationg a recently discovered artifact that appeared to have been deliberately buried four million years ago – another black monolith. The visitors investigate the monolith and attempt to take a picture of it, only to discover that it doesn’t appreciate flash photography. Eighteen months later, we get to the “Jupiter Mission” segment, probably the section that most people know about. Aboard the American spaceship Discover One we meet two astronauts and scientists, Drs. Frank Poole and David Bowman, along with three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation (to be thawed out upon arrival at Jupiter), and the ship’s computer, HAL 9000. In a televised interview, HAL makes it clear that the 9000 series is foolproof, completely incapable of error. However, when HAL reports a malfunction in a device that turns out to be just fine, Bowman and Poole grow concerned, especially when HAL insists that he could not possibly in error. The two humans adjourn to a pod to discuss possible remedies if HAL has indeed slipped a disk where HAL can’t hear them, but HAL reads their lips and decides to take matters into his own hands, killing Poole when he goes out to replace the “faulty” unit. Bowman goes out to rescue him, only for HAL to terminate the life functions of the remaining three crew while he’s out, and refusing to let him back in with Poole’s body, stating that the decision to deactivate him is jeopardizing this mission. Bowman deactivates him anyway, in one of the spookiest segments in the whole movie, and only then discovers a prerecorded message informing him of the real purpose of the mission: the Moon monolith was completely inert, save for a signal being beamed at Jupiter. Yay. The fourth section, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, is the stoner bait I mentioned earlier. Bowman travels into yet another monolith found in orbit around Jupiter, and after that I don’t know what the hell is going on, though everybody has a theory.

This movie will probably turn off most sci fi fans. It’s slow, with minimal dialogue, and not a whole lot is explained to the audience, particularly in the fourth segment, which is symbolic to the point of surrealism. The film and novel were written in collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke, and if you want backstory and explanation, I highly recommend checking out the novel. The third section is the strongest, plotwise, and easily stands alone as a decently tense short thriller, with the infinitely calm voice of Douglas Raines as HAL setting the standards for psychotic AIs thereafter. The rest, though, seem more like thematically related vignettes rather than parts of an overarching storyline (especially since part one starts a couple million years before the others), but it works together, art-wise, progressing to what is less a climax and more an art major’s orgasm.

The acting is subtle and understated. This movie is more about philosophy than action, about concepts than action sequences. In particular, Bowman’s outward calmness in the face of the discovery that the AI that controls the entire ship might be going berserk is easily matched in real-life astronauts (“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” anyone?). Because astronauts are badass, that’s why. Additionally, the effects are very well-done for 1968. With only one minor flub (the crew of a lunar shuttle pours coffee from a pitcher into an open mug – something that would have disastrous consequences in zero-G), the antigravity and artificial gravity effects are well-done and realistic by even modern science, and the models and sets possess an impressive level of detail (including a funny moment where an astronaut who apparently has to pee is stopped in his tracks by the novel-length instructions for using a space toilet), because Kubrick has historically been a bit of a nut about that.

In conclusion, if you want an action-packed sci-fi-film, definitely walk away. If you want a movie where everything is explained to you, look elsewhere. But if you want a beautifully detailed, subtle narrative about human evolution’s past and potential future, try out this classic, and just sit back and relax.

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