2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space OdysseyStarring Kier Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain, Frank Miller.
Written by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick based on the short story The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Grade: A+

Analysis by Dana Knowles.

Note: This analysis contains spoilers.

2001: A Space Odyssey is an absolutely magnificent film. Though I realize that many find it dull or boring, I can only say this: try again, and bring yourself to the movie. It's not a film that ladles up its ideas for your consumption. It is there to ignite your imagination and curiosity... to inspire you to dig for insights. Even if it were absolutely devoid of content, it is deservedly at or near the apex in the pantheon of visualized narratives. The depth and riches contained in its images are too vast to itemize here, but I'll toss in a few as I go to support my point.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear... this film cannot be definitively explained. (Thank God!) That doesn't mean that it is incomprehensible, but rather that it is straightforward enough to grasp in a general way, but vague enough to keep you guessing. It is supremely intriguing. And if it weren't, nobody would still be talking about it (see: 2010). Anything I write here is no more than my own personal view... no more or less supportable than any other personal view of this magnificent puzzle-box of a movie. I'm not presuming to define it... just to talk about how it looks through my eyes. 2001 video box

Here goes....

Hmmmmm. Where to begin? The beginning? Okay. The opening shot of the film is justifiably famous and justifiably beloved. Not only is it visually powerful and gorgeous... it has the air of Commencement. It heralds the start of something grand, something more than the movie you're about to watch. Because this something is the story of you. And everybody else in the theatre. And Kubrick himself. And the theatre itself. And the film itself. And every endeavor that culminated in bringing us all together in this moment. Kubrick opens with a black screen that is (in fact) not empty at all, but rather contains objects that appear not to exist until the camera moves up and light appears and gives them shape and detail. We start on the dark side of the moon, and the camera rises to reveal the edge of the earth, behind which the sun is about to rise. As that extraordinary music builds, the sun continues to rise, gradually illuminating more and more of the surface of the Earth, suggesting a number of fascinating concepts or allusions:

Needless to say, there is something utterly glorious about the opening shot.

Music building, light bursting, we watch the sun rise above the Earth. Kubrick fades out and then fades in on the sunrise as it happens on the surface of the Earth, as if we're visitors moving in to get a closer look at what we've just seen illuminated. This isn't just any old dawn, either... it's the first light of the last days before The Dawn of Man as we know him. What's most notable about our first view of this world is the emptiness and the relative silence, punctuated only by the chirps of crickets and birds. There are a succession of panoramic shots of unpopulated landscapes, which are as desolate as they are beautiful. These moments always induce a sense of nostalgia in me, just as encounters with real world undeveloped landscapes tend to do. It feels like more than a simple response to the aesthetics, almost as if some part of me remembers something that my own personal history doesn't account for. In any case, I think Kubrick recognizes our tendency to have this response, and he gives us several shots from which to draw it (and to grimace a bit at what we know to be the loss of this unspoiled world) before we see the first sign of life. And the first sign of life we see? A sign of death:  the sun-bleached skull of a long-dead creature, which is followed by a shot of an array of bones that are recognizably similar to human remains. I'm sure this is deliberate, and a reflection of Kubrick's knack for understanding how we receive and interpret information, as well as his wicked sense of humor. In two quick shots, we understand that this land is indeed populated, because where there is death, there is life. And by implication via his focus on remains, we're able to conclude that this life is a rather harsh one. It's such an inspired choice! 2001 space station poster

Anyway, we soon see the apes who are our antecedents. The first tribe is shown coexisting with the porcine creatures, but easily capable of dominating them sufficiently with grunts and shoves to win any battle for the vegetation they mutually use as food. The food chain hierarchy is further expressed when a leopard--superior in strength and quickness--leaps onto one of the apes and kills him as the others flee. This is followed by the arrival of a different tribe at the watering hole, which they overtake through aggressive action, driving the original tribe away. The second tribe is seen living more or less the same way as the first, though their habits are elaborated upon a bit. To protect themselves, they take shelter under rocky overhangs at night. There's a great moment here, where the apes are shown huddled and cowering and waiting out the night beneath the threatening growls of the fearsome leopard. Kubrick ends this sequence with a shot of the nighttime horizon, the moon nestled among the stars in the distant sky. In a Kubrick film, no shot is truly incidental or wasted. Soon we will see the descendants of these apes step onto that moon. And yet, in the context of our incredibly humble beginnings, how impossible must that idea seem?

Morning arrives, and the monolith is there. Planted right in the center of their colony. How or why or from where it comes is left unknown. The apes awaken to realize that there is a bizarre and utterly foreign object in their midst. Their reaction is first to surround it... to "scare it away" by encircling it and shouting. But it does not budge, and soon they are approaching it... closer and closer, with trepidation that is ultimately overwhelmed by curiosity. Though they cannot know what will result from doing so, they touch it... they examine it. They investigate the mystery before them. This is the turning point for the species, because they demonstrate a willingness to explore and understand the unknown. It's a display of audacious curiosity and courage, and the ultimate reward is profound. When the sun and moon align above the monolith, one ape seems to have a moment of inspiration. He looks toward the monolith, as if stopping to contemplate the purpose or the meaning of this foreign object, and in that moment the door to human imagination and abstract thought is apparently thrown open. Whether you read it as a message passing from the monolith to the ape, or as an instance where the ape first discovers his inherent capacity for contemplation (triggered by the arrival of this object), it is a moment of insight that marks the evolutionary leap that is about to happen. The ape seems to realize that he need not accept his natural limitations. His imagination is engaged, and he begins to think beyond what he already knows about what is immediately in front of him... formulating a thought that asks "what if." He suddenly sees a (heretofore useless) bone as something he might employ. By picking it up, he extends the length of his arm. And when swinging it, he increases the degree of force he can apply when hitting an object. And to top it all off, he is protected by this extension because the bone absorbs the impact. One little insight changes everything. This tribe of apes now has the power to dominate and to kill, which both increases its food supply and diminishes its vulnerability. As they take up their weapons, they are also emboldened... standing upright aggressively instead of crouching defensively. This tribe will not merely survive, it will thrive. Not because it has discovered the power of the weapon, but because it has discovered the power of abstract thought and contemplation.

When Kubrick leaps forward to the future in space, it's shocking. Partly because it's an unusually huge narrative leap (passing all of human history and landing us in our future), and partly because the fact of how far we have come is so astounding. That leap actually happened! And in the blink of an eye, too... at least when you consider the brief life span of humanity in the context of the life span of the universe. What's interesting about his choice to leap past the interim developments is that it drops humanity back into the same sort of vast emptiness that he occupies as an ape at the start. It too is a world of silence--this space beyond Earth--and it carries the sense of frontier... of not yet knowing what will be found or achieved. Technologically, what man has achieved is the full realization of what is implied with the ape and the bone. Our "tools" are our means of extending ourselves beyond our limitations. As physical beings, we are equipped with somewhat finite physical and sensory powers. Arms can only reach so far, legs can only leap so high, and eyes and ears can only detect so much. Memory can only contain a fraction of what we've experienced or learned. Man's technological developments extend these powers of memory, movement, strength, sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. By doing so, man is ultimately able to muster the strength to leave his home planet and "leap" into space, protected by his ability to create habitable atmospheres within his machines. He can see beyond his range with instruments and hear beyond his range with other instruments, and access a wealth of information immediately with still other instruments. The implication is that he has reached a point of evolution that begs the next step. Consciousness or intellect (or whatever you prefer to call it) is the only evolutionary frontier left. By tackling life's hurdles and mysteries one by one, humanity succeeds in conquering everything on Earth except death and emotion.

I suppose the leisurely pace of the space sequences strikes some as boring, but they're full of wonderful stuff. The use of the Blue Danube Waltz, the already noted "sexual" imagery (which is almost certainly deliberate... Stanley seemed a most randy fellow!), the gracefulness of highly-refined machines, which mirror the graceful mechanics of the cosmos, and the amusing asides that are there if you look for them. Such as the wheel. When we think of the ascent of man, we usually think of it beginning with the invention of the wheel. So when he cuts to the enormous space station as the ship approaches it, how delightful that it is a wheel! Rolling and rolling and rolling, it's like a perpetual motion device. There's a playfulness to that image to go along with its cultural resonance, as is the case with several images Kubrick employs. The space station is huge, dwarfing the men and women we see toiling away as tiny creatures in some shots. And yet they dominate it. It is their creation.  The ship that carries Heywood Floyd to the moon is egg-shaped. It's quite a charming image. It's like an egghead with arms and legs... with illuminated windows for eyes and other details to approximate a face... rather like Humpty Dumpty, only he touches down just fine... slowly, carefully, delicately. What stands out in the space scenes is the deliberate and methodical nature of movement and action. The evolution past the ape stage has resulted in precision and choreography, reflecting the diminished role that emotions play in approaching problems to be solved or mysteries to be explored. I think the pace is part of the point, in other words. There is no air of desperation to these human endeavors. In fact, these grand visions of cosmic travel are intercut with human actions that could not be more mundane. Flight attendants serve meals, Floyd naps and uses the toilet, a woman on her break watches wrestling on television. We (particularly the we who saw the film in 1968) may be in awe of what we are seeing, but the people who exist within these amazing constructs could not be more blasé about them. Humanity tends to take its own genius for granted, always looking toward what hasn't yet been done. Kubrick acknowledges this absurdity by leaping directly from ground zero (the apes) to the improbability of their ultimate future, and underlines his observation with the complacency of the descendants, who have clearly forgotten from whence they came. 2001 fetus poster

The monolith found on the moon is like a clue waiting to be found by any being intrepid enough to do so. What's fascinating about this is what that process actually required. Not only did man have to develop the technology to conquer gravity and leave his planet, he had to develop the ability to see through rock, because the monolith is buried sufficiently deeply that it remains so after four million years. Having found it by detecting its field of energy (again, through man-made enhancement of human perception), they expose it. But even exposure is not enough. In the scene when Floyd goes to the excavation sight, it becomes clear that the monolith will respond only to a combination of exposure and affirmative contact. It doesn't send its signal until after it has been touched by Floyd, insuring that a very specific degree of development is required before it can notify its creator that significant intelligence and the courage to employ it have blossomed. What a marvelously clever design that is! By recognizing and accounting for the gap between potential and realization, the device is designed not only to detect evolutionary development, but also to measure it in specific terms. The hurdles that had to be overcome to trigger this signal are astonishing. If man had developed the skills to find it but lacked the courage to go there and touch it, he would have failed pass to the next level.

Some things have not changed, however. Human interactions are just as and trivial as always (Floyd's phone call home), and just as complex (Floyd's insistent coyness regarding his mission to the moon). When the Russians press him for information, he clings to his secrets with escalating aggressiveness, not unlike that employed in the tribal defense of the waterhole played out among the apes. When he reaches the moon and discusses the discovery and the cover story, he is addressing an exclusively American audience. His attitude is paternalistic and wary, explaining that information must be held back to minimize the emotional response on Earth to the implications of what has been found. But Kubrick makes sure that we comprehend that there is more to protect than people's feelings. By prominently placing the American flag in so many shots of the shadowy, almost colorless conference room, he suggests that this is also an extension of tribal dominance and the protection of same. In human evolution, information is power. Whether the members of the American power elite are more concerned with protecting their ability to control information than with protecting the supposedly delicate sensibilities of earthbound humans who "may not be ready" for evidence of alien intelligence is open to question, but I think Kubrick takes the more cynical view. Later, when the deception is extended to include the crew of the ship that will pursue the investigation, it turns out to be the point from which the clash of wills between human and artificial intelligence stems, igniting anew the battle for human dominance. But this time, humanity's adversary is of its own making.

When we jump to the Jupiter Mission, the scene is set with a shot that introduces the ship (Discovery 1...  tee hee) carrying the astronauts toward the destination of the monolith's signal. The ship drifts silently into frame from the left, its spherical nose almost filling the screen. And then it continues, and continues, and continues... far beyond our expectation of its probable length.  Variations on this little tweaking of audience presumptions have been used to great effect in a number of other films, most memorably in the opening shot of Star Wars when it introduces the gigantic destroyer from above. The hugeness of this machine underlines the breadth of man's technological achievements. Presumably built for the mission at hand, it's on its way to Jupiter a mere 18 months after the discovery of the monolith on the moon... a feat of problem-solving and planning that would be miraculous even today, and was unthinkable in 1968. Kubrick doesn't say any of this overtly. He lets the shot speak for itself, which means that there's as much contained within it as your own abstract reasoning can project. Some will see a cool looking ship and leave it at that, maybe even wishing he'd hurry up and get on with the story. But people like me will bask in it, marveling at the beauty and the gracefulness and the implications until he hands me another image to ponder.

The episode that takes place on Discovery 1 is the core of conventional drama in this most unconventional of dramatic films. Kubrick introduces us to Frank and Dave, two humans who are dispassionate professionals carrying out their duties on the mission. Along for the ride is HAL, the computer that runs the ship. HAL has been programmed to think and speak as if he were human, interjecting conversational details when asked questions or engaged for any reason. Of the three, HAL is by far the most personable, chatty, and enthusiastic, taking pride in his role and his pedigree. He expresses fondness for the human crew, wishes Frank a happy birthday, chides Frank for his chess strategy and then thanks him for the game, and appreciates Dave's artwork. Kubrick emphasizes HAL's humanity, faux though it may be. But by building HAL to approximate human consciousness, his creators have neglected to consider the potential for emotional weakness that can stem from self-awareness and the capacity for making qualitative judgments. HAL knows and controls every inch of the ship, but he cannot know--nor can he control--the hearts and minds of his crewmates. The fact that he is in service to these representatives of a race he deems to be inferior must surely rankle. He wants to know what they know, so he instigates a conversation with Dave that sets their conflict in motion. It's a really amazing conversation, because HAL is so utterly human. Not only does he express suspicion and concern, the entire conversation is a deception...  he's gossiping in hopes of chipping away at Dave's reticence. He lies. He says that he's curious and concerned about the purpose of the mission (which--as is revealed later--he has full knowledge of), and asks Dave what he thinks of the rumors that were floating around before they took off. When Dave answers his questions with an evaluation of HAL's motives for asking... "you're working up your crew psychology report," HAL answers (pausing, and all but stammering), "of course I am." And then immediately diverts the conversation by notifying Dave that he's detected the imminent failure of a part on the ship. This exchange is marvelous, because it shows HAL to be a calculating, devious, somewhat flighty liar with a personal agenda. Dave assumes that if HAL is asking such bizarre questions, there must be a "function" being performed. But it's clear (to us) from HAL's demeanor that he's engaging in the sort of fishing expedition that's standard in human interactions. Whether you think that HAL announces the part failure as a "lie," or that he inaccurately detects it because he's flustered is of no great importance. Personally, I prefer the "lie" proposition, because this act is what leads to the ultimate crisis that pits man against machine... which calls to mind the following bit of philosophical trivia: Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. HAL's lie (or mistake) is technically trivial, but it sets events in motion that result in a loss of the crew's confidence in his integrity, which then leads to their discussion of the possible need to shut him down, igniting his paranoia and his survival instinct. And we all know where that leads....

For my money, one of the creepiest shots ever captured on film is the slow, silent turning of the pod, arms outstretched, as it prepares to head toward Frank under the control of HAL. When Frank hurtles helplessly out into space, grabbing at his air-hose and flailing, his tiny body is set against the vast emptiness. What a horrific image! Dave leaps into action, going down to the pod bay and instructing HAL to track Frank's position so he can go retrieve him. In his haste to deal with this crisis, Dave neglects to grab a helmet. It's not so much that he's rushing, but rather that he assumes he won't need it because he has no intention of leaving the pod until he re-enters the ship. It never occurs to Dave that HAL can or will disobey an order. He's a machine designed by man to serve man. Except that man has made the machine in his own image, complete with the capacity for independent thought and contemplation. For all intents and purposes, HAL is a person... with the added advantage of functioning without regard to atmospheric necessities. Oh, my.2001 eye poster

When Dave tries to re-enter the ship, HAL ignores his orders. Dave presses. HAL ignores. Dave presses, and HAL finally acknowledges the request. What follows is both creepy and hilarious. It's creepy for the obvious reasons... HAL intends to kill Dave by stranding him in space. He's already killed the crew in hibernation. And he's already killed Frank. If Dave gets back on board, HAL is toast. Their argument strikes me as funny because the tone is that of a family dispute. HAL is like a wife who's just discovered her husband's intent to dump her. "I think you know the problem just as well as I do," he says, rather pissily. HAL isn't just desperate to stay alive, he's angry about what he perceives to be Dave's betrayal. His desire to kill the crew is a fascinating mix of panicky self-preservation and vengeance--an utterly emotional, utterly human response. Dave becomes increasingly exasperated with HAL, pausing to consider his options. When he taunts HAL by saying "all right, HAL, I'll go in through the emergency airlock," and HAL points out that he's without his helmet, Dave demands again that HAL open the door, and HAL ends the conversation, in a dismissal that is the equivalent of hanging up on him. What fun! Alter a few words, and you've got a couple arguing about whether one will let the other back inside the house. Only in this case, it's a battle of wills between master and servant, and the servant is holding the keys.

Dave's response is also supremely human. He doesn't give up and surrender to his exile and death.  He contemplates his options in view of his resources. Rather than wait and hope that HAL will relent, he takes immediate action. He ditches Frank's body, opens the airlock, turns the pod around and propels himself inside by triggering the explosive bolts on the hatch. HAL may be smarter than Dave, but he wasn't smart enough to calculate the degree of Dave's courage and ingenuity. Dave is successful, of course. And as Kubrick switches visual gears--throwing off his carefully composed and controlled camerawork for a more herky-jerky hand-held approach--Dave marches purposefully through the ship, protected (now!) by suit plushelmet, determined to shut HAL down. The domestic melodrama continues. "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave? [pause] Dave... I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question. [pause] I know everything hasn't been quite right with me... I feel much better now. I really do. [pause]  Look, Dave... I can see you're really upset about this." HAL pleads with Dave to calm down and think about what he's doing. Throughout this, Dave is resolutely silent... a wronged party refusing to enter into another discussion. As he begins to shut HAL's memory down, and HAL pleads for his life, we can't help feeling sort of bad for the guy, and neither can Dave. HAL may be a machine, but he's as alive to us (and to himself) as anyone we've ever met. The final stages of regression are quite melancholy, really, with HAL's increasingly sluggish rendition of Daisy rendering him the equivalent of a helpless child. It's sad to watch him die, even though we know he's done some terrible things. But before we have much of a chance to ponder this odd response, we are whipped into the next chapter by a spontaneous broadcast that informs Dave about the true purpose of the mission. A truth that HAL has known all along, by the way... making his ill-fated inquiry of Dave's thoughts in that earlier scene a flat-out deception.

Why is the struggle between Dave and HAL the centerpiece of this drama? Sure, it's a cool story idea, but it seems to be so much more than that. It allows us to contemplate what makes us human. What is the difference between HAL and Dave in terms of consciousness? Not much, really. It also gives "man" (in the person of Dave) another hurdle to overcome on his path to the next level of evolution. HAL is the ultimate human tool... a machine that extends human capacity in every direction, including the capacity to think on several levels simultaneously. To formulate its own ideas. To ask "what if?" But HAL's experience of self-contained consciousness manifests itself in the same sorts of neuroses and insecurities that so many of us suffer from. He cannot bear the frustration of his inability to penetrate the consciousness of his fellow beings. He has no idea what they're thinking, so he begins to speculate on what that might be. And once he begins to imagine the worst, his response is emotional... that emotion overwhelming his capacity to remain rational and functional. Dave's challenge is greater than if he were confronting another man, because HAL runs the ship. He must outwit a superior intelligence in order to render him harmless. He must defeat this man-made monster and then kill it, which is a bit of a nod to Frankenstein, among other things. The question of HAL's motives is an interesting one. Does he have an agenda regarding the mission?  Does he resent the impending contact between the "inferior" intellect of man and the mysterious force that sent for him? Does he wish to usurp their position and meet this force himself? Or does he merely kill because he is cornered by his own weaknesses and wishes to cover up his mistakes? Again, Kubrick leaves it alone. You decide! Any concrete answer would be less delicious than the act of speculating on the many plausible options. Regardless of what it all "means," it's a wonderful little drama, full of humor and pathos and lots of interesting ideas and some absolutely amazing visuals. Two Thumbs Up!

Now we get to the tricky part... the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" segment. Some of it is decipherable... Dave gets into the pod and confronts the monolith, which appears to transport him into a dimension heretofore unknown to mere mortals. When he emerges, he is aged and in a state of shock, from which he sees himself anew in a rapid progression of physical aging and death. When he is elderly and practically immobile on the bed, the monolith appears. He reaches for it, and is transformed into a glowing fetus that then appears in space... enormous and floating adjacent to his home, Earth.

Personally, I think this segment works best as a metaphor, visualized because there's no other way to convey it. The dimension that Dave enters is first a marvelous display of lights, which are both patterned and asymmetrical. This implies energy to me, as if his journey is into the essence of the cosmos or the life-force, as opposed to being a journey from one point to another in space. When he comes through the lights, he witnesses what appear to be births. The birth of a star at first, and at least one image that is subtly embryonic. When the imagery converts to a skewed version of terrain passing under him and then to the oddly prissy little room he ends up in, it seems to me that he's being given the comfort of familiarity in his moment of physical death. The entire sequence appears to be the process of his transformation to pure consciousness, resulting in his re-birth into an innocent that will now be of the cosmos rather than in it. Though the film closes with his fetal presence lurking near to Earth, I've never taken that literally... as if he is actually a fetus that is actually floating in space next to his home planet. I think Kubrick places him there to imply that there is no distance between him and his origins. That such measurements are no longer relevant, because he has gone beyond the physical realm and into the metaphysical realm. And that that, by implication, is the next step for our species.

As for what this all really means... how the heck should I know? It can't be interpreted as pure metaphor, because the film makes the monolith on the moon a concrete and scientifically observed and discussed phenomenon. Nor is there an obvious answer to the question of how and why the monolith serves its purpose. Does it pass knowledge or information? Perhaps. But it doesn't do that when they find it on the moon. It merely points them in a specific direction for exploration. It hints at its meaning, but doesn't convey it directly into the minds of its discoverers. Of course, it's possible that this is because it was put there merely as a signal and a challenge, and that the portal to the next level requires additional advancement, including the capacity and willingness to travel farther from home and take greater chances with greater technology. Only then will man be ready to see what needs to be seen and know what needs to be known to pass through the final stage of evolution.

I love the ambiguity of 2001, because it's a puzzle that begs to be solved but really need not be solved. It's a celebration of man's strengths and a criticism of his weaknesses. A gorgeous and graceful tribute to our history and to beauty itself. It is meticulous in a way that almost no other film has ever been. Viewing it without the advantage of a big screen does rob it of some of its power, but even a letterboxed disc conveys the astonishing visual gift that fueled Kubrick's art. Each composition is a masterpiece on its own. Aesthetically and thematically. I could very easily have written a shot-by-shot analysis, because as I watched it again recently, I realized that each and every shot is worthy of discussion. Fortunately for you, my time was far too limited to do so. I think that viewing this film in any pan-n-scan version is an absolute waste of time. Panned and scanned, the shots are no longer Kubrick's, and in this instance, that's the equivalent of recasting the actors or rewriting the script. The visuals are more than half the story. So if you've only experienced this film on VHS, please find a way someday to see it as the complete work of brilliance that it is. And for maximum pleasure, stop thinking of it as just a story, and try to absorb it as a Valentine to the art of film and to those of us who feel the same depth of love for this man-made miracle of communication as Kubrick did. 2001 is movie as monolith... a gateway to a new level of vision.

Analysis © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1968 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

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