Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious sci-fi masterpiece is a series of stunning visual vignettes that attempts to explain a theory about how human intelligence may have been advanced by a sentinel (a smooth black monolith), which acts as the catalyst for pushing mankind toward its destiny as the most highly evolved being on the planet.
The movie depicts space exploration as realistically as possible for its time, with Arthur C. Clark providing the short story on which the movie is based and also collaborating on the screenplay while he and NASA acted as consultants for the scientific aspects of space travel.
Presented in three parts, man is shown in conflict with nature, with himself and with machines of his own creation. The first part, titled the dawn of man, shows how the sentinel helped us evolve from submissive vegetarians to aggressive, tool using carnivores. In the second part we fast forward to the future, where we have just made the leap into space and there is an international space station orbiting Earth, when a discovery is made on the moon that directs man to explore further into outer space.
Released in 1968, one year before man first landed on the moon, the movie is a classic Stanley Kubrick film using his signature visual style with stunningly framed static shots depicting a very rigid, controlled and orderly world of precision, punctuated with jarring hand held moving camera shots that shows how at crisis moments our world can quickly breakdown into chaos due to our vulnerable and unpredictable, violent nature. You can see this same visual motif play out in all his other movies especially Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987).
The third part is presented in two sections; the first during an interstellar journey to Jupiter, two American astronauts must battle an advanced onboard computer when a conflict in its programing causes a malfunction that endangers the mission. In the second section the manned space ship eventually finds the sentinel again directing the remaining crew to the next phase in our development that takes him on a psychedelic trip through space and time.
When I first heard about 2001, it was being compared by many critics with the recently released and quickly becoming an iconic classic, Star Wars (1977). They were saying that not since 2001: A Space Odyssey had there been such an influential science fiction film. Naturally I was disappointed when I first saw it and noticed there were no laser beams, space battles, aliens, robots and light sabers. But it did have space travel, beautiful space ships, computers that talked and apes, which were close enough to Wookies. Incidentally, British make-up artist Stuart Freeborn, who created the ape masks for 2001: A Space Odyssey, also created Chewbacca’s mask and Yoda’s face for Star Wars.
Some films grow on you with each viewing and you see things that you may have overlooked before, or understand things that weren't clear to you before. 2001: A Space Odyssey had this effect on me and didn’t immediately capture me during my first viewing. The first time I saw it, the experience seemed quite boring because I had grown up watching faster paced and fantastic fantasy movies like Star Wars. But on repeated viewings, I began to appreciate it for its beautiful cinematography, and its realistic, bold and ominous vision and poignant story. Today, it's one of my favorite movies, but you have to go in with an open mind.
The thing that really impressed me about 2001 was its leisurely but deliberate pace. I was only subconsciously aware of it, and it seemed too slow at first, but once you accept it, you understand that this pace is there for a reason. Kubrick wants you to not only notice things in the frame but he gives you time to think about what he’s showing you while it’s happening, adding to the gravity of the images, which allows for a deeper connection to the places and characters.
Most movies today throw a barrage of images at you so fast, that your mind only gets a chance to process it all, well after the movie is over, but with movies like 2001, The Qatsi trilogy (1982 – 2002), and Samsara (2012), you have time to ponder the movie as it unfolds and you have time to appreciate the photography and the things that are being shown. This is important because it’s a story told visually and in many parts without any dialogue.
The interesting thing about 2001 is that it doesn’t take place on earth at all, or at least not on the modern earth that we know and there are very few people in the film. Only the first part takes place on a very primitive earth of prehistoric ape-men. After that, it all takes place on the moon and in space and with only one or two main characters in each segment. It’s a movie about individuals and ideas and feels quite lonely and cerebral with little emotional expression, yet we still feel the presence of Earth through the characters. The famous computer HAL 9000 has more emotional expression than the human characters in the film. The movie still holds up well visually, even with the modern advances in film making techniques.
The ending of the film has been the subject of much speculation about man’s destiny and we are left wondering what it all means, but that’s a good thing, as it makes one think and everyone has a different take on it. I don’t know if it’s the best film ever made but it’s certainly one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen.