I have never before seen a film by Stanley Kubrick, but I know that he has made many classics. The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and this movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie was, for lack of a better word, bizarre.
In the first few minutes of the film the screen is just left blank, with classical music playing. Then we get a shot of the Earth, the moon, and the sun, and the classic song Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or “Sunrise” as it’s more commonly known today:
From this film we also have another classic song, The Blue Danube, or An der schönen blauen Donau (By the Beautiful Blue Danube) :
Now these songs are not originally from 2001: A space Odyssey, but their featuring in this film made them well known songs in pop culture, even into today.
Anyways, after the music and the title displays we are brought to the scene of the dawn of man. The apes we came from are relatively peaceful, the do not seem to be aggressive or violent toward other animals, including other apes, and in fact are hunted by other predators. Eventually, out of nowhere, a large, black monolith appears before a group of apes. It is unknown what this monolith is meant to do or why it is there, but the apes are drawn to it, cautious at first but slowly investigate it. While that has little significance now it does potentially have some metaphorical meaning behind it, which I’ll talk about later.
Soon after the event we see the apes start to use bone tools to improve themselves. They start to hunt animals and consume their flesh as food. In addition the apes with the tools become much more aggressive toward other apes, even resulting to violence and killing to lay claims on territories. In all this portion of the film takes up about the first twenty minutes or so, and while it does have its significance can be a bit slow at times.
Cut to space, and Kubrick now shows us how far man has come (here is where we hear The Blue Danube for the first time in the film). We have various types of space craft, showing that in the future we now have begun to take a foothold in this new frontier. And now, back on the moon man finds the monolith once again, buried under the surface. Where as before the apes approached the monolith with caution, the humans come up to it without any hesitation, and soon after a loud screeching tone is played through their space helmets.
Now jump to 18 months later, on a mission to Jupiter, a voyage of five human astronauts (three in hibernation, the other two are awake and helping to maintain the ship) and one on-board AI, HAL 9000 (or just Hal), a supercomputer that is known to never make an error. The opening scenes of the Jupiter Mission section of the film were probably some of my favorite parts of the film, in particular the scenes in the centrifuge part of the ship.
When we first see inside the ship we see one of the astronauts, Frank, running laps around the ship. As this is happening the camera remains stationary, minus the part of it following Frank around the centrifuge. At another shot of this scene the camera is now running behind Frank, showing the room looping by him as he runs. But perhaps the best scene here is when the other astronaut, Dave, is coming down the ladder into the centrifuge and we see Frank sitting on the other end, or what we see as “the ceiling,” and then Dave proceeds to walk around to where Frank is sitting.
I had figured when watching this that in the studio Kubrick probably had a system in place that allowed the room to rotate, sort of like a giant hamster wheel, as well as have stacks for cameras to move around on in various ways. And it turns out that’s exactly how he did it. I personally enjoyed seeing a behind-the-scenes look at it, so in case you wanted to see it for yourself (starting around 6:15, ending around 13:00):
Eventually Hal claims to detect that there is a potential malfunction with a component of the communications relay. When Frank and Dave begin to examine the supposedly broken piece of equipment they can find nothing wrong with it. This concerns the astronauts, so in a pod where Hal cannot hear them talk they discuss whether or not they should shut down Hal. If Hal is beginning to malfunction it could mean that other systems in the ship (Hal runs most of them automatically) will begin to fail before they can achieve their mission. Unfortunately the pod they are in has a window, and Hal sees what they are saying by reading their lips.
As Frank goes to put the piece of the comm relay back, Hal takes control of one of the maintenance pods and shoves him out into space, cutting his oxygen line in the process. On seeing this Dave attempts to go retrieve him, and while he is away getting Franks body Hal cuts the life support for the other three hibernating passengers. Now, stuck outside the ship, Dave is the only one left. He soon manages to make his way back on, but now he must shut down Hal before any more harm can be done.
When Hal dies, a prerecorded broadcast comes on for Dave. It informs him of the purpose of their mission, previously known only to Hal. Their mission was in relation to the black monolith found on the moon, which had been sending radio waves out toward Jupiter. They believed it to be a sign of intelligent life. Sure enough, once Dave makes it out to the space around Jupiter he finds another of the monoliths floating around. And here, in the last half hour of the movie, is what makes me say that this film is best described as “bizarre.”
Upon approaching the monolith Dave begins to see lights of all colors running past him (a scene which has been referenced many times since this in many other media). occasionally we’ll see a brief flash of Dave’s horrified face, showing that he has no concept of what is happening to him. Then, after this “star gate sequence,” Dave finds his pod in a white room, furnished with a bed, chairs, and other common household items. As he looks around he eventually sees himself in the room, still wearing his space suit, though it is an older version of himself. Then we take the perspective of this older Dave, and now the pod is gone from the room. As he explores around he sees, in the main room, a still older version of Dave. He is now wearing a black bathrobe, sitting at a table eating a dinner. Then this Dave sees an ancient, dying Dave lying in the bed. And what does this Dave see? The monolith, standing at the foot of the bed, and Dave reaches out to try and touch the monolith. Then, in the next shot, where Dave once was there is a giant fetus in the bed. Finally, we see this fetus floating in space above the Earth, looking down at it.
And this here is the end of the film, followed by credits, and then more music accompanied by a black screen.
To be honest this ending seemed quite strange and puzzling. I didn’t get it really, rather I was just put off by its lack of explanation. Later I went to go look up an explanation of the film and it actually makes some sense in a way, but it’s still kinda weird.
So apparently the monolith is meant to be a machine sent by aliens to watch humans as they grew and evolved. In the beginning we see the apes before they have truly begun their journey into humanity. They are very cautious and curious about the monolith. Later, after humans have begun to travel space, they approach the monolith with, as the video describes, arrogance and confidence that they have acquired though they have not yet mastered space, thus adding a symbolism to the screeching that the astronauts hear in their helmets.
Later on the room that Dave finds himself in at the end of the film is supposed to symbolize that man is not yet matured enough to have a mastery of space, that they are out of their element and that they must ascend to a higher level of existence (or something like that). While masters of Earth they are but wee little babies in terms of holding space.
Also another little theme that the film touches on that I liked was how the human characters interacted with Hal. Even though Frank and Dave mention that Hal is only programmed to appear to have emotion in order to be easier to talk to, it seems like he is a being that can think on his own. Despite this, and despite times where Frank and Dave think of Hal as another person, there are moments where the treat him with a level of disrespect, like Hal is only there to help them out, rather than an actual companion with emotions. Emotions that can be harmed when you treat someone as less than a person.
Looking back at when Hal claimed that there was a problem with the comm relay, it is entirely likely that he knew full well that there was no problem with the communications. In fact it may have been part of his own plan to get rid of the humans on board, which Hal may have seen as a hindrance to the mission at hand. Humans needed food, sleep, and oxygen to stay alive, but a computer had no need for those things. Humans are inefficient, especially compared to a flawless computer like Hal.
Even in the end, as Dave is shutting him down, Hal keeps saying that he doesn’t want to die, that he is scared. Hal’s memory starts to fade, and if a computer could cry i imagine he would be doing so. And as he begins to fade, he asks Dave if he would like to hear a song. Dave says that he would, so as Hal finally dies he is singing Daisy Bell. This moment is truly a sad one, for even though Hal was just a little red light we still saw him as someone who was real.
In summary 2001: A Space Odyssey was a good film to watch, definitely what I would call a classic. It has made a big impact on many, with references to it showing up all over the place in pop culture. However it does have some very slow moments in it. I realize that Kubrick wanted to make sure that everything was well established and the scene set up for the viewer, but I feel like quite a bit could be cut down, making a two-and-a-half hour movie into one that’s possibly a half-hour to an hour shorter. Would I go watch it again? Maybe once more, but not any time soon, though this movie was a great experience the first time through.