Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick
By Marilyn Ferdinand
2001: A Space Odyssey is a true landmark in the history of filmmaking. Eschewing conventional storytelling techniques and showcasing the most technically accurate environment ever committed to film to that point (including defying the movie convention that there is sound in space, which, of course, there is not), all without the use of computer animation or manipulation, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental achievement still has not been bettered in its genre. It looks better, probes deeper, and unsettles more effectively than any scifi film—or many other types of movies, for that matter—I can think of.
Yet, I have read more times than I ever expected to how boring 2001 is, how pretentious, how unengaging. It blows my mind that I even feel the need to defend this masterpiece, but perhaps that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece—even now, audiences have not caught up with it. Like every great work of art, it continues to challenge, confound, and inspire. So, I’m here to try to show you what I see in this work and try to convince naysayers to give it another go.
The story can be summed up fairly easily. Starting in prehistory with the emergence of proto-humans, we see apelike men and women in a pack feed at a water hole somewhere in Africa and squabble with other family groups. One day, a piercing vibration attracts one pack. A mysterious black monolith has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Fearing it at first, then fascinated, the members of the pack end up stroking and hugging the object. Shortly thereafter, they learn to use tools. They learn to kill their rivals with these tools.
In the longest flash-forward in movie history, we find ourselves on a space shuttle, empty except for one sleeping passenger and the shuttle’s crew. The passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), is on his way to the moon to investigate a strange phenomenon—a monolith like the one we saw in prehistoric Africa has been dug up. It, too, emits a powerful electromagnetic burst that the men on the moon find piercing.
Eighteen months later, we are on a spaceship headed for Jupiter, where the burst from the moon’s monolith was aimed. Two astronauts, Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), are active on board, while three of their colleagues are in hibernation to conserve energy and food. The HAL 9000 computer watches over the entire ship, its flawless brain, calm voice (supplied by Douglas Rain), and vacant pinpoint of a red eye making it the sixth member of the crew. One day, HAL seems to go a little wacko with power and decides the human component of the mission is flawed and needs to be jettisoned. HAL kills everyone but Dave. Dave then “kills” HAL. The mission to Jupiter continues, where Dave finds the monolith that received the transmission from the moon monolith. What happens to Dave may signal a change in the course of human evolution.
What I love about Stanley Kubrick is his macrocosmic engagement with humanity, not just its situation comedies and dramas. Even when his films zero in on specific characters (e.g., Barry Lyndon  and Eyes Wide Shut ) he successfully links their actions into the larger scheme of things. 2001 is the apex of his engagement with human existence, spanning as it does the first appearance of human beings to what appears to be a rebirth as another, more evolved form. Not only does 2001 examine the ultimate challenge of the human project—understanding the nature of life in the universe—but it also creates ultimate images of enormous beauty and power that seem prescient when compared with photos taken by the Hubble telescope at the outer reaches of the solar system, for example, the so-called stargate of speeding and swirling colors. He also seems able to mine innerspace, creating an environment for Dave that is both alien and familiar to reflect the singular experience the astronaut is going through.
Kubrick was known for his incredible skills with a camera, starting his working life as a photographer and managing, from his very first directorial effort, every aspect of the images in and about his films—from camera movement and framing to movie posters and marketing literature. He uses his circular setting and sweeping camera work—for example, following Frank as he jogs and shadow boxes on the ship’s circular deck—to create a sense of disorientation, even alienation, in the audience.
He was a true visual artist with a strong appreciation for fine art. Art shows up in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which features Kubrick’s wife’s paintings adorning the walls of the Harfords’ Manhattan apartment, and in 2001, in which Dave’s drawings of the ship and his hibernating colleagues are critiqued by HAL as showing improvement. In fact, they are very good, and in this, one of many small details, Kubrick signals a major theme in 2001: the hubris that comes from assumed superiority.
This exchange between a television interviewer talking with the crew and HAL sums up the philosophical issue Kubrick is exploring:
Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?
HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.
The television interviewer comments that he detects a certain pride HAL has in his abilities and asks Dave and Frank whether HAL has real feelings. Dave answers that HAL is programmed to behave in a humanlike way to make the mission easier to manage for its human crew, but whether HAL actually has feelings is anyone’s guess.
The way Kubrick directs this film clearly shows that he believes HAL has feelings, maybe more than his human protagonists do. I can feel a presence, an intelligence beyond programming, in the red aperture HAL uses to keep watch on everything. Unbelievably, HAL does seemingly make a mistake when a part the computer predicted would fail proves to be in full working order. Dave and Frank, fearing for HAL’s competence, make the hard choice to disconnect his higher functions and proceed on their own. Like any sentient being, HAL fights for his life when he kills Frank and the hibernating crew members, and attempts to lock Dave out of the ship.
HAL’s pride is severely damaged by his mistake and Dave and Frank’s loss of confidence in him. In addition, HAL is the only crew member who knows the true purpose of the mission to Jupiter—to contact what scientists believe is an extraterrestrial life form. HAL may even feel threatened by aliens that might be more intelligent than he is; after all, he was programmed by human beings who didn’t send monoliths all over the solar system. HAL’s hubris, then, is his tragic downfall, leading to the most poignantly disturbing scene in the film. When Dave enters the giant computer to disconnect HAL’s higher functions, HAL tries to reason with Dave, reassure him. Then realizing that the end is near, he pleads, “I’m afraid” and repeats over and over that he can feel his mind beginning to go: “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
Where HAL takes his mission very personally, the humans seem relatively unconcerned. For example, Frank half-listens to a transmission from his parents wishing him a happy birthday and politely acknowledges HAL’s birthday greeting. Dr. Floyd is the essence of chilly politeness as he deflects questions about his mission from several Russians he meets on the space station that is the waypoint between Earth and the moon. The entire scene is deeply superficial, projecting a jaundiced view of humanity that began when the first proto-human clubbed another back in the African prologue.
Kubrick saves his awe for the things we can’t know. Does HAL have feelings? Is there other life in the universe? Are we being watched? He is, so far, the only filmmaker who has captured the awesome nature of space. With so many stunning images, I went nuts trying to choose the photos for this article.
The Space Baby—an obviously conscious, aware being waiting to be born—has to be one of the most primal and effective images in film history, perhaps even human history. It has invaded my dreams more times than I can remember, particularly at times when I was going through a sea change in my life. It is an archetype of enormous power. The alignment of heavenly bodies illuminated by a dawning sun is inspired and breathtaking. The monoliths themselves, those mysterious, black, featureless slabs, tap into the unconscious, both fascinating and frightening. The image of Frank in his orange space suit and blue shoes, struggling with his severed air hose and then spinning lifelessly in the vastness of space, is a nightmare made real.
Kubrick’s musical choices tell his story with the utmost beauty and economy. The optimistic view of humanity’s progress in space just after the prologue is accompanied by the buoyant sounds of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” waltz. The intrusion of the alien presence is scored by the hair-raising atonalities of Romanian composer György Ligeti. Richard Strauss’ heroic rendering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the superman and will to power, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” perfectly conveys the hubristic dimensions of the narrative.
There isn’t a detail in this film that’s extraneous. Therefore, while dialogue is spare, a wealth of information is being imparted to us visually, aurally, and through the emotions of the unconscious. The everyday world discourages a deep connection to any of these senses, preferring that we put them in service of everyday tasks that ultimately have little meaning. Through 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has given us both the time and the space to reconnect with our grandest aspirations.