2001: A Space Odyssey

There are very few motion pictures in the history of the medium that can match 2001: A Space Odyssey in the scope of its ambition. The few contenders from this decade that do come to mind, like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, “Part 8,” or even Alex Garland’s recent Annihilation, all feel consciously beholden in some way to writer-director Stanley Kubrick. Working with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke on 2001, Kubrick conceived a space adventure that would trace a long arc from humanity’s prehistoric origins to its final evolutionary leap millennia later.

The film begins with a three-minute overture where music plays over a black screen. Do not adjust your television, as the saying goes. In a story where a black monolith presides over human affairs in a godlike way, this black opening feels almost biblical, as if what were are seeing is the time before the Big Bang, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

It’s the kind of thing that would probably cause AMC to post a disclaimer outside its movie theaters nowadays, otherwise, people wouldn’t get it; they’d think something was wrong with their theater projector. 2001 did, in fact, inspire walk-outs when it first started screening. Indubitably, it’s a movie that requires patience.

When the first shot of the film finally fades in, it’s a different kind of sunrise we see: the sun rising over a crescent earth rising over the dark side of the moon. The appearance of the film’s title then transitions us into a sequence boldly proclaimed on-screen as “The Dawn of Man.” These words are followed by glimpses of a bone-littered landscape populated by tapirs, leopards with glowing eyes, and tribes of ape-like hominids.

Here again, the viewer must contend with the idea of humanity being an offshoot of a crude family tree, one that is still perhaps growing, if 2001’s ending has anything to say about it. Fifty years ago, seeing those hairy hominids after the “Dawn of Man” cue might have been disconcerting for members of the general public who were not yet fully on board with this whole theory-of-evolution thing. In addition to the overturning of Tennessee laws in 1967, petitions affirming official support for evolution among scientists were circulating in 1966, but it certainly had not gained as much widespread acceptance as it has now.

The thing is, the movie also puts forth a view of the universe where beings of higher intelligence can and do intervene in the evolutionary process. It’s not so much natural selection as it is cosmic selection that enables one tribe of hominids to master the art of the weapon in the “Dawn of Man” sequence. For whatever reason (maybe no reason at all other than random timing), the monolith manifests itself to that tribe. Is it survival of the fittest or survival of the luckiest: those blessed by an alien presence, some extraterrestrial ex machina with the ability to trigger evolutionary jumps?

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, another film whose reach toward 2001 exceeds its grasp, would depict a similar sort of cosmic intervention beside a waterfall in 2012 (the year the world was supposed to end, remember?) However, in 1968, it feels like something that could have potentially made the scientific community bristle, almost as much as creationists would have bristled at seeing a dawn of man where the men were all wearing gorilla suits.

The first time I saw it, as an opinionated teenager with less regard for cinema’s sacred cows, I dismissed 2001: A Space Odyssey as somewhat boring and overrated. The pulpy thrills of Planet of the Apes were more my cup of tea. I imagine other minds caught up in the kinetic energy of youth might have a similar reaction to these movies today. Maybe 2001 is just one of those films where your blood has to thin out and you have to age into it a little before you can develop a real appreciation for it.

I initially had a hard time surrendering myself to the film’s glacial, documentary-like pace and diffuse storytelling manner. It’s oddly structured: after the Dawn of Man sequence, it takes its time setting up the character of Dr. Floyd Heywood, only to drop his story abruptly and pick up a new plot line with the Discovery One space mission. No sooner does it weave these two strands back together than it sees fit to unravel the tapestry once again as it moves toward “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”

For me as a teen, the most interesting element of the film was HAL 9000, the artificially intelligent computer whose one red lip-reading eye has seen him linked to the figure of the Cyclops in Homer’s The Odyssey. Technology and all its myriad wonders and dangers are certainly at the forefront of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you watch the movie on a tablet, you’ll be watching the film that predicted that very form of technology, not to mention things like video chat and the moon landing.

It was 1969, the year’s after Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey were released, that Apollo 11 landed on the moon (“if you believe … they put a man on the moon” … and Kubrick didn’t fake the whole thing. I believe the former, the documentary Room 237 notwithstanding.) Science was advancing, but its forward charge toward the new millennium brought new existential concerns where we were forced to reexamine our place in the universe and how technology might come to rule our very lives.

In 2018, it almost seems like we are at a point now where civilization would collapse if a series of electromagnetic pulses destroyed the Internet and all our electronics. What would we even do with ourselves if that happened? Would we eventually revert to speechless brutes clad in loincloths like in Planet of the Apes?

Nowhere is the prospect of losing control to technology more frightening than in the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the two awake astronauts on board Discovery One realize that every aspect of their ship is under HAL’s control. When the computer with a man’s name starts to behave suspiciously and then exert his own will outright, the movie ventures into the realm of horror, exemplified by the chilling quote:

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Apart from this, the music of György Ligeti also makes 2001: A Space Odyssey sound like a horror movie at times. It assigns a great and terrible awe to the monolith. No wonder Gareth Edwards recycled some of that music for the H.A.L.O. jump scene in Godzilla.

If any of this sounds like superficial reading of 2001, like it’s not really getting at the core of the thing, it’s only because horror and technology and the horrors of technology were all I could see a young person. The movie would not reveal itself to me in deeper ways until I revisited it many years later as an adult.

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