After a Half-Century ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Still Challenges

Dirk Hooper
Oct 22 · 8 min read
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

In a career that brought us such films as “A Clockwork Orange,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket,” it is important to note that no film is more synonymously identified with Stanley Kubrick than his film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

What began as an attempt to create the ultimate science fiction movie transcended the genre that inspired it and is now regarded as one of the best motion pictures ever made. What is it about “2001: A Space Odyssey” that has allowed it to endure despite the fact that it was created before the first moon landing and subsequent decades of advances in special effects and audience tastes?

“2001: A Space Odyssey” was released in 1968 by MGM studios. All 139 minutes of the film play out with great attention to detail and slow-moving perfection.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

Stanley Kubrick directed this film with such flair and conviction that it would now be referred to as self-indulgent filmmaking. The pace of the film is paramount to the theme and mood. One of the reasons “2001” has transcended the genre is due to its scope. This is a film about the infinite, a film about the vastness of space, and our place in it. Only by presenting the film in the manner it was presented could Kubrick achieve the level of awe and introspection that “2001” inspires.

The effects in the film have held up incredibly well, which is fortunate because so much in “2001” relies on believable effects. While nominated many times for directing, writing and producing, Kubrick won his only Academy Award for designing and directing the film’s special effects.

Other parts of the film have almost become prophetic. Dr. Heywood Floyd uses a videophone on the space station and is subjected to voiceprint recognition, two technological advances that have actually been developed before the actual year of the movie. The attention on effects and advances in science lends a timeless quality and sense of realism to the movie.

The music in “2001:A Space Odyssey” serves a very important role as well. Whether it is Also Sprach Zarathustra that plays behind the ape-man's moment of revelation or the docking sequence in space set to The Blue Danube, Kubrick made several deliberate decisions regarding the selection of the film’s score which have served not only to enhance the film but also to help re-define the classic symphonies.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

The classic songs were originally used as a temporary track while editing the film and Kubrick chose to keep them instead of using the original score composed by Alex North. Again, the inclusion of classic music, as opposed to a new score, gave the film a timeless quality and expanded its scope.

Several clues suggest that the Minimalism art movement, that occurred primarily in New York during the early to middle sixties, influenced Kubrick. Minimalism was a direct reaction to the abstract expressionist art movement where the artist’s individual qualities were celebrated. Minimalism sought to strip away all of the artist’s individuality in favor of the art itself. It also attempted to reduce artwork to its most basic formal elements.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

Kubrick’s attention to long static shots, monochromatic sets, and sparse editing are examples of how minimalism could be applied to film. While it can be debated whether or not Kubrick’s direction of “2001” was influenced by Minimalism, it can not be denied that the monolith that appears throughout the film is a piece of minimal sculpture that would look comfortable beside anything that Donald Judd created.

Stanley Kubrick’s considerable talent as a director is demonstrated in one of the tense final scenes of the movie. Frank Poole has been killed by HAL and Dave Bowman has returned to the Discovery to confront the computer killer. Once gaining access to the Discovery, Kubrick makes the most of this intense moment.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

The Discovery’s lights are now all red as Dave walks through the halls. The viewer can only hear two things, Dave’s agitated breathing within his space helmet and HAL’s calm pleading voice asking, “What are you doing Dave?” The camera is placed below eye level and is tracking with Dave, unlike most of the rest of the film where the camera is placed far from the action.

Once Dave enters HAL’s “mind” the lighting is pure red, camera angles become erratic and editing is quicker than at any other time in the movie, which serves to disorient the viewer. As HAL’s mind begins to wane, the camera angles become more controlled and the pacing becomes evener.

The scene switches from being tense to emotional and the soundtrack to HAL’s demise is his slurred rendition of “Daisy Bell.” (Side note: In 1961 “Daisy Bell” was the first song that a computer ever sang, clearly not an accident.)

The effect of the slower pace, controlled camera, and HAL’s haunting song create sympathy for HAL despite his previous actions.

The scene concludes with a hidden message about the true purpose of the mission that illuminates the chamber in a bright white flickering light. In this case the light literally and figuratively represents the truth. Kubrick takes the scene from tense to dramatic with the skill of a master director.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

One of the major themes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is technology and its effect on humanity.

The bone, used as a weapon at the beginning of the film becomes a long bone-white military spaceship of the future. It’s a weapon-to-weapon cut. Time has progressed and so has man’s tools. However, the question becomes has man matured along with his gadgets?

HAL is very much the focus of this debate. The artificially intelligent computer boasts that no series 9000 computer has ever made an error, and then proceeds to make a simple error that forces the computer to assess his worth versus the worth of the other human members of the crew.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

A question is raised as to how Bowman and Poole feel about HAL’s emotive responses and if they believe he has true feelings, in effect asking if HAL is indeed human or just pretending.

In the end, HAL shows very human emotions, including revenge and fear. Perhaps HAL’s newfound humanity created the first 9000 series error. His humanity eventually leads to his downfall and once again one of humanity's gadgets was used for the same destructive means as the bone was millennia ago.

The primary theme of “2001” is humanity’s evolution. Life, death, and rebirth are alluded to in many ways.

Dr. Haywood speaks with his daughter about her upcoming birthday. Dave Bowman’s parents mention the birthday he will miss and that they will cover him on the presents. As HAL dies he mentions the day he was first activated and gained sentience.

“2001” begins with ape-men, transitions to modern man and ends with the star child. The monoliths serve as “road signs” to guide humanity’s development, invisible hands have created these signs and strategically placed them to give enough information to facilitate evolution at the right time.

Near the end of the film Bowman enters a stargate, witnesses the big bang, sees the planets evolve from gasses into something tangible and then becomes humanity’s representative.

The transitions of Dave Bowman’s life, from an adult male in his prime to a senior citizen, to a man on his death bed explores humanity’s evolution.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

Bowman becomes the star child after witnessing the final monolith. His space odyssey ends with him becoming the physical incarnation of humanity’s next evolutional step.

Roger Ebert’s review of “2001” addresses this theme,

What Kubrick is saying, in the final sequence, apparently, is that man will eventually outgrow his machines, or be drawn beyond them by some cosmic awareness. He will then become a child again, but a child of an infinitely more advanced, more ancient race, just as apes once became, to their own dismay, the infant stage of man.

2001: A Space Odyssey Movie Review (1968) | Roger Ebert

Simply put, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the best films ever made. The American Film Institute ranked “2001” as number 22 in the one hundred best films of all time.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Kubrick should have felt very flattered indeed. George Lucas used a shot similar to the opening shot of the Discovery in his opening shot of a Star Destroyer in “Star Wars.” The beginning scene of Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part 1” has a direct parody of Kubrick’s film. “Contact” had a stargate sequence that was very similar to “2001’s” sequence, although 30 years of special effects advancements failed to deliver anything particularly new to the scene.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Stanley Kubrick Productions

“2001: A Space Odyssey” stands as a singularly unique film. One of its most enduring features is the ambiguous nature of the ending; it is what separates this film from other films that seek to explore our place in the universe. It leaves you with far more questions than answers. This was intentional.

Kubrick said,

How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.

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Because Stanley Kubrick sought to release us from the shackles of reality, he has set us free to interpret “2001: A Space Odyssey” in any way we desire, and for those who wish to explore, there is still a great deal to discover.

Hello, my name is Dirk Hooper. I have a deep passion for writing that has led me to win a few awards. I’ve had work published at Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, Business Insider, Quartz, The Sporting News, and much more.

In addition to writing, I’m a professional photographer and artist, a consultant for adult marketing and branding, and an audio talent.

My love for words extends to reading as well. Let’s connect!

You’ll see stories on writing, motivation, entertainment, life, business, marketing, art, kink, and poetry on my Medium profile.

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Dirk Hooper

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Professional Award-Winning Writer, Adult Branding & Marketing Consultant, Award-Winning Photographer, Artist, Audio Talent, Journalist & BDSM mentor.

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Asymmetrical words and thoughts on film, television, streaming, books, anime, comic books, games, and more, with a heavy emphasis on science fiction, fantasy, horror, and anything else that’s cool.

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