Watching 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) today, with a few exceptions, one would be hard-pressed to realize it was first released to theaters fifty years ago. The year 1968 has been called everything from The Year that Changed the World to The Year America Unraveled. For science fiction on the big screen, Stanley Kubrick’s (THE SHINING, 1980, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971) and sci-fi author Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s classic (and polarizing) sci-fi opus was a paradigm shift in this particular cinematic genre. The film was both hailed and derided by critics and myself when I first watched it with my Mom on TV (my issue was with the film's ending). I didn't fully appreciate this masterpiece until seeing it on the big screen years later at a twenty-four hour movie marathon with my friend Scott. Fifty years later, after so many references in modern culture and my own film reviews, it feels like a good time to give 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY its own entry in my humble canon. I might have gotten a wee bit carried away, as the following discussion has turned into a three-part opus where we unpack what makes this movie so special, to me at least. I should make one disclaimer before beginning: with the exception of eldest son Andrew, most of my family hates this film. They call it “the slow movie” because, well, it is.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY opens with the dawn of man four million years ago, and ends in the year 2001 as humans have developed (or been given) the ability for space flight, and the chance to evolve into something more (we'll get into that much later). The film only covers three points in time. The Dawn of Man, 1999, and 2001. The third section could be divided into "2001" and "Beyond" but who's to quibble? It’s a small but passionate group of fans that even cares. Each section is a connected vignette revealing how a mysterious alien intelligence affects the evolution of humanity from its animalistic beginnings to modern day, then finally to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite which is where this magnificent, if not dry tale of plausible future science takes a sharp right turn so mind-boggling deep that as a fifteen year old boy I scrambled to find a paperback of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, written in conjunction with Kubrick’s screenplay. I was relieved to discover that ending made a lot more sense. Again, more on that in a bit. First, let’s go back to the beginning, of everything.
THE DAWN OF MAN
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY opens on a grandiose note: the opening chords of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. These few stanzas have become synonymous with the film over the decades. The sun, moon and Earth align with each other in the first of three moments in the film where heavenly bodies align with the large black obelisk we'll meet in a moment.
Once the opening score is complete, brief as it is, we are staring at a vast landscape to which the cinematographer often returns as a way of implying the slow passage of time. Living on these plains are boars and pigs, humanoid ape-like creatures and the occasional predator. Apes (calling them hairy proto-humans irritates my spellchecker) live their quiet lives foraging for plants and berries alongside the pigs and spend their nights huddled together against the incursion of any potential enemy. Their leader, known in the credits as Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter, THE REVOLUTIONARY, 1970, THE U.S. VS JOHN LENNON, 2002) because of his habit of staring at the moon at night, watches over his clan. There are other clusters of apes living in other areas, and they occasionally clash over a source of water or better foraging ground. These "fights" are mostly screaming and physical posturing without actually touching each other.
The makeup for these early humans is much different than another film from the same year, THE PLANET OF THE APES (1968). The makeup, especially the facial prosthetics, use a similar approach of attaching to the face at key points so the "mask" moves with the actors’ expressions and speech. Here, the design is less to mirror actual apes than early humans. Nose and mouth are flatter, more caveman than monkey. The overall effect, when actors just as Richter snarl or scream in close-up, is frightening. These aren’t B-movie characters with elongated foreheads and leopard skin costumes, but a view into how actual prehistoric humans might have looked. Interestingly, children are represented using actual chimpanzees.
Like all of the movie, this section of the film takes its time progressing the story, illustrating the extended routine of life before anything is introduced to shake everyone up. Five minutes of ennui to illustrate years or centuries of halted evolution and, perhaps, the slow dying of a species. These human creatures are no more significant than the rest of their compatriots on the plain. And I just used "ennui" in a sentence for the first time. This means I'm cool.
All of that changes in one of the most brilliant scenes in cinema. Moon Watcher and his clan open their eyes one morning to discover something utterly alien in their midst. A black, twenty-foot rectangular obelisk standing in the clearing of their rocky home. A dozen apes scurry out from the rocks, circle the object. It stands starkly against its surroundings, the arrival having occurred so silently everyone simply woke at their usual time with nothing triggering their deer-like skittishness. One moment it is not there, then next it simply is.
The ape-creatures scream and circle it, tossing handfuls of dirt as a show of bravery. All the while a beautiful and terrifying chorus of men’s voices serenades the viewer, growing louder and louder, the voice of heaven and hell combined then screaming, reaching a crescendo where it is not simply music but the obelisk itself, communicating in some ethereal way inside the creatures' minds. This adds an overall eeriness, even terror, to the scene. The chorus is used by Kubrick to good effect, whenever the obelisk makes its appearance.
As the early humans touch the obelisk, tentatively at first then holding their hands longer upon, they’re soon caressing it like penitent worshipers at an altar, and the screaming chorus swells.
As if this was too much excitement for one movie, everything goes suddenly back to normal. The obelisk is gone and things are the same for a couple more scenes until Moon-Watcher discovers the use of bones as a weapon. In flashes we discover the intelligence behind the object has implanted the knowledge into his mind, or is perhaps communicating directly with him in the moment. He learns – is taught – how to use the jawbone of a dead boar as a weapon. Eventually, this is used to kill the leader of an invading clan. When this happens, he and his small group have become the predators. Everything has changed.
ACT TWO: 1999
One thing I appreciate about this film – final scene excluded, because that seriously needed a little more explanation for first-time viewers – is that it expects you to have a brain and figure things out. We go from an ape man throwing a bone into the air, to a satellite orbiting the Earth and political fixer / scientist Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester, who later appeared as character actor in a myriad of TV shows) being carried in a space shuttle on an uneventful trip into orbit to rendezvous with a space station.
The space station is one aspect which has always fascinated me. The attention to detail is amazing here, from the unfiltered sunlight slamming against its surface, to incomplete sections of the spinning ring exposed to space because they are under construction. Not to mention the spinning itself, creating artificial gravity by centrifugal force. Outside and in, with its curved floors, a brilliant and scientifically-accurate set. Granted, we haven't proven that a spinning ring would create artificial gravity, but it’s a decent assumption.
Product placement is rampant here, but not for profit. In fact, it was not until much later that director Steven Spielberg realized how much money could be made showing company products in movies. Here, Kubrick probably got permission, but received no compensation for using corporate names. Pan Am’s orbiter (the space shuttle) carries Dr. Floyd from Earth to the station. There, he uses a Bell Atlantic video phone to call home, while guests can stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel. The director wanted realism but, ironically, by the actual 1999 all companies depicted here were gone.
There is an aspect of Act Two which has often pushes viewers away, enticing them to find a movie with more action. Kubrick did not want to show space travel as unrealistically exciting, with glowing engines and whooshing rockets. He understood the entire experience would be ninety-eight percent monotony. Most filmmakers would choose the remaining two percent for their films. Not Kubrick. Played out to the tune of an uncut Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II, the majority of the second act is Dr. Floyd sleeping, then reading instructions on how to use the toilet, eating through a straw, reading papers and talking to the captain. Most of the action comes from the flight attendants walking around in zero gravity with their magnetic shoes. Everything, the trip to the station, the quietly tense exchange onboard with some Soviet scientists asking why the American moon base has cut off communication, to the flight from the station in a round, spherical shuttle to the moon base - is an exercise in bringing the viewer as close as possible to experiencing the grand majesty of a future traveling through the stars, including a taste of its mundane sameness. This near future is not space-opera sleek. There is distance between things out there, and it takes time. The director's goal is to intrigue us with speculation about what our existence could be if only we kept reaching, but not do so unrealisitically. Science fact, not fiction. This near-future is attainable. And, at times, dull and uneventful.
Even so, Kubrick and Clarke’s optimism is contagious, as long as one is still watching the movie at this point and not angry because after a rather uneventful (aside from the obelisk scene) bit with the cavemen, one has to watch the uneventful flight of a boring politician across the vastness of space. I wasn’t. I knew as a teen it was probably the closest I’d come to being there. (A bit of a pessimistic view, but ultimately right, so far.)
Detractors of the film aside (they would have stopped reading this review long before this point), the world was ready for SPACE ODYSSEY in April of 1968. The Apollo space program had been going full steam. People were tacking up close-up photographs of the moon with vistas hitherto seen only from Earth. In eight months, Apollo 8 was going to orbit the moon. Men wouldn’t walk its surface until the following year but suddenly, on the big screen, we see the inevitable fruits of a burgeoning space program. The glory of humanity moving into space. Not just Americans, either, but the entire world.
It was a nice thought. Fifty years later there are renewed inklings it might still happen (we have an International Space Station, cramped as it is). The new path to Kubrick and Clarke's vision may be the direction implied in the film: private corporations, making money in space like Pan Am and Howard Johnson's. As of this writing some companies are in the early stages of a corporate space race.
From the stark plains of the previous act, the ballet of space flight from Earth to station, then station to moon, to the eventual third act's stark emptiness of deep space, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a beautiful cinematic experience, and made for the big screen. If you have a chance to see this in a theater, even if that means a friend’s home theater, give it a try. Its true nature will come to life. The rotating space station is set against the massive shining globe of Earth, then during its waltz with the Pan Am shuttle the scale of the satellite on a human level is revealed. Everything is relative, scene to scene. Majestic in scope, but never larger than life could one day be.
There is no musical director listed in the film’s credits, because aside from Kubrick himself there is none. He had originally commissioned popular composer Alex North (SPARTACUS, 1960) for the score, but eventually decided to use existing, classical compositions like the opening’s Also sprach Zarathustra and this part's Blue Danube Waltz, editing the shots to fit the music, rather than the other way around.