Directed by Stanley Kubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey lives on in certain striking images, like the ape turning a bone into a weapon, HAL 9000’s termination or the astronaut, Dave (Keir Dullea) meeting himself in an austere royal bedroom.
Upon rewatching this movie what I was struck by was how almost unapologetically this film stitches (or doesn’t stitch) these moments together. There is no singular plot or character holding this altogether, and there doesn’t need to be. It is of course the brazenness of Kubrick’s vision, to alienate some viewers, that makes this both so confounding and magnetic.
Characters rarely seem to speak, and when they do it’s just more set-dressing. We don’t learn much important information from what they have to say, or if we do it just seems to be a purposeful detour from what the film is really about. In one scene we watch a man video chat with his young daughter from a space station. This is a character we will soon leave behind in favor of the more momentous section of the story, but his relationship to his daughter, and to Earth, can likely be assumed to be similar to that of the two astronauts who follow him in the narrative.
Taking a step back, we do open with the “Dawn of Man,” leading to the discovery of a bone as a tool. We see how this enables one tribe to beat to death the leader of another, i.e. survival of the fittest, before that famous match cut from the bone to the space station.
From there we follow Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) as he journeys to the moon to investigate a mysterious monolith, which we had already seen in the “Dawn of Man” sequence. When he and his fellow astronauts stand beside the monolith to take a photo, it emits a high-pitched radio signal which forces them to cower in distress.
And just like that we cut to 18 months later, following the Discovery One on its way to Jupiter. Onboard are five crew members, two of whom are awake while the others are in hyper sleep. These two are Dr. Dave Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). They are aided in their journey by a revolutionary new computer system, the HAL 9000.
Most of the time we spend them depicts the most mundane aspects of their daily life. We see them exercise, watch television and play chess with the computer. Their occupation is, dare I say it, boring.
It’s not until a report that HAL might have made an error (unless it’s a calculated mistake) that the two men debate disconnecting HAL if ‘he’ has indeed made a mistake. When Frank is outside, HAL severs his oxygen and sends him flying off from the ship. Dave goes retrieves his body, but upon his return HAL refuses to let him in and ‘jeopardize’ the mission.
Dave then gets creative and manages to make his way inside through an emergency hatch, and once inside he immediately sets to disconnecting HAL. It’s a long, silent but haunting sequence in which the slow-talking computer pleads for its life, eventually admitting to feeling fear.
Eventually Dave will find his way to Jupiter and get sucked into an abstract vision of colored lights. Before this moment he will learn that the Discovery One’s mission, which he and Frank weren’t aware of, was to investigate the radio signal sent from the previously seen monolith. If it hasn’t already been made clear, Dave is no longer in control, if he ever was.
The final sequence involves Dave finding his way forward in time, to a bedroom in which an older version of himself sits and waits, whether for him, for someone else or for nothing.
When he himself becomes that old man, he suddenly sees the monolith standing ominously in front of him. He reaches for it and turns into a “star child” as big as the Earth itself. The child blinks within a transparent womb and the film ends.
Describing this film will of course not do it justice. It’s an experience, both auditory and visually. The music, full of those famous orchestral, operatic pieces, is nearly overwhelming. It’s majestic and intimidating, all at the same time.
Then you have moments of long silences while we see one man fight for his life. You can really feel the infinite void that is space, and it’s a moment which emphasizes how small we are, all while the final sequence shows a baby as big as our entire planet.
The film forces us to reckon with our place in the universe and within our own lives. What are our objectives, what’s the meaning behind those goals, etc? In some ways, what’s the point? Though that is often just the surface-level response to some kind of existential crisis.
I think 2001 surely highlights all of these concerns and fears without answering definitively any of them because how could you? They are only there to be examined and felt but not so much rationalized. I mean, that’s just what I think.
Up Next: Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Atlantic City (1980), Spirited Away (2001)