2001: A Space Odyssey

Standing on the Brink

Film essay by: Witney Seibold


            “Space, it says, is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind boggling big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the street to the chemist’s but that’s peanuts compared to space.


            “The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination. Even light, which travels so fast that it takes most races thousands of years to realize it travels at all, takes time to journey between the stars. It takes eight minutes to travel from the star Sol (our Sun) to the Earth, and four years more to arrive at Sol’s nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Proxima.


            “For light to reach the other side of the galaxy – for it to reach Damogran, for instance – takes rather longer: five hundred thousand years.

             “Is that a long way or what?” 


                          -from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams


            The year is 1968. The Mercury Seven flew high about six years ago. Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth seven years ago. Also six years ago, JFK made a bold statement that Americans were going to go to the moon “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” The Apollo 8 mission was in high gear, and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were preparing themselves to go into space. “Star Trek” was still on the air. China, Russia, and the U.S. were all pouring money into their own space programs. Everyone wanted to be the first to reach the moon.

            In the late 1960s, the world was all abuzz with space. Everyone was looking to the heavens. Many thought that we humans were perhaps, finally, slipping the surly bounds of Earth and moving themselves permanently out into the vast map of the cosmos. Although the political competition in the Space Race was fierce (there probably would have been vast American shame if a Russian were the first in space and the first on the moon), a lot of the literature I have read from the day seems to indicate a higher sense of global optimism. We, humans, as a species, are finally growing up. We are no longer children in the universe but have used our intuition, guile, engineering prowess, and superior scientific observations to build a machine that finally takes us past the sky and allows us to touch the very distant planets we have only been able to see from afar with large lenses.

            Also in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick released their film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a gorgeous meditation on our place in the universe. It was a wildly popular film among film-going intellectuals, many critics, and the drug-addled youth. It was bold and daring and provoked thought and humility. It’s hard for modern audiences to think of a science fiction film in this way: most of us are used to the post-“Star Wars” era, when sci-fi had to be fast and noisy and thrilling. If we have a sci-fi film these days, it usually has to be rip-roaring. It takes a moment to remember that science fiction was once closely related to our own very real science ambitions and ideals, and not just our escapism.

            And Clarke had some very clear visions when it came to our ideals and ambitions. He and Kubrick (who co-wrote the screenplay together while Clarke was working on his solo novel in conjunction) wanted to remind us that, yes, moving into space in a grand step (and one that’s going to take place very soon; 1968 to 2001 is only 33 years), it may even be so bold as to suggest that space travel is the next step in human evolution, but also that the universe is a mite bigger than we think it may be. Going to the moon is an impressive task, but, well to take from the opening quote of this essay “that’s just peanuts to space.” No matter how easily we can travel vest distances, the universe will still be infinitely larger. We even are self-destructive along the way, having a very heavy love-hate relationship with our tools. We make them, they help us, but they also kill us from tie to time. And, after our grand, life-affirming journey, we learn that we are merely fetuses in the universe, a species now finally waiting to be born.

            (This is a common theme in Clarke’s novels. I recently read his Childhood’ End for the first time, a book about a race of ultra-advanced aliens who arrive on Earth, allow us to thrive, but ultimately are here to facilitate the next step in human evolution. The book is designed to show us that no matter how much we learn, or how happy we become, the universe is indifferent to our petty ambitions, and is designed to force us into new higher forms that we ordinarily wouldn’t like to contemplate)

            The year 2001, is now, in the year 2007, no longer a vast mythical future time, but a quaint overestimation by enthusiastic science authors. Many also see the film “2001” as a quaint film that reflects a childish 1960s idealism usually associated with flower children and unwashed hippies. The film’s extended “color collage” near the end only seems to confirm this. Many younger viewers even have trouble appreciating it even as a ‘60s curio; too many of my peers have expressed an outward and visceral dislike of the film (the word “boring” is applied to the film more often than any other adjective), and I have heard of an essay entitled something along the lines of “Why ‘2001’ robbed 2-and-a-half hours from my life.”

            When I saw it last, though, in a 70mm print at the Cinematheque, the theater was packed. Everyone was in awe of the film. I was sitting in the dark, with my peers’ opinions rattling around in my skull, wondering if I was the weird one for enjoying this film so much. Was this time I saw it going to turn me? Make me realize that perhaps the film is not as deep as I thought? As it turns out, no. More than ever I, and the rest of the audience, many seeing it for the first time on a big screen, were moved. The film did indeed give us the sense that we humans, by looking up, by aspiring, and by finally being humbled in the eyes of the hugely vast universe, that we are finally standing on the brink of something great.

            “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the great films of our age. A vastly important film full of important ideas, and one of the most technically impressive films ever assembled. Kubrick’s deliberate and ingenious craft is finally matured with this film, and the shots are stark and beautiful. “2001” probably contains more well-known shots than any other film. It is an icon.


The Dawn of Man


            “2001: A Space Odyssey” begins not 33 years in the future, but millions of years in the past when humans were still ape-like beings. A lot of time is devoted to showing the animal behavior that we humans engaged in, in the vast timeline of the planet’s life, not that long ago. We shouted at each other over water, we huddled in caves, we ate grass and bugs.

            One day a large black singing monolith appeared to us. What is it? Just a rock? Who put it there? Aliens? Why did they put it there? Who is to say? However, after we touch it, we start using tools. We can hit things with bones. This means we can kill the meat we need to eat. Build things if we wish, but more often smash things, including other bones and each other.

            In a not-so-subtle bit of symbolism, the bone used to commit murder is thrown into the air, and it becomes a space ship. It is now 2001.




            We now have the great waltz of space. Stanley Kubrick directed this scene with the plan of hiring a composer to write an original score (a score, incidentally, you can find in some record shops), using Strauss’ Blue Danube as a temporary track. In fact, all of the music in the film, including the famous bold opening notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra, was all part of the temporary scratch track. Kubrick, however, fell in love with the temporary music, and, in so doing, created one of the most famous soundtracks in film history. Rarely has music and sound been used so effectively to evoke mood and place (we often get scenes featuring just breathing, humming, singing, grunting, the winds howling, and the colors of Beyond the Infinite moaning). The grace of the moving space vessels, the glory of the achievement, and the slight foreboding of the killer tool all linger as we see the ships swerve and twist their way through the skies.

            It’s not until this point in the film, about 30 minutes in, that we finally have some dialogue and characters to latch onto. The first time we see the everyday mechanics of life in the future. The first time we see the technology (videophones, space buses, Velcro floors to keep flight attendants in place) that we usually associate with the genre. I think it was wise of Kubrick to hold off on this stuff. The wait allows us to put the era into context. Rather than dryly learning the rigid rules of a completely made-up mythos, Kubrick is allowing us to truly see this as our definite future.

            A brief aside on the pace of the film: Yes, “2001: A Space Odyssey” moves very slowly. But a slow pace does not mean a boring pace. Kubrick wanted to show us all the minutiae of the future in vivid detail. He wanted us to think about what the world might be like, and how we will live in it. He didn’t want to explain it to us; he never does in any of his films. He wanted to show it to us, and allow us to experience it. To denounce the film as “boring” is only to reveal your own disinterest in science, filmmaking, and philosophy.

            We see an astronaut going to the moon to investigate something. It turns out on the moon, there is an object that seems to have been deliberately buried there millennia ago. The object is the same monolith from the ape-man segment. Why has it been buried on the moon? And why does it screech when we touch it?

            We are now introduced to Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), the two astronauts on their way to Jupiter to investigate the source of the monolith’s mysterious signal. We see them exercising and, in a video interview, explaining life on long-distance space missions. This section of the film is the longest and constitutes the film’s center.

            The ship’s computer, the famous red-eyed HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) becomes obsessed with the mission. It’s not entirely clear at first, but HAL, with his cold and unreadable logic, seems to be quietly seething and scheming against the astronauts. HAL is the tool that will help us into space, but also cause our deaths. Our technology, if it be a bone or a thinking computer, is a dangerous step forward. We advance to be sure, but only at our own risk.

            HAL kills Frank Poole (the scene of Frank writhing around in space in a beautiful and chilling one). Dave uses the pod to retrieve his body. When he returns to the ship, HAL will not let him back in. Dave must abandon Frank’s body in the stars, make his way back into the ship, and disable HAL’s mind. The scene, in which Dave slowly and deliberately undoes HAL’s memory, while HAL can do nothing to stop him, is tragic and sad. HAL is not passionate, but can feel his mind slipping away. Eventually we see the once-great, and psychotic, artificial brain reduced to singing a quaint children’s song as his death overwhelms him. Daisy… Daisy… Give me your answer, do…

            Dave reaches Jupiter on his own.


Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite


            My mom informed me that, back in 1968, “2001” would regularly sell out, and ticket-takers were very strict about letting in some of the more, shall we say, chemically-altered filmgoers. However, theater staff would not be so attentive after the film’s intermission when many of said filmgoers would be able to sneak in unchallenged. Seeing only the second half of the film (a film with the phrase “The Ultimate Trip” printed on some of its posters, mind you) was fine by the stoner set, as this was when the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment would take place. The stoners would sneak in, lie on the floor in front of the first row of the sold-out house, take a few hits of whatever they had on them, and let the wave of freaky-deaky colors flow over them. Who knows what they were experiencing.

            This third segment of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the most ambitious, the most impressive, and the most opaque. Dave mumbles “My God! It’s full of stars!” and then is sucked into a floating space monolith. Colors swirl by for fifteen minutes.

            Dave is shown in flashes, experiencing all this. Is he traveling into another dimension? Is he hallucinating? Is he receiving a direct brain transfer of information from the monolith? Is he being whisked away to another part of the universe? The only thing we can say for sure is that he is indeed traveling. He arrives in a white room, still in his pod. He sees himself dining quietly. He sees himself much older. He sees himself ancient and dying in the same room. He sees himself reaching out for the monolith. Is he seeing his future? Is he going to live out his many, many years in that room, wherever it is?

            This dream state culminates in the replaying of those rising notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra, and the shot of an enormous space-faring fetus retuning to Earth.

            The symbolism is somewhat clear: we are but children in the universe. We go through our lives searching for an epiphany, finally realizing that the epiphany is our own lives. If we allow ourselves to grow in the often self-destructive, but ultimately beneficial way, we will grow into the mere babes we are. It may seem a little ham-handed, especially after the big hippie color trip-out, but, seeing it in it’s own beautiful deliberate entirely, one cannot help but feel a little sense of standing on the brink when watching “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

            Yes, the colors may not say much to the average viewer, but when I saw it last (and I was sober), I did get the rhythm of the film finally down. I understood the beats of the thing, if not the exact meaning. I understood that we were being taken on a mind’s journey that cannot be expressed in direct terms. We are experiencing something we are not yet sophisticated enough to understand. What we are seeing is beyond us. Not to imply that Kubrick was trying to talk down to his audience; far from it. Kubrick was trying to create the experience of learning in the abstract. New information, something we haven’t seen before, something we don’t know how to process. But something, we sense, is vastly important. Try reading some passages of Joyce, or perhaps, as a layman, NewtonPrincipia (a book deliberately designed to scare off laymen). The same feeling of being totally lost, while being totally surrounded by something horribly and immediately important will occur.


            This is one of the most technically impressive films ever shot. It incorporated rotating sets, large models, well-thought-out background details (like flashing video monitors), and some of the most striking and timeless science-fiction design ever put into a film. Kubrick was not just interested in making a sci-fi thriller, nor was he setting up some sort of philosophical polemic. He was creating an entire future universe, full of functioning machines, humans, computers, and ideas. It’s a snapshot of an era, but of an era that hasn’t quite happened yet. In the future, this is how people will behave; this is how they will live; this is how they will think and operate.

            A few might accuse Kubrick (as they often do) of being cold. If we wanted to see how people think, why do we not have them talking about it? Discussing it? Sharing it, and showing their emotions openly to the camera?

            Because, in a weird way, Kubrick’s deliberate universe is more real than one of chattering philosophers. How often do you really discuss the way you think, or your place in the universe? How often do you contemplate the ambivalent use of human tools or the way humans can rise above themselves? And, as the Nietzsche-inspired opening theme implies, how often do we aspire to come into ourselves? Kubrick allowed us to look ahead without the distracting dramatic tool of melodrama to cloud our vision.

            Kubrick notoriously shot his films over extended periods, using sometimes hundreds of takes on a single shot. Kubrick was a perfectionist, and it shows in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” probably as perfect as films come. The placement of the camera, the beats of the film, the music, the sounds, the acting, the ideas… nothing is extraneous or off-the-cuff or improvised that day. Everything in “2001” is just as it should be. Kubrick even, it is said, would go to theaters showing “2001” and demand to project it himself, making sure the light and sound were just thus, ensuring a perfect filmgoing experience.

            I encourage you to see it again. But don’t go for thrills. Don’t go for escape. Go to feel what the film wants you to. Meditate on what it is to be a space traveler. Understand that science fiction is much more than an outlet for escapist fantasies. Understand that it truly is a forum in which to discuss larger ideas.

             And the ideas are rarely larger than in the future of 2001.

Published in: on June 6, 2007 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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