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2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Often when someone is about to view the old Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey they're very unsure what to expect or what to do, knowing only the film's reputation for being difficult. Don't worry, technology that was esoteric and unfamiliar back then has become routine and common, and the viewing public's (and even professional reviewers') ability to understand what they see has grown manyfold. That old reputation garnered half a century ago simply doesn't fit any more; figuring out what happened?  is no longer much of an issue (although why it happened is as much a blank canvas as ever:-). Put your concerns aside and take a fresh look.

Suggested viewing hints

  1. Don't worry about following what happened?. The public's viewing skills are hugely better than they were half a century ago, and these days 2001 actually looks pretty simple. Most folks have somehow absorbed that an extraterestrial intelligence -in the form of a black monolith- began humankind's evolution by motivating a band of apes to begin using tools/weapons, then left a sort of interstellar alarm clock buried on the moon which signaled toward Jupiter when it was finally discovered, and lastly left circling Jupiter the entrance to a wormhole through space which delivered the remaining astronaut to where the extraterrestrials transformed and rebirthed him as a higher form of life.
  2. Don't search inside the film for what's it mean?. Although the film supports lots of different interpretations, no interpretation is baked in. Trying to ferret out the hidden meaning will just be an exercise in frustration and will get in the way of enjoying what's on the screen.
  3. Don't be surprised if your interpretation is unique - for this film there's no wrong answer. Watching this film's a bit like listening to a classical music concert: Likely you'll feel something, and in very general terms it may even be shared by some other people. But as you get more specific, agreement with other concert-goers dims and soon vanishes altogether. The old saw about everybody sees a different movie is especially true with 2001.
  4. Read the book. Perhaps surprisingly, it's rather different from the film - but even so, as the book and the film were co-created, the book sheds considerable light on the film. (Atypically, neither is the film an adaptation of a pre-existing book nor the book a novelization of a completed film.) Don't mistake the book for nothing more than a much longer version of the screenplay and so of no particular value.
  5. Keep the story of the Greek myth of Odysseus in the back of your mind.
Why is it historically important?
  • It redefined the science fiction genre. Previously the science fiction genre often meant juvenile monsters and titillation. Scientific accuracy and philosophical exploration -although common in science fiction literature- were largely new to science fiction movies.
  • It was a far bigger effort than most films of the times. (Kubrick focussed on 2001 for about five years!) Spending that much money, investing so heavily in effects, filming for such a long time, and employing that many people were quite unusual. In the context of the movie industry at that time, it was a blockbuster (or one could call it the Star Wars of its day).
  • It acquainted audiences with the idea of an impressionistic film experience (both visual and aural), a film with relatively unimportant dialog and little explication. Things such as interviews that could have placed the whole film in a larger context and narrations that could have set individual scenes were all deleted.
  • It (inadvertently?) skewed movie audiences younger. By taking younger people's concerns (why are we here?) and styles (ooh, look at the lights!) seriously, it cut itself off from the then-typical audiences who often found it some combination of boring, incomprehensible, and scandalous, and instead made movies more inviting to younger people.
  • It gave considerably more importance to special effects in movies. The realism, complexity and number of special effects were far more than anything else at the time. Special effects were so primitive that Kubrick and his crew had to invent almost all of the techniques themselves. At that time many reviews didn't mention the special effects at all, and many others only included a sentence or two praising them in a notably non-specific way, perhaps either because reviewers thought they weren't very important or because there wasn't yet broadly understood language to even describe them. But scan through any book about special effects, and 2001 will be featured prominently.

    (If much of this sounds a bit like an earlier edition of the Lucas/Spielberg/Coppola special effects revolution, perhaps that's not such a bad analogy.)
What doesn't translate well to today?
  • One thing that was fairly common back then but is largely incomprehensible now is concern with astronomical alignments (Sun earth and moon all in a row, Jupiter's moons all in a row, etc.). Back then many people thought such occurrences were somehow magical, and an even larger group of people were at least familiar with the idea. (Also, it's possible Kubrick wanted to make use of the effect simply because his technicians had mastered it even though it had never appeared in a feature film before.) Nowadays such a belief is unfamiliar to most, and when described is typically dismissed as simply loony.
  • Another thing that was a big deal back then but is largely incomprehensible now is worries about the militarization of space. Underplayed so much in the film it's easy to miss altogether (Kubrick didn't want anyone opining he'd made Dr. Strangelove II), the 2001 earth is ringed by orbiting satellites carrying A-Bombs (we see four of those satellites, the one in the second part of the famous tossed-bone-to-spacecraft match cut, and three more immediately after, before we see the space station or the shuttle). Mankind was prepared to blow up the entire earth with just a few minutes notice.
  • Yet another former commonplace that's now shifted is that humankind will expand to live elsewhere, or in other words that Man's place is among the stars. Talk of things like terraforming Mars and planting interstellar colonies used to be quite common. But nowadays the environmental thinking motivated by threats like Climate Change promotes ideas like this is the only planet we've got. And humankind is often viewed as just a part of the web of life that stumbled on the evolutionary strategy of exploiting intelligence as its means of bioligical survival.
What parts of the story were driven mainly by the special effects?
  • In the book, the spaceship Discovery travels to Saturn via a slingshot maneuver around Jupiter. But nobody could produce rings that looked good enough, so Kubrick redirected the expedition to have Jupiter be its final destination.
  • Lots of efforts were made in various ways to actually show the extraterrestrials. But in the end the extrasolar civilization was represented simply by the inanimate monoliths. This seems to be either because no makeup nor effect ever satisfied Kubrick, or because of a suggestion offered by Carl Sagan to mediate disagreement between Clarke and Kubrick on what the extraterrestrials looked like, or probably because of a little of both.
  • Originally the various monoliths were quite different, both from what we see and from each other; for example patterns a little like a school chalkboard were visible inside the monolith that visited the ape-men. (The monoliths were also at one point triangular, but that was deemed too reminiscent of the great pyramids.) Eventually Kubrick went simply with all the monoliths being completely black rectangles.
  • Because of the considerable makeup and shooting logistical difficulties, the Dawn of Man sequence -with multiple appearances by leopards- was greatly shortened and simplified.

    (Each of these turned out to be another bit of good luck that contributed to the timelessness of the film.)

Why were there so many critical opinions back then?
  • The style in films had been explication-heavy and relatively dialog-heavy, and the cold war had further encouraged that plainness. Although our media tried to steer clear of outright propaganda, their products typically painted a black/white picture with no grays. 2001 though blatantly flew in the face of all that.
  • As films and TV shows of that time were so simplistic and obvious, the viewing public never got to exercise their "viewing skills" and never had an opportunity to develop even a rudimentary ability to figure things out. So even though there are only a few events in 2001 and they are all pretty straightforward, back then lots of the viewing public (and more than a few reviewers) couldn't even figure out what happened?.
  • Some of the viewing public were offended (?) by the film. There were reactions such as It was only when you started waving that damn black two-by-four all over the screen that I got a little up-tight and Being a conservative, I found HAL 9000 a little uppity.
  • The film seemed to approve the idea that humans developed from apes, an idea associated with evolution and quite unpopular with large segments of the population.
  • The existing theater audiences took umbrage at something that seemed to not focus on their own age group.
  • In some minds the film became associated with unconventional behavior, recreational drugs and societal rebellion.
  • The film seemed to appeal to and give license to people whose spiritual or philosophical opinions were at best incomprehensible (if not just plain unacceptable) to polite society. To many, all these people crawling out of the woodwork seemed just plain loony.

What's great about it now?

  1. It's a gorgeous visual spectacle ...even moreso if you're able to see a restored 4K or 70 mm print on the big screen.
  2. The visual effects are impressive (even after half a century).
  3. It's an easy springboard to examining deep philosophical issues (for example why are we here?).
  4. It provides an immediate and simple entre into mindsets of the sixties.
  5. The style that emphasizes intuitive experience over dialog or explication has never become all that common. So this primo example of an experiential film may be a revelation anew.
  6. Even today, 2001's flouting of moviemaking conventions is remarkable. A sound track that's mostly either music, or breathing sounds, or silence??? Almost-hackneyed classical music and ultra-modern contemporary music intermixed??? Movie acts that to some don't even seem to be connected??? Abrupt cuts that turn out to cover the passage of millions of years??? So much emphasis on non-verbal communication that ambiguity runs rampant???
  7. It can absorb a lot of mindshare since nearly every individual element plays multiple roles; the whole film is a giant Rorschach Test. Just one example: Is the goblet hitting the floor and breaking telling us that even advanced creatures make mistakes? or that old age is approaching? or is it simply a way of diverting Dave's gaze from the table to an older Dave in the bed? or a symbol (as from Jewish weddings) that some sort of marriage of human intelligence and extraterrestrial intelligence is taking place and a birth will follow? or telling us that the improvement of mankind is ultimately futile, everything will eventually break? or that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette? or all of these and more? (And the multifaceted and interlocking construction of the film can't be waved away by simply saying layered, as in many cases the different possibilities aren't even similar enough that either could be on top of the other.)
  8. The overall story is so ambiguous interpretations can still be purely personal. Is it the story of an extraterrestrial intelligence that nudges the development of humans, sets a burglar alarm to ring when they've evolved emough technical sophistication to explore the moon, then examines the results after poking one man through a time-space wormhole? or is it a rebirth into a new stage of intelligence by thrusting our level up to the level of the extraterrestrials? or is it a cautionary tale about the continued development of mankind as technological giants but spiritual midgets, overly independent and with blunted interpersonal emotions? or is it a parable that at all stages of development the willingness to kill is paramount? or is it a story of continually striving over the millenia to overcome our animalistic nature but never quite doing so? or is it a warning that developing machines in our image (i.e. artificial intelligence) is not the next great leap forward but rather a dangerous dead end? or ...? (Interpretations are so wide open there's still not even agreement about the film's overall tone: optimistic or pessimistic?)

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