Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a masterpiece in the simplest definition of the term. The film is a work of extraordinary skill, a significant artistic achievement. It contains an awesome mixture of visuals (the likes of which could not, simply could not, be replicated comparably with today’s CGI) and an epic musical score by turns foreboding and hopeful, expansive and intimate. As an experience for the eyes and ears, “2001” is unmatched.
For all this visual and auditory splendor, though, Kubrick’s film lacks something: humanity. “2001” is remarkably chilly and impersonal; there are no compelling human characters, just odd, uninteresting automaton-like figures who populate Kubrick’s eye-popping world. This makes “2001” a demanding, difficult and not altogether pleasant viewing experience because there is no warmth, no heart, to soften the unrelenting coldness of space. There’s only silence and nothingness here, and in this way Kubrick effectively and rather brilliantly recreates this uncharted frontier.
The voyage can be broken into four distinct parts. The first, called “The Dawn of Man” and set somewhere in Africa, offers a glimpse of a group of apes foraging for food. They awaken the next day to find a strange black monolith in front of their shelter. The structure frightens them, but soon after its appearance they learn to use animal bones as tools and weapons. (This discovery is paired thoughtfully with Richard Strauss’ “Also Spoke Zarahustra”). This knowledge, the score suggests, will come at a price. “TMA-1,” part two, introduces Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), eager to explore a black monolith found buried beneath the moon. Deemed a threat to national security because of its inexplicable broadcasts to Jupiter, the structure is a source of interest to Floyd, who ventures to the moon with his team to investigate.
Parts three and four journey deeper in the forbidding realm of space, with man (foolishly) believing himself to be more knowledgeable and in control in this world. In “Jupiter Mission,” Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Francis Poole (Gary Lockwood) and three scientists in cryogenic hybernation are bound for Jupiter on a highly secretive mission. Their ship is controlled by the ship’s on-board computer, the HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), reputed to be a highly intelligent and flawless machine. With his eerie human voice and programmed emotions, he’s the closest thing “2001” has to a sympathetic character. Dave and Frank’s trust in Hal, however, evaporates when the computer mistakenly reports the failure of an antenna, then goes rogue and causes a series of accidents. (Remember “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave”? Behold its birthday.) Hal’s disconnection is the film’s most touching and tragic scene and leads into “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” Now alone on the ship, Dave uses his space pod to enter Jupiter’s orbit and discovers another monolith, one that takes him on a wild, unforgettable ride through oceans of light and color. The meaning of this experience is unclear, but Kubrick seems to suggest that there are realms beyond even space, and when man’s embrace of them is akin to total rebirth.
It’s true that “2001” lacks a certain cohesiveness in its storyline, but this is not a traditional movie. Though a beginning, middle and end exist, they mostly exist separately from one another, almost like individual works of art. Then again, cohesion is not Kubrick’s aim in “2001.” He means to create an all-consuming experience that dazzles our senses and challenges our perceptions — of space, of evolution and technology, of ourselves and where we fit into the universe. Kubrick succeeds marvelously in his goal by using special effects (all, amazingly enough, man-made) and models and marrying them seamlessly with music. Lack of character development and real action though there is, it’s impossible not to feel a surge of adrenaline as “Zarahustra” powers us through the closing credits. And isn’t that adrenaline, the hunger to keep pushing and exploring and experiencing the unknown, really what matters most?