Review: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

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?

Grade: A

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15 Responses

  1. A wonderful movie and one that I plan to get my head around this Xmas as the Kubrick box set is on my list to Santa!

    • “Get my head around” is a good way to nutshell “2001” — it’s a movie that you experience more than understand. That’s why it’s almost impossible to answer the question “what’s it about?” when anyone asks. You can’t understand what it is until you see it and hear it.

      Funny side note: All my life, I have known “Also Spoke Zarahustra” as the opening song they played at the University of South Carolina football home games. Took this movie for me to learn the real title!

      • Yes it’s so true. If I ever recommend 2001 it’s more “well, it’s just a very good movie – have you heard of Stanley Kubrick, you know the guy that did The Shining.” So what’s it about, they ask. That’s when I try to change the subject!

        It is a film you ‘experience’ – it’s something Kubrick (like Lynch, like Peckinpah to some degree) turned into a fine art.

  2. My all-time favorite film. I wrote a 2500-word analysis/shameless ass-kiss review a few months back and was surprised at how much new stuff I saw in it my 6th time watching it. It’s really an all-encompassing satire of mankind, how we define ourselves by our tools (people call this movie cold, but that’s only because Kubrick takes us to task for the way we define our history by technological advancements — Bronze Age, Atomic Age, etc.). Man is “born” when he learns to use tools to murder others, and in the future man has become secondary and reliant upon technology (it’s not a fault of acting that HAL is the most human of the characters). 2001 is all about man reasserting himself over that which robbed us of humanity, and it ends with a man losing his individualism in order to lead our species to its next evolution. Such a savagely brilliant film.

    • As I told Branden, I was 100% sure I hated “2001” when I finished it because I tend to like character-center films. In life I have little use for people, but in movies I love them. But I made myself sit through “2001” again and then I saw all the things you said (and so eloquently).

      If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it 1,000 times — you were born to be an English major.

  3. I’m surprised that you gave this film an A. I thought you shouldn’t care about the human. In the grand scheme of things, humans are insignificant. The aliens or the artificial intelligence are better than us.

    • Funny. I always assumed all the aliens were interested in was anal probing.

      (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) In truth, I almost didn’t give “2001” an “A” because the first time I finished watching it I was sure I hated it. I’m a minimalist character drama kinda girl — love my flawed human peoples — and so this film is WAY out of my realm. But then I watched it again and was able to appreciate it for what Kubrick tries to do.

  4. Open the pod bay doors Hal.

    I LOVE THIS MOVIE.

    I know everyone doesn’t quite get it, but of course you do M.Carter and that is why you kick such enormous ass!

    • You should be a motivational speaker. Anyone ever told you that? If you ever tire of Movie Mobsters (and I think we all pray that day NEVER comes), I think you’ve got a second career waiting for you!

      At first I was afraid I was one of the people who wouldn’t get what Kubrick was trying to do, and then I made myself give it another go. Then everything clicked, and the point hit home: Kubrick is creating an experience of space, a metaphorical journey. For that reason, “2001” is probably one of the most brilliant movies ever made.

  5. you’ve got a nice review here .. kubrick is a brainy chap .. i love his clockwork orange for its unique message … i am yet to watch this movie to its full length .. had begun watching it few years back but abandoned it in half an hour for its slow pace .. but your review will make me watch it again ..

    • Definitely give “2001” another shot … it takes a lot of patience to make it through, but it’s worth it. I almost gave up at the 30-minute mark but pushed myself to keep watching. I think this movie also requires multiple viewings because you’ll see something new and totally amazing every time.

      Thanks for stopping in, and I hope you’ll keep reading!

  6. It’s no surprise that Stanley Kubrick can make an amazing movie (i.e. The Shining, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove). When he made movies, he made every second on screen seem like heaven…except when he got you right where he wanted you and totally fucked with your head…which was the entire time.

    • Truth be told, I haven’t seen that many Kubrick movies aside from “A Clockwork Orange” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I’m working my way through his collection, and I have to say that although he’s not my favorite director — I find his work to be a little impersonal, and I’m more of a minimalist character drama kind of girl — I certainly respect his ambition and his talent.

  7. I’m all over the place in regards to what does it for me in a film. Kubrick’s work is colder, yet I love it for that very fact. Gus Van Sant loves placing isolation between the viewer and his film, yet I love his work as well. Conversely, I love Richard Linklater who for the most part is all about characters and human emotion. I remain quite the odd ball.

    Anyways, back to 2001, it remains one of my favorites. I understand why some consider it to be a hard slog, but in the end I find 2001 rewarding because it is all about the experience. Whatever your interpretations may be, 2001 is about bringing those interpretations out, because more than anything Kubrick wanted his audience to think.

    Great review, and in a who cares tidbit, 2001 was actually the first film I reviewed for my blog way back when, literally if it hadn’t of been for my need to write something about 2001 I probably never would have started my blog at all.

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