A mysterious monolith. A group of apes. And a bone that is used as a weapon. All of these elements combine to create the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the dawn of man is portrayed onscreen. Two groups of apes attack each other and one ape (the so-called “Moonwatcher”) kills the other tribe’s leader with the aforementioned bone. The victorious mammal throws his newly-found weapon in the air before the film jumps four million years into the future.
The moon, now colonized by numerous countries back on Earth, is being visited by an American, Dr. Floyd, who has heard rumours of strange events occurring at Clavius Base. He addresses a group of scientists and explains that other recent rumours involving a potential virus breakout at Clavius are false, but that there is a mysterious monolith that has been unearthed at the base. He says that the stone was deliberately buried over four million years ago. Visitors to the moon base examine the monolith before a high-pitched squeal is emitted from the object.
Eighteen months later, five astronaut-scientists — two mission commanders and three who are in cryogenic hibernation — are on a mission to the planet Jupiter aboard the spacecraft Discovery One. Dr. Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. Bowman (Keir Dullea) are joined in spacecraft operation by the ship’s computer, the HAL 9000 or “Hal.” Hal has a perfect operating system and claims to be incapable of “human error.” During a pre-recorded BBC broadcast, the astronauts are asked about their relationships with Hal, and they reciprocate what Hal himself has said — that it is a mutually beneficial relationship and they all enjoy working with each other.
Later on, Hal expresses concern to Bowman about the secrecy of their mission, but interrupts himself to mention that a device connected to Discovery‘s antenna is in danger of failing. Poole brings back the troublesome device, but neither he nor Bowman can find anything wrong with it. Both Hal and mission control believe that it would be best to reinstall the device and let it fail on its own, before tampering with it further. However, mission control says that their own version of Hal, back on Earth, came up with a different solution. Therefore, both Hal’s perfect operating record and the mission could be in jeopardy.
Widely considered the greatest science fiction film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece that is simultaneously bizarre and brilliant. Inspired by (but not necessarily based on) the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, the film is over two and a half hours long, and features only 40 minutes of dialogue; both the opening 20 minutes and the closing 20 minutes have no dialogue whatsoever. Director Stanley Kubrick eschews traditional narrative techniques, relying on images, music, and sound to tell the story. 2001 also features dazzling, Academy Award-winning special effects and a thrilling soundtrack that memorably features “The Blue Danube Waltz” and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Most of the dialogue in the film is very clinical mission talk from the astronauts themselves, and while the film was praised for its beautiful visuals, audiences found the characters stale and the dialogue boring.
Critics and audiences alike were polarized by the film. The New Yorker called it “some kind of brilliant film, and an unforgettable endeavor,” while The New York Times said it was “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Andrew Sarris called it “too abstract to make its abstract points” while Roger Ebert said that the film “succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale.” Yet despite the strange reactions to the film, it was a major box office success and paved the way for Star Wars, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and many other sci-fi films.
Modern filmmakers have also expressed enthusiasm for Kubrick’s sci-fi epic; Steven Spielberg called it his generation’s “big bang,” while Martin Scorsese has said it’s one of his favorite films ever. Sydney Pollack called it “groundbreaking.” George Lucas said 2001 was “hugely inspirational” and called Kubrick “the filmmaker’s filmmaker.”
When I first saw 2001, I thought it was strange indeed, but realized that Kubrick’s vision was groundbreaking and he really changed the entire way science fiction movies were made. I was also impressed that, for the most part, the film was scientifically accurate. Although I still don’t understand certain elements of Kubrick’s film, I recognize and appreciate its innovation in more ways than one. So go see 2001. Heck, see it twice — you may have to.