An unforgettable cinematic milestone, considered one of the greatest and most influential films of all-time
There are certain movies from the classic period which confirm that cinema can transcend mere entertainment and establish film as an art form. The science-fiction masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” exemplifies that statement to a T. Drawing from a large palette of film techniques and tools (and creating some new ones), this highly entertaining film uses visuals, editing, lighting, sound, and music in adroitly unique ways, creating a piece of work that provokes thought and feeling. Not reliant on a commonplace narrative, the film’s content is absorbed mostly through visuals. It becomes a sort of abstract space opera in which the universe is the star and humans take a backseat. The film’s intended obliqueness is so well executed, it somehow makes the film even more engrossing. Considered one of cinema's greatest and most influential, this breathtakingly groundbreaking film reshaped the science-fiction genre with an impact still felt today - including the “Star Wars” sagas. It is ranked by the American Film Institute as #15 of the 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time, #40 of the 100 Most Thrilling American Films, #47 of the 100 Most Inspiring Films Of All Time, and was ranked at #43 on the list of the 100 Greatest Films of all-time by the important French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one. I believe I saw this film four times in the past - in a theater - before watching it again to write this entry. Because of its grand spectacle I was reluctant about watching it on DVD and suggesting others do the same, thinking it would lose its overwhelming impact. Even if that’s true, to my relief and surprise, this film it so powerfully engaging I was still blown away. Therefore I am eagerly presenting it as this week’s classic film recommendation.
Like the obstacle-filled journey in Homer’s “The Odyssey”, “2001” is a journey, this time through the universe with the unexplainable as the obstacle. With one foot in science and the other in fantasy, it becomes a powerfully charged spark from which to think about our relationship to the universe and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick) said, “Stanley wanted to create a myth”. And he did. Kubrick said in a 1968 Playboy interview with Eric Nordern, “‘2001’ is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content”. Visuals are shown with little or no explanation, leaving interpretation up to the viewer. This ambiguity and a highly visceral sense of realism cleverly make its audience look inward. The film has since been inordinately talked and written about, analyzed and dissected - perhaps more than any other film. There is no “correct” interpretation of the film and both Kubrick and Clarke wanted it that way, as neither would ever publicly clarify any specifics of the film’s narrative. “2001” is incredibly provocative, leaving one with an excitement about the vast and unknowable universe.
To keep things fresh for viewers, I don’t normally go through entire plots of a film on this blog. Since the narrative of “2001” is open to interpretation, in the following three paragraphs I’m going to describe my understanding of the film. Because it is so enigmatic, my synopsis shouldn’t spoil anything for anyone planning on watching the film (and might even add a bit of clarity). Should you not want to know anything before you watch, you can skip the next three paragraphs and read them after you’ve seen the film.
The odyssey of “2001” begins millions of years in the past and travels well into the future. As foreboding music plays, the first three minutes of the film are in complete blackness, setting a tone for the unknown mysteries about to unfold. Darkness is followed by shots of the earth, moon, and sun, which takes us to the first of three sections of the film - “The Dawn of Man”. We are shown early life on earth with a focus on a shrewdness of apes. Everything is shown in vignettes with extended fades to black between shots (evocative of the way one would show images in a Rorschach test), giving us time to contemplate what we are seeing. After fighting with another shrewdness over a watering hole, a giant black monolith appears out of nowhere, and out of curiosity the apes begin to surround and touch it. Immediately after, one ape discovers how to use a bone as a tool to kill. With the bone (which can be seen as primitive “technology”) the apes transform from plant eaters to meat eaters and now have power over the opposing shrewdness to survive, as they kill any opponents with their new found weapon.
The monolith is key to “2001”. As we later learn, it is some form of extraterrestrial life or technology from at least four million years ago. It repeatedly appears, bringing knowledge and transformation to those who come into contact with it (as it did with the apes). Next comes one of the film’s most iconic moments when we are taken millions of years into the future by a bone flying in the air, match cut to a similarly shaped space ship flying in outer-space. We learn the spaceship is carrying “Dr. Heywood Floyd” to Clavius Base, a US outpost on the moon. While there, he and his fellow astronauts encounter another monolith which emits a radio signal that points directly to Jupiter. All of this happens in “The Dawn of Man” section - which is a statement that as advanced as we have become and think we are, in the eyes of the universe we are still in our beginnings.
“2001’s” second section begins eighteen months later, and is titled “Jupiter Mission”. It follows the spacecraft Discovery One, which is headed for Jupiter to discover more about the monolith. On board are “Dr. David Bowman” (“Dave”), “Dr. Frank Poole” (“Frank”), and three additional crew members who are hibernating in suspended animation (the plan is to awaken them once the ship approaches Jupiter). Running the ship is the artificial intelligence computer, HAL 9000 (known as “HAL”). Looking like a camera lens with a red center and yellow pupil, and endowed with the voice of a human male, "HAL" talks with the crew, plays chess, critiques artwork, and seems completely human. Designed to be incapable of error and replicate the human brain at a more rapid and accurate operating state, he was also programmed to appear to have emotions, but no one knows for sure if he actually does. We later realize “HAL” does have a sense of self, and exhibits more feelings than the humans on board. When “HAL” feels threatened, we see one of the film’s themes reemerge - killing to survive, and he and “Dave” go head to head in a very riveting fight for survival. “HAL” is so convincing that even though he is a computer, he made it to #13 of the villains on AFI’s list of The 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains.
The third and final section of “2001” comes just after their clash. As “Dave” approaches Jupiter, he sees another giant monolith floating in space and it transports him on a psychedelic trip to an alien planet in another dimension. He finds himself in a room the aliens created from his memory of earth (almost like a zoo for humans). With no sense of time, he watches himself grow old, and with one last reach for the monolith he is transformed and reborn into some sort of “star child”. A new race, a new beginning. At least that’s how I understand it all. What “2001” has to say about life, God, aliens, humans, and the universe, I leave to you.
The force behind this adventure is its director, Stanley Kubrick. Already a successful director, by this point he was given complete control over his films. Kubrick had his hand in everything in "2001" from co-writing the script and directing, to picking out furniture for the sets and fabric for the costumes. He also designed and directed the film’s special photographic effects, and for them won a Best Special Visual Effects Academy Award - which turned out to be his only Oscar win (and the film’s only Oscar as well). The directing of this gutsy film is extraordinary and is the reason the film works so well, and for it he earned a Best Director Oscar nomination. In addition to his technical expertise, Kubrick had his own visual style which included the use of bold colors, fluid camera movements, and stunning framing - all of which permeate this film to mesmerizing effect. Notice the exquisitely balanced composition when showing the apes surrounding the monolith, the unconventional triangular placement of the three astronauts heading to the moon while eating sandwiches in a blue light, or the stark white Hilton Hotel lobby in Space Station Five with its jolting red futuristic chairs. Kubrick had a visual artistry perfectly suited to cinema. Because of his photography background, acute sense of aesthetics and skillfulness, he is able to hold an audience’s attention for over two hours in a film intended to be ambiguous. It is also why “2001” has become a cinematic landmark continually talked about and revered for over forty years. That’s nothing to sneeze at, particularly in the science-fiction genre, and reflects his genius and how monumental this film was and remains.
Born in New York City, Stanley Kubrick discovered a passion for photography as a young teenager, and later found himself a full-time staff photographer for Look magazine. In 1999, I saw an exhibit of his early photographs at The Skirball Cultural Center, and they were incredible. In them, you could already see his film directing style begin to emerge. While taking photos for Look, Kubrick began to develop a love for movies, and in 1951 he began directing short documentary films. Leaving his job at Look magazine, he pulled together money to make his first feature film, “Fear and Desire” in 1953, which he directed, shot, and edited. Though the film didn’t make money, he gained some critical success from it. Not wanting to be indebted to investors, he again raised money himself for his next feature, “Killer's Kiss” in 1955, which again was not successful but showed the work of a promising filmmaker. A friend introduced him to the wealthy James B. Harris, who wanted to try producing films and liked Kubrick’s work. The two formed a partnership to make three films, the first of which became the 1956 film noir, “The Killing” starring Sterling Hayden. It was another critical success, and this time did make money (and has since become labelled a film noir classic). This led to Kubrick’s second pairing with Harris, “Paths of Glory”, a 1957 anti-war film starring Kirk Douglas. This one was a hit, earning international awards and nominations, and it put Kubrick on the map.
Kirk Douglas then called Kubrick to step in for Anthony Mann (whom Douglas fired) to direct “Spartacus” in 1960. It was Kubrick’s first color film, won four Academy Awards, and became Universal Studio’s biggest moneymaker for the next ten years. It was also the film Kubrick disliked working on the most, as with it he had the least control of all the films he would direct. Even so, “Spartacus” established Kubrick as a major director. His final collaboration with Harris came next, 1962’s controversial, “Lolita”, which dealt with sexual desire for a minor. He shot most of it in the UK for financial reasons and to avoid interference by the Motion Picture Production Code (though due to The Code he ultimately had to tone the film down to be released). It turned out to be another commercial success, and England became his home for the rest of his life. His next film was the 1964 classic, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, followed by “2001”. Kubrick only made five more films, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Barry Lyndon”, “The Shining”, “Full Metal Jacket”, and “Eyes Wide Shut”. In his career, he was nominated for four Best Director, three Best Picture (as producer), and five Best Screenplay Academy Awards, in addition to his only win for the Special Effects in “2001”. Frequently controversial, intense, and beautiful, Kubrick’s work definitely made a mark in cinema. He’s inspired countless directors, including Guillermo del Toro, David Lynch, David Fincher, among many others. He was married three times. Stanley Kubrick died in 1999 at the age of 70, unfortunately not living to see the year 2001.
“2001” came about because Kubrick wanted to make a science fiction film about man and his relationship to the universe. When looking for a person to help write the screenplay, he was directed to British author Arthur C. Clarke, one of the biggest names and award winners in science-fiction writings (and whom Reader’s Digest magazine nicknamed the “Prophet of the Space Age”). “2001” was based on a 1948 short story Clarke wrote titled, "Sentinel of Eternity”. Clarke turned it into a book also titled, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, while simultaneously writing the script with Kubrick (the book is a bit different from the film). He and Kubrick were both nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the film. One thing Kubrick insisted on was to keep all the science in the film as accurate and plausible as possible. Clarke had connections at NASA, and scientific consultants were hired to make sure all of the invented advanced technology and designs in the film were based in actual science - including space travel. It is important to remember that “2001” was made during the space race and released about a year before the first man landed on the moon. There were no personal computers, cell phones, or space stations, and yet the film surprisingly predicted things like FaceTime (Zoom or Skype), interactive video screens, flatscreens, graphic computer displays, iPads, Siri, space stations, moon landings, suspended animation, and space travel. To bring the science and designs to life, Kubrick hired production designers Anthony Masters, Ernest Archer, and Harry Lange. Both Masters and Archer had each previously worked as art directors (and Masters was also a production designer). Lange was working for NASA, and to keep things accurate, Kubrick hired him as an aeronautics advisor and as part of the production team (Lange would go on to work on other films such as a couple of the original “Star Wars” episodes). Masters, Archer and Lange each earned a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Award nomination for their stunning work in “2001”.
Another aspect of "2001" which must be mentioned is the use of music. Being primarily a nonverbal film, the music is an integral part of the film’s atmospheric tone and experience. Kubrick originally hired composers Alex North and Frank Cordell to score the film separately, but later abandoned their music, opting to use extracts from existing commercial recordings of classical pieces. Kubrick’s juxtaposition of space images with classical music was a revelation, and it gives the film an almost romantic feel. Spinning satellites in outer space become images of poetry when paired with Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube”. The music transforms the immeasurable and unknowable universe into a thing of grace and beauty. As a result, “The Blue Danube” has been forever linked with “2001”. Also synonymous with the film is initial fanfare from “Also sprach Zarathustra” ("Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) by Richard Strauss, titled “Sunrise”, first heard as soon as the film’s visuals appear. After viewing the film, hearing that fanfare brings to mind images of planets, sunrises, and monoliths. Both musical clips are used throughout the film as leitmotifs, as well as pieces of ethereal works by György Ligeti, including the Kyrie section from his “Requiem” (used to accompany the monolith) and “Atmosphères”, which is first heard in the blackness before the opening credits.
While “2001” is filled with the stars in the universe, there were no movie stars cast in the film, though it would make two actors immortal. The lead, and most memorable human performance is by Keir Dullea who plays pilot/scientist “Dr. David 'Dave' Bowman”. He adeptly supplies the human element in the film and brings authority and calm to the face of disaster and the unknown. Dullea stated in an interview that Kubrick told him to underplay everything, which Dullea does, while still informing us of his underlying feelings. “Dave” is also played in great contrast to “HAL”. Keir Dullea studied acting at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. After regional theater, he began appearing on television in 1960, and in his first film, “The Hoodlum Priest” in 1961. The following year came the role of “David” in the low-budget film “David and Lisa”, which became a hit, established Dullea, and earned him a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award. Other films and TV shows followed. Kubrick spotted him in the 1965 film “Bunny Lake is Missing”, and offered him the role of “Dave” in “2001”. This film made him famous, and it remains his best remembered role. In “2001”, “Dave” utters the iconic line, "Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.”, which is ranked by AFI as the 78th Greatest Movie Quote Of All Time. Dullea reprised the role of “Dave” in the 1984 sequel to “2001” titled “2010”, directed by Peter Hyams. Dullea began appearing on Broadway in 1967, and would continue to work onstage his entire career. To date he has amassed over eighty film and TV credits, and a few of his other notable films include, "The Thin Red Line”, "Madame X”, “Infinitely Polar Bear”, and “The Fox”. He’s been married four times (currently married to his fourth wife). As of the writing of this blog, Keir Dullea is 84 years old. He will turn 85 on May 30th.
Gary Lockwood plays “Dr. Frank Poole”, the other awake pilot/scientist onboard Discovery One. Lockwood makes the most of a role with not a lot of screen time, and he is completely believable as a man living aboard a ship while on a space mission. Lockwood and Dullea play off each other incredibly well in their brief scenes together, providing some human connection within the vast universe. Gary Lockwood began as a Hollywood stunt cowboy and then a stand-in for actor Anthony Perkins. His first film appearance was in an uncredited role in the 1958 film, “Onionhead”. After appearing in television and a few more films, he played the part of “Allen 'Toots' Tuttle” in the classic 1961 Elia Kazan film, “Splendor in the Grass”, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. In 1966 he appeared as “Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell” in the second pilot episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series: Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Two films later came “2001”, the role for which he is most remembered. Other notable films from his nearly 100 film and TV credits include, "Model Shop", as well as "It Happened at the World's Fair" and "Wild in the Country"- both opposite Elvis Presley. He appeared on countless classic TV shows, and also starred in the 1960’s Gene Roddenberry TV series “The Lieutenant”. He was married three times (including a marriage to actress Stefanie Powers). As of this writing, Gary Lockwood is 84 years old.
This week’s offering is a voyage into space and into our thoughts about the universe. Its special effects and stylistic take on the future and past provide the spectacle, while its colossal journey and shadowy narrative spellbind. This is one film you will certainly remember! Enjoy “2001: A Space Odyssey”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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