Weekly Classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is a science fiction epic that was directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written with Arthur C Clarke. It is widely thought of as the greatest science fiction film ever made; Ridley Scott, the director of Alien and Blade Runner famously said about it that “It's the best of the best. No film can hope to top it”. Scott believed that Kubrick managed to epitomize the genre to the degree that every sci-fi movie made since then has borrowed heavily from its established aesthetic and grand vision.

So what’s so great about this movie? Firstly, if you haven’t seen it, watch this trailer and consider when it was made.

Though fans and artists (like Ridley Scott) love to point out the film’s seminal nature; in one way 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing like a typical modern science-fiction film. In it, Kubrick has bravely done what so many filmmakers now, are scared to attempt: he has left it open to interpretation; "How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.' This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don't want this to happen to 2001."

One of Scott’s basic criticisms of modern science fiction was that there is an over-reliance on special effects, and that the advent of powerful animation technology has made directors obsessed only with visual acrobatics. But here too, Kubrick showed a mastery that is unmatched, watching the film’s seamlessly realistic visuals makes it impossible to believe that it was actually made in 1968.

Space Odyssey was inspired by Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, about a mysterious alien object that is discovered on the Moon and was perhaps left as a cryptic communication with mankind. After reading this story, Kubrick approached Clarke with expanding the idea and this resulted in a simultaneous project to write a book and make a movie.

Among the film’s major influences is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. This is the philosophical book where Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Übermensch (or Superman):  According to him the Übermensch is the next step in the evolution of Man, and achieving this evolved state should be the aspiration of humanity. The book also philosophises that events in the universe occur again and again, in an eternal cycle, and that Humankind’s experience is similarly repetitive. Zarathustra, is a character who is loosely based on Zoraster - the prophet of Zoroastrianism.

Thus, fittingly, Space Odyssey begins with the title sequence of the Earth, the crescent moon, and the rising sun, accompanied by the now-instantly-recognisable score (a symphonic poem) called “Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss.

The movie itself is divided up into four sections. The first takes us to the beginning; “The Dawn of Man”. Here we see pre-historic apes happening upon a mysterious Monolith. This monolith seems to trigger a key point in their civilisation because shortly afterwards one ape lifts up a stray bone and realises its potential as a tool.

This part of the movie was actually shot in England, and used “front projection” to create the realistic backdrop of an African landscape. The complex and painstaking technique was rarely used at the time and was later replaced by green-screens, but Kubrick wanted to use in-camera effects rather than post-production. This technique has been used in many places throughout the film (even later in the space scenes) and has resulted in a very realistic look that has stood the test of time and advancing technology.

The second part of the movie takes us far forward to the future, where we see spaceships above Earth and a commercial shuttle nearing a large spinning space station. These beautifully-choreographed sequences are set to Johann Strauss II's waltz On the Beautiful Blue Danube, and actually portray the advanced machinery cinematographically as doing a giant graceful waltz in space.  Human beings’ use of the tool has gone from the crude, accidental bone, to this finely tuned world of precision, beauty and grandeur. They have evolved the simple tool into complex machines. These machines are not just wielded by them, but in fact form a protective womb that keeps them alive in their quests to learn and explore the universe beyond Earth.

Inside the space station, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is going to investigate a recent discovery on the moon. It is a strange, mysterious, alien object and when astronauts go to see it, we note that this is a monolith just like the one we saw earlier. When the men come near it, however, they are blasted by a debilitating, loud signal that it seems to be omitting.

Throughout these scenes as we follow Dr. Floyd in his journey, we witness Kubrick’s vision of casual space exploration; flight attendants, liquid food, and video conferencing are among the minute details that keep the audience constantly engaged with their accuracy and believability.

NASA experts were hired to maintain the accuracy of Space Odyssey’s depiction of futuristic ships. The success of this exercise is apparent when even today we find the visuals convincing. It is surprising to note that this movie was actually released before the first moon landing in 1969. The portrayal of space is so realistic that it even captured the imaginations of those conspiracy theorists who deny that the moon-landing ever happened. One of their explanations is that perhaps Kubrick was hired by the US government to fake the footage and fool the whole world.

The film then moves to its penultimate section: Eighteen months later, a Jupiter mission is underway, and a spaceship with a hibernating crew operates with the power of a sentient AI computer named HAL9000. Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) are the skeleton crew that remain awake during this time. They have been kept in the dark about the exact nature of their mission and they have little to do with HAL controlling all the functions of the ship.

One of the most memorable scenes from the movie depicts Dr. Poole jogging in the artificial gravity of a revolving wheel that houses the crew – the room is on the inside of the wheel and it spins constantly to keep the astronauts stuck to the “ground”. As Poole jogs he can see the floor below him curve all the way up to the ceiling and loop back around. The camera alternately follows him and watches him pass, emphasising the relativity of his motion and baffling the viewer with this amazing sight. To shoot this sequence, the wheel was actually built as a set and revolved while the actors and props were secured to its rim by straps and braces.

Later the two men watch a BBC news report (about their own mission) on screens that look alarmingly like iPads. HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is also interviewed in this report, and we learn from it that he is one of the latest advances in computing – a purportedly flawless machine that can think for itself.

As the mission progresses HAL reports a mysterious error with a piece of vital communications equipment – this error then becomes the central conflict in the mission as the two astronauts struggle with finding a solution. Bowman and Poole now have to do this troubleshooting while dealing with HAL, a new, fully intelligent man-made being that refuses to accept any responsibility for the problem on grounds that it can never be wrong. This predicament begins to bother the two men, and as they tip-toe around the unlearned sensibilities of HAL, things start to take a turn for the worse.

The final sequence is called “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”. It takes the film to a conclusion which is bizarre, cryptic and symbolic.

True to his intention, Kubrick keeps any explicit explanations to himself, and leaves his audience to decide on their own while supplying many intriguing clues to point them in the general direction. The technical, aesthetic, and metaphorical qualities of this film are too numerous to be discussed in a short review, but it is sufficient to say that just like the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, 2001: A Space Odyssey provokes you to think deeply on its meaning, while constantly engaging your senses with its beauty.

View Dawn.com’s weekly classics archive here.


Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer, adventure seeker, musician, film-lover and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (4) Closed

Oct 28, 2012 09:08pm
Kubrick was a genius of his time, before Lucas and Spielberg. I read somewhere before that the high tech gadgets showed in the movie later became a reality, ipad being one of them. This movie is a master piece and a must have in your collection. The sequel "2010", released in 1984 is a top notch too, worth watching. On personal note, these two movies created my interest in space and that is how I got into astronomy and astro-photography.
Oct 28, 2012 03:56pm
What a fascinating write-up! Very thought-provoking. Greetings from India.
Oct 29, 2012 04:57am
Original Star Trek is superior.
Oct 29, 2012 01:50am
Excellent review. Have enjoyed this film for the last 40 years and learnt a lot from this article which puts so much in context. Thanks.