Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those movies that looms so large in our collective consciousness that it’s hard to put into words exactly how influential and important it is. From its iconic music to the imposing black monolith to the sentient computer HAL 9000, the individual elements of the film are so well known that they could almost exist outside of the film itself. But taken together, they help create one of the most groundbreaking movies of all time. At times visually stunning, thought-provoking and completely baffling, the 2001 is notable not only for its own sake but for the impact and influence it had on a generation of filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas to Ridley Scott. Besides being one of the first big Science Fiction blockbusters, it was also one of the first big budget epic movies that was serious instead of outlandish, and meditative rather than bombastic. From its opening montage of prehistoric man on the African plains to its final psychedelic trip through space and time, 2001 is a movie that isn’t afraid to let the audience come to its own interpretation of the events that are depicted. Based loosely on a story called ‘The Sentinel’ by Arthur C. Clarke, and adapted into a novel of the same name, 2001 is that rare movie that you can watch again and again and still discover new things.
2001 A Space Odyssey Summary: The movie is broken up into four distinct parts. The first part, titled The Dawn of Man, opens on a loosely formed group of prehistoric humans on the African savanna foraging for plants and vegetation millions of years in the past. Attacks from a roaming leopard as well as a rival band of men show how vulnerable they really are. After awaking one day to find a large black monolith standing in front of them, they begin to exhibit strange characteristics. One of the man-apes slowly realizes that he can use an old bone as both a weapon and a tool. When he uses the bone to beat and kill a member of the rival band, helping to secure a watering hole for his tribe and food to eat, it becomes clear that this discovery is a monumental turning point in the history of man. The notion that somehow this black monolith had something to do with helping the man-apes develop tools and weapons is not explicitly stated – but it is strongly implied. That this simple discovery helps start the evolutionary process of man is also hinted at by one of the most famous jump-cuts in all of cinema. After killing the leader of the rival tribe, the man ape throws the bone in the air as the camera follows it upwards. At its highest point, the film cuts directly to a similarly sized spaceship gently floating through space. Which leads to the next section.
Cut to millions of years in the future as we follow a spaceship as it docks with a space station orbiting Earth, all while Strauss’ The Blue Danube Waltz plays serenely in the background. On the spaceship is a man named Heywood Floyd who is traveling to the Moon in order to investigate a mysterious object that was found buried. It turns out to be another black monolith like the one seen by the apes. We learn through his reports that the monolith looks to have been buried over 4 million years ago and is unknown in origin. When a team of scientists travel to see the monolith, a strange piercing noise is emitted from the structure. We then cut again, this time to a spaceship en route to Jupiter carrying five crew members (2 of which are not in stasis) and a sentient computer named HAL 9000. Apparently the radio signal given off by the monolith pointed in the direction of Jupiter and the team has been sent to explore the source of the signal.
Along the way to Jupiter, we experience a situation that serves to emphasize the dangers of artificial intelligence. When HAL reports that one of the ships antennas has malfunctioned and the astronauts go to investigate, it becomes clear that the computer is at fault in its diagnosis. Sensing that the crew are about to try to turn him off, HAL orchestrates an elaborate plan to prevent the astronauts from deactivating him – a plan that goes so far as to kill one of the crew members. When the remaining crew member is able to finally deactivate HAL, he is presented with a video that explains the true nature of the expedition to Jupiter. The final chapter of the movie deals with what they find when they finally reach the transmission point. I’d say that I don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling you what happens next, but the truth is that I’m still not 100% sure what happens in this part. So I’ll just let you watch it and decide for yourself.
2001: A Space Odyssey Review: The first time I watched this movie, I was transfixed by the amazing visuals. The second time I watched it I started to appreciate some of the larger implications of what the film was trying to say – that each of the different parts of the film were actually related to one another not just stand alone stories in a greater narrative. The third time I saw the movie (after having read the novel version by Arthur C. Clarke), I really started to come to grips with the overall theme of the story and the purpose behind the monolith – that “it” or some force was deliberately intervening in humanity at key stages in order to drive the evolutionary process. Knowing this definitely sheds light on what happens at the end and how this final stage in the evolutionary process is revealed.
While some people have criticized this film for being too slow or not having enough dialog, I tend to disagree with that assessment. This is not a wild space adventure with a hero fighting aliens. This movie aspires to be so much more than that. In reality it’s nothing less than a meditation on the true purpose of humanity and our role in the universe. If you’re looking for a rollicking space adventure, you’d better look somewhere else. But if you enjoy a movie that is visually stunning and thought-provoking, you be hard pressed to find a movie as completely satisfying and original as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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