We need a break from politics. So, it’s our good fortune this month marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most remarkable film ever, producer/director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Even more than Gone with the Wind, it was the most revolutionary film. It was radically different from everything before it, and it influenced all film after it more than any other work. Yet, nothing made since 1968 is really like it, either.
It was technologically the most revolutionary film, especially because it necessarily used analog technologies to simulate (or predict?) the digital future. But more than that, it was intellectually, spiritually, culturally and esthetically distinct from everything else. It’s also the most audacious, presenting in four movements a cosmic story that begins on earth with The Dawn of Man and reaches out millions of years to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.
The first movement shows a group of hominids living on the African plains inspired by the sudden appearance in their den of a featureless large black monolith. It is ushered in to the stunning and portentous C-G-C opening chords of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. They discover tools, and then weapons. This allows them to prosper, but also to bring violence against their neighboring clan.
Perhaps the most memorable scene of 2001 – one of the most memorable scenes in all filmdom – is the transition from the first movement to the second, set in 2001. After routing their neighbors from their watering hole, with a growl the leader of the pack heaves his newly discovered tool/weapon – a large bone – into the air. As it tumbles, it becomes a future spaceship rotating through space to synchronize with the landing bay of an earth-orbital space wheel where it will dock.
The sheer visual beauty of this space waltz is matched by the elegant music of The Blue Danube, the masterpiece of Johann Strauss II. The first time one sees this scene, the most famous waltz becomes in fact The Space Waltz, transcending its Viennese roots.
By 2001, the monolith has become embedded in the moon, creating a scientific mystery for mankind by beaming a strong signal toward Jupiter. Pursuing this mystery, two astronauts and three others in hibernation embark 18 months later toward the Jovian planet, a voyage managed by the onboard HAL9000 computer, Hal.
Hal has been programmed to interact like a sixth human crew member, but as he proudly notes, the 9000 series has never distorted a single piece of data or otherwise faulted. Hal says that by any standard he (and the parallel 9000 unit back on earth) are foolproof and incapable of error.
Of course, this hubris sounds all too human, and Hal does make a key error, which is discovered by the two active crew. This causes Hal to go off the rails and kill all the crew, except Dave, who survives through human ingenuity and determination. The scene in which Dave penetrates Hal’s brain area and shuts it down is also one of the most memorable ever, as Hal says slowly: “I can feel it, Dave. My mind is going.”
Kubrick termed the film “experimental” and he rolled up huge cost overruns and production delays. It is also quiet, including no dialog in the first and last 20 minutes. Very enigmatic and non-verbal throughout much of its 142 minutes. The two main characters, Hal and the monolith, aren’t even human.
All this was too much for many in opening night audiences who walked out, and for most critics, who roundly panned it. But it got legs with young people, who saw it multiple times, and it became the box-office hit of the year.
Some people say the young folks were entranced by the psychedelic scene in which Dave begins the final descent to Jupiter. In any event, once there, he finds a remarkable world in which he repeatedly sees himself in the past and future, culminating in the lumpen old man peacefully in his death bed gazing at the monolith.
This is where the story pays off, not in a pat conclusion but in his metamorphosis into a human fetus gazing from space at the earth. The mystery, triumph and glory of rebirth.