First, there is blackness. Gradually, what sounds like an orchestra harmonizing, grows in intensity until it finally climaxes… And then back to a calm. Blackness… I mention this moment, this overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), because it’s actually the first scene of the film, which in theory, should be one of the most important scenes of all. And perhaps it’s simply meant to establish the mood of the film. But maybe it’s more. Maybe it represents the great void, the pre-let-their-be-light moment. Maybe it represents our first contact with what will be known as the monolith. Maybe it represents both.
What follows (after the opening credits) is an establishing shot of outer space, in particular, the sun, the moon, and the planet Earth (scored brilliantly to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra). This is an “establishing shot,” and just as all other “establishing shots” in this film, it’s more of an epic balletic sequence, than it is anything else.
The controversial preamble, entitled “the dawn of man,” comes next. Here, Kubrick paints a desolate planet Earth. It’s harsh. It’s cold. It’s unforgiving. We’re introduced to what appear to be pre-human animals, Neanderthal-like creatures, and we watch them go about their daily routine, which consists mostly of angry grunting. In other words, they are animals the way all other animals are, which, in Kubrick’s world tend to be desperate and brutal.
This all changes, however, when a strange monolith, alien-like structure appears seemingly from out of nowhere. This inexplicable structure causes the Neanderthal’s to go wild, the way a dog might go wild in the presence of a vacuum cleaner. This marks an important evolutionary step forward, toward dominance, which is demonstrated in one of the most memorable transitions of all time— when the Neanderthal tosses the bone through the air and we jump forward many thousands of years, and we match-cut the “bone” to what is now a “spaceship” flying through space. This pithy transition does not neglect all the time between the scenes, but includes it. The match-cut not only incorporates the bone and the ship, but comments on every step in between, from the agricultural revolution, to the scientific revolution, to the industrial revolution, and onward.
So, at this point, we’re twenty-five-some-odd minutes into 2001: A Space Odyssey, ten thousand years of human existence has been covered, and there hasn’t been a single word of dialogue. What follows is another lucid, balletic type sequence that consists mostly of awe-inspiring establishing shots of really cool spaceships— spaceships flying, opening, closing, landing, etc. In a regular movie, these establishing details would take just a few seconds of screen time, and then we’d cut to an expository dialogue scene between a couple of actors. But with Kubrick, he deliberately dedicates an extreme amount of time to these sequences, to these technological marvels, more so than he dedicates to any human. This, I believe, is because in this movie tools and technology are vastly more important than the humans, or at the very least, operate at a similar level.
Around this point in the film, we have our first dialogue scenes between modern day humans. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to gather much from these conversations because the traffic outside my window is too loud and I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. Regardless, one thing led to another, and eventually these astronauts land on the moon and discover another peculiar monolith-like structure. As the astronauts approach the structure, similarly to the first encounter, a horrible sound emanates from it, a sound that can only be described as a smoke detector gone wrong. This represents another leap forward. This, an hour in to 2001: A Space Odyssey marks the end of the ambitious first act (one could argue that the tossing of the bone through the air is the end of the first act, but I think all elements up to this point have been setup for the meat of the movie, the mission to Jupiter).
The “mission to Jupiter” sequence begins by establishing the monotony and loneliness of everyday life between two astronauts aboard a massive spaceship. Their journey to Jupiter is aided and supported by a super computer called the HAL 9000. The HAL 9000 is fast, always perfect, and mimics the mind of a human. Wow. “Hal,” for short, has a somewhat off-putting, eloquent English voice and is embodied by a single red light that resembles an eye. It is noteworthy, that the tone in this section gradually grows more and more sinister, scary even, until something really curious happens— Hal, the immaculate computer, seemingly makes a miscalculation that compromises the mission. Baffled, the two astronauts discuss whether or not Hal can be trusted from here on out, and they decide that he cannot be trusted. So, they agree to dismantle him, in order to take over the mission manually…
Cut to: Intermission. Yes, Intermission. This is perhaps a self-reflexive comment regarding the musical and theatrical nature of the film. Or maybe it’s just a break in action, allowing us a moment to take a piss.
Anyway, after the surprising presence of the Intermission, we return to the film, and realize that Hal does not take too kindly to the idea of being dismantled. His oddly human response, self-preservation, results in the catapulting of one of the astronauts into deep space. This leads to an intense sequence where the main astronaut (Dr. Dave Bowman) tries to rescue the catapulted one… of course, to no avail. Dr. Dave Bowman returns, determined, and is able to dismantle the HAL 9000, despite Hal’s desperate pleads otherwise.
This brings us to the third and final act, which goes by in what seems like a flash. In this elusive sequence, Dr. Dave Bowman approaches Jupiter in his space pod, when he enters what can only be described as a time traveling space-time continuum type thing. During this “descent,” a certain psychedelic effect arises, something like tripping acid in space, and there are several still shots of Dr. Dave Bowman reacting to what’s before his eyes. These moments are haunting.
At the end of this psychedelic portal, he finds himself in what appears to be a pristine, well-decorated mansion. It’s bright. It’s quiet. It’s eerie as hell. Then, in maybe three or four consecutive shots, we witness Dr. Dave Bowman grow old and die alone. After which, a fetus wrapped in a bubble emerges in his place— the “star-child.” In the final frame, reminiscent of the opening shot of the moon, the sun, and the Earth, we see the “star-child” floating in space, looking directly at us. Music swells. The end.
I’ve just described the context of a plainly obvious sci-fi film wrapped between two bizarre sequences that raise the film to a whole new philosophical level. In other words, instead of a neat, superficial movie about space and lasers, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a profound symbol, a strict cautionary tale about the dangers of progress and the tools that make progress possible. In this way, the bone at the beginning represents not just the spaceships in the movie, but also the cell phone in your pocket. It represents the laptop computer in your bag. The pen on your desk. But what is the point? Is it that progress and evolution are bad? Is it that humans are intrinsically awful? Is Kubrick suggesting that while these tools can be used for great things, they can also be used for bad?
There are more questions that come to mind, but before I lose myself within the maze that is the subtext of this film, I’d like to point out a couple of technical elements that caught my eye. First, of course, is the photography. Like all Kubrick films, the compositions are ambitious, symmetrical, and excessively deliberate. In a word, they are masterful. On top of that, was the repetitious use of circles. From the planets, to the buttons, to the spaceships, to the eyes, was the presence of circles. These, I believe, represent perfection, infinity, and the circle of life, which also comments on the circular nature of the film (dawn of man, death of man, rebirth of man). The final technical element I want to mention was the use of red. Red appears throughout the film, sometimes as a light emanating from a spaceship, sometimes a button on a console, or of course, most memorably, the red eye of Hal. The red is a little bit more ambiguous than the circles, but I think it represents temptation and danger. Perhaps it is the forbidden apple from the Garden of Eden.
Either way, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film full of ideas and possible interpretations. It’s approximately two and a half hours long— and on one hand, it seems like very little is actually happening, but on the other, it seems like Kubrick is taking on the entire history and nature of mankind. At its essence, this is a sci-fi epic sandwiched in between a cautionary tale about the dangers technology presents to our humanity. It’s bold. It’s brilliant. It’s precise. It’s confounding. It’s haunting. It’s quintessential Kubrick. In other words, it raises way more questions than it answers. Questions like, what’s with the mismatching green helmet near the end? And why is the mansion on Jupiter so immaculately decorated? And what about those strange monoliths? Are they a metaphor for God? The universe? And what about that creepy star-child? Is it us? Is it the next step in evolution? Is it another planet unto itself? Are we all planets unto ourselves? Is it meant to be sinister or hopeful? In the end, that’s up to you.