I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in middle school. Of course, as with many adolescent boys of the time, I was fascinated [by][WITH] space, and I went into the film fully expecting aliens, faster-than-light travel, and hyper-advanced technology. In all fairness, “2001” did deliver, but I reached the end credits not with the thrill of a flashy space battle, but with confusion, wondering “What on earth did I just watch?” The year 2001 is long gone, but through the simple space saga, which turns 50 this April, Kubrick has captured a timeless picture of humanity’s pursuit of the unknown.
The story begins millions of years ago with a tribe of ape-like creatures in the wilderness. After suffering attacks from an enemy tribe, they learn to create weapons and soon overpower their now inferior counterparts. As the tribe’s leader throws his club in the air, the scene cuts to a space station in the near-future version of 2001.
Scientists David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) venture on an extended research mission to Jupiter. In charge of ship and instrument operations is the artificial intelligence entity HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), a model purportedly “foolproof and incapable of error.” However, as the mission continues, HAL experiences a psychological breakdown, ultimately forcing a confrontation between man and machine. Bowman, the sole survivor, completes the journey, only to encounter a mysterious extraterrestrial monolith, hurtle through a montage of surreal lights and colors, and seemingly break the laws of time and space.
Director Stanley Kubrick is responsible for bringing this vision of the stars to Earth. He came among a midst of “New Hollywood” directors, who arose in the ’60s to challenge the traditional plotlines and artistic decisions of the silent and Golden eras of film. His filmography includes “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove,” displaying a particular interest in the bizarre. His work touches issues contemporary to his time—the space race, nuclear holocaust, or totalitarianism—yet they also strike a chord with people’s deepest doubts and worries. What is free will? What is insanity? What have we done for mankind? And what is our purpose?
Avant-garde both for his time and ours, Kubrick’s artistic vision was often received with mixed opinions. “2001” gave him his first and only solo Oscar. To be fair, “2001” is not for everyone. If Kubrick helped usher modern art into the film world, his monumental space age piece represents surrealism: Hated by some, loved by others, but bizarre to everyone. Numerous articles and speculation have arisen since the original showing, as people attempted to make sense of the last sequence. Some believe that Bowman represents the first of a new stage of human evolution. Others argue that the film depicts the victory of the human soul over the body and technology. A few claimed that Bowman returned to Earth to destroy it. Part of the very allure of “2001” is its absolute ambiguity, leaving the interpretation entirely in the mind of the viewer.
Part of the heavy weight of the film comes from how very sparse it is in terms of human interaction. Neither the first nor the last 20 minutes of the film contain any dialogue. There are only two conscious men on board the ship. Space is silent, isolated, and empty. The entirety of the journey has an abstract, detached feel about it. Bowman and Poole never receive the benefit of character development, leaving them as generic templates of humanity.
The one character we do understand is the least human of them all: HAL 9000. He is the apex of reason, the sum total of human knowledge. He is adaptable, sentient, and totally obedient—in short, the best that technology has to offer. Unfortunately, HAL’s own logical perfection is his undoing, as he cannot reconcile his mandate for confidentiality with his programmed candidness. As a result, he is compelled to kill his human companions to fulfill his orders. Yet, even when he is being shut down by Bowman, HAL is the one character to show emotion: “I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.”
The antithesis to HAL’s rationalism is the monolith. In the film, it appears as a solid, smooth, black slab of stone, far too perfectly formed to be natural. It appears in the opening sequence, as the ape-men learn to use weaponry. It appears on the moon, prompting the expedition to Jupiter. It reveals itself once more to Bowman at the end of his journey, taking him on the whirlwind ride through space and time. Those who watch the movie realize that the monolith holds some tremendous, possibly alien, significance. The movie, however, never reveals its purpose.
The trials of David Bowman are another step in the evolution of mankind. The movie concludes with Bowman watching himself turn into an elderly man, die, and become a transcendental fetus hovering over the earth. As apes progressed into humans, and humans into space voyagers, Bowman’s final encounter with the monolith notes another landmark for the species. But what does the final sequence mean? Is Bowman God? Does he destroy the earth to start anew? Does he even exist in our form of reality? Again, Kubrick leaves these questions unanswered.
“2001,” possibly the greatest work of science fiction in film since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” was both a child of and an advocate for the technological age. With the Space Race in full swing between the United States and Russia, “2001” jumped on people’s fascination with space travel. In turn, the film paved the way for the rise of sci-fi in popular culture. Rotating white-paneled space stations, sleep stasis, and rogue A.I. all came to be staples of film’s space age. Later in the same year “2001” came out, “Planet of the Apes” was released, to be followed by the likes of “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” and “Terminator.”
50 years ago, in 1968, Stanley Kubrick launched a legacy of science fiction, representing the ongoing pursuit of mankind for higher being. The very next year, Apollo 11 would land on the moon.