A Space Odyssey: Cinema’s Greatest Feat Lives on 50 Years Later
2001 falls into the absorbing category of film that prompts headaches and weariness from over-stimulation. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film boasts the most iconic match-cut in cinema history, a memorable soundtrack, innovative special effects for its day, the origin of modern-day technologies such as Siri and Alexa and, perhaps most prominently, a perceptive rumination on the philosophical underpinnings of human life. Although some people deem it slow by today’s standards, many would classify it as timeless due to its masterful combination of aesthetic beauty and sophistication, along with its thought-provoking nature. Hence, critics still speak of 2001 as one of, if not the, greatest films ever created, whose influence continues to pervade modern cinema. Thus, upon its 50th-anniversary re-release in cinemas worldwide this summer, it seems appropriate to revisit this landmark film and its legacy.
Kubrick’s film consists of four segments: The Dawn of Man, the untitled Moon sequence, The Jupiter Mission, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. Although the plot focuses on a mission to investigate a mysterious extraterrestrial object sending signals across the solar system, the film’s subtext regarding humanity’s progress has dominated much of its critical reception. Charting out technological milestones at various moments in human development, the film identifies the origins, advantages and consequences of our evolution. Such messages have grown increasingly relevant in the constantly changing world of the 21st century.
A substantial portion of the film deals with humanity’s adaptation of technology, the advancement of which currently preoccupies society as an essential component of our existence. 2001 portrays this relationship with our devices through a dialectic lens, examining the codependency that has formed between people and their tools, and the simultaneous benefits and dangers this poses. In the Dawn of Man sequence, we witness the discovery of tools, as an ape realizes the powerful capabilities of bone. The climactic notes of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” accompany this scene, conveying the significance of this moment in history. This infamous, rousing piece of music marks the triumph of this first step in human progress. However, the apes quickly transition from using their newfound tools for nutrition to using them as murder weapons against a rival tribe. The ape and the bone require each other’s strength to produce this impact, an impact that can produce both resourceful and destructive results.
Kubrick illustrates the fulfillment of such potential in the film’s next transition. He uses a match-cut to jump millions of years into the future, cutting from a victorious ape launching a bone into the air to a vessel in space. By replacing this simple tool with a similarly shaped, yet more advanced one, Kubrick displays the hurtling speed of human and technological advancement which has facilitated humanity’s conquest of space.
Despite the impressive spacecraft dotted above Earth, Kubrick subtly points out that humanity does not possess full control of its tools. In the lunar journey sequence, as Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Silvester) travels to the moon, a flight attendant attempts to relinquish a pen that has flown from his pocket. The pen floats in the foreground of the shot, while the flight attendant gingerly steps towards the pen in the background. Suspended in midair, the pen mirrors the bone and the spaceship but suggests that humanity has started to lose control of its tools. Meanwhile, humanity must now retrace its steps, learning how to function again like children. People are learning how to walk without gravity, they eat softened food through straws and must even learn how to use a toilet as Floyd scans instructions for the zero-gravity facilities. Thus, this sequence not only portrays the glamor of space travel, but indicates that the fruits of progress could knock humanity back down to earth.
The Jupiter Mission segment encapsulates this theme of humanity’s precarious relationship with its tools. Here, the viewer finally meets the film’s main protagonist, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), and antagonist, HAL, a sentient computer voiced by Douglas Rain. HAL, mostly shown as a camera lens, oversees all functions of the Discovery One spacecraft, shares conversations with the crew members and even plays chess with Dave. HAL’s soothing voice and heightened simulated ability would serve as inspiration for the likes of Alexa and Siri. After HAL appears to mistakenly predict a satellite failure, Dave and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) decide they must disconnect HAL to ensure that no additional errors jeopardize their mission. HAL discovers the plan, so he kills all the crew members but Dave, who disconnects him before he can cause any further damage. Although Dave eliminates this threat, the plot underlines the harm that our own technology poses to humanity as a tool that can potentially outsmart and outlive us.
Kubrick establishes a new hierarchy in this sense, elevating HAL while demoting the crew members through several cinematic elements. Of the six crew members, four remain cryogenically frozen from takeoff until their deaths, implying that HAL is quite literally livelier than most of the crew. We find the remaining crew members, Dave and Frank, enjoying microwave dinners while watching television. Their expressionless faces and Frank’s negligible response to a birthday message from his parents convey how technology has numbed human experience and emotion. HAL, on the other hand, acts in distinctly human fashion as he goes to lengths to secure his survival. HAL’s singing of the nursery rhyme “Daisy” ironically serves as the most moving scene of the film.
Kubrick promotes HAL effectively through this contrast of characters. Upon its initial release, critics of 2001 complained that the only relatable, intriguing character that the film provided was HAL, a computer. But such critics missed a crucial point in casting this observation in a negative light. Perhaps Kubrick intentionally filled HAL with personality and drained any such charisma from the other characters, thereby emphasizing how our tools have outgrown and replaced us as human beings. This frightening concept alludes to Kubrick’s critical view of human evolution in response to technological progress.
Kubrick’s apparent, bleak outlook regarding human technological achievement highlights how our own arrogance can overcome and dehumanize us. The black monolith and the differing reactions it triggers throughout the film symbolize this theme. An imposing black column popping up at various points in time and space, the monolith plays an instrumental role in 2001 as a daunting symbol of progress. The monolith appears at three points in the film: with the apes, on the moon, and to Dave in the final scene. When the apes encounter this intimidating edifice, they shriek with alarm before curiously and humbly stepping up to touch it. The humans on the moon approach the monolith without such trepidation, cheerfully taking photographs with it. In response to their lack of respect, the monolith emits an intolerable high-pitched noise. Thus, the apes present more humanlike conduct than their supposedly developed descendants. Whereas the apes exhibit curiosity, the modern-day humans have taken their gift of inquiry for granted because of their lofty position atop the mountain of progress.
Dave’s confrontation with the monolith, however, reflects a more optimistic view of the state of humanity. Laying on his deathbed, Dave slowly points towards the monolith as it appears before him; his outstretched arm echoes that of the apes in their earlier interaction. Dave surpasses his fellow modern-day humans to reach this moment. By defeating HAL, he disconnects himself from the immersive technological beast born out of modernity, reminiscent of a person turning off a cell phone to escape the stronghold of our technology.
Alone, Dave concludes the mission to follow the monolith’s signal in the final segment of the film, traveling through a psychedelic wormhole before finding himself in what appears to be an old-fashioned bedroom on Earth. In one of the most discussed scenes in cinema history, Dave watches and becomes an older version of himself, living a technology-free, everyday life in the confines of his room. After his death, Dave transforms into “The Starchild,” hovering above Earth in the form of a wide-eyed fetus. Having disposed of the trappings of human technology and physicality, Dave transcends the prior form of human existence.
Although 2001 projects a rather dim perspective of human progress, its ending engenders a glimmer of hope for humanity in the age of technology. In 1968, Kubrick expertly mapped out the positive and negative aspects of human development, yet his warning resonates even more 50 years later. Audiences of 2001 ought not to view Kubrick’s message as a condemnation of technology and our need for it. On the contrary, those who watch 2001 should internalize Kubrick’s lesson of how not to utilize technology. By preserving our human features, which HAL and the apes adopt from their human counterparts, we can deploy our tools correctly as the vanguard of progress.
Photo Caption: Caption: HAL, a sentient computer and the film’s antagonist.
Photo Credit: Shot from 2001, Kubrick