Film review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In my mind, one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, which I’ve watched on a number of occasions. I did a project in high school on this Kubrick film. My review contains spoilers!

About the origin of the human species, and the desire to know the truth about our place in the universe, where is our technology heading, the development of our machines into artificial intelligence, the limits of the human mind. The theme of evolution, from ape to man, and what lies beyond man.

One of the first serious science fiction films ever made, but does demand patience. The groundbreaking techniques still influence modern special effects. As the "Odyssey" title suggests, 2001 is a journey. A bewildering, alienating mythology of leaving behind the familiar and venturing out into the unknown, the unimaginable.

In the book “The cinema of Stanley Kubrick”, the director is quoted:
I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content…I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does…You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film

Kubrick felt a lot of the science fiction films of the 50s were immature B-movies, his aim was to make a mature treatment of space exploration, or intelligent sci-fi, which attempted to show man in the cosmic order, where we confront our own destiny.

Kubrick wanted all the objects and spacecrafts to be precise and realistic, so he has a scientific advisor go through it all. The director was interested in life in outer space, and what would happen if we encountered it. Kubrick has stated his views on extra terrestrial intelligence, he believes the law of statistics make it inevitable there is life other places in the universe.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, author of the short story “The Sentinel”, which the screenplay is based on, had close connections with NASA, his privileged connections gave Clarke access to the design and construction of real space hardware. According to Clarke, the goal of the film was to show the wonder, beauty and promise of space exploration. Clarke thought the film could prepare the human race for what is to come and a possible contact with aliens.

Together with Kubrick, they collaborated on a 130 page prose treatment, which was reworked into a screenplay. Clarke would later release a novel entitled 2001, which was less ambiguous and revealed some of the mysteries of the film. Kubrick’s film had a divine tone, while Clarke’s novelization was more atheistic.

Won Oscar for special effects. The ape makeup was also very realistic. It was later joked that "2001" lost the Best Makeup Academy Award to John Chambers for Planet of the Apes (1968), because the judges didn't realize the 2001 apes were really people, but there was no nomination list at all, as the award was not created until 1981. Chambers' award was merely honorary. Music also plays an important role, it would be impossible to imagine 2001 without Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

2001: A Space Odyssey puts man’s evolution into perspective, where we experience how much progress has been made from the dawn of man until today.

Men hadn’t landed on the moon when the film premiered in 1968, so Kubrick’s film was ahead of its time and warning of future events. Even though space exploration hasn’t caught up with the film yet, some of the technological advancements have come true. The dream of landing a man on the moon as we know happened in 1969. Even though we obviously have passed the year 2001, you could argue 2001 : a space odyssey will continue to be a futuristic, speculative story for as long as there continues to be no contact between our race and another. Kubrick is exploring what mankind’s quest for and first contact with such a species might truly be like, and what the consequences for mankind might be.

For Roger Ebert, the film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie. Ebert believes “2001: A Space Odyssey'' is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards. Much of the dialogue exists only to show people talking to one another, without much regard to content (this is true of the conference on the space station). Ironically, the dialogue containing the most feeling comes from HAL, as it pleads for its “life'' and sings “Daisy.'' Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail. According to Ebert, only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer.

The black, rectangular-shaped monolith represents in the film a higher intelligence from outer space. The monolith knows best, man is nothing. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that the monolith is so superior, manipulating, and controlling. Isn’t it arrogant to not even question whether the apes and humans want to be helped?
The monolith behaves like a God, a source of infinite knowledge. Kubrick used symbolism from religious beliefs in the film, the black monolith looking remarkably like the Kaaba in Mecca, the site that is most holy to Muslims and towards which they must face when they are praying. So in that sense you could interpret Kubrick’s monolith as a powerful God.
The black monolith was essentially a teaching machine, in fact, according to the informative documentary “2001: The making of a myth”, the original idea was for the monolith to have a transparent screen on which images would appear which would teach the apes things, like how to fight each other, and make fire, this turned out to be too costly. Maybe this was for the best.

In the book “The complete Kubrick”, Kubrick is quoted as saying:

"the films plot symbolized the search for God, and it finally postulates what is a little less than a scientific definition of God. (…) the realistic hardware and the documentary feelings about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept"

HAL the computer is probably the most interesting character in the film to me, the humans were deliberately made emotionless and bland by Kubrick, as this makes us notice the human qualities of HAL even more. The awesome spectacle of the universe also trumps over interest in the human characters.
We don’t know if HAL has been manipulated by a superior being, or he has just reached a more human state. The story is ambiguous concerning whether the aliens are controlling HAL or not, although I think this is implausible, because why would the superior beings want to kill the sleeping crew onboard the Discovery?
HAL has acquired emotions, an ego, and the beginning of a personality, and this is when he starts to misbehave. In the book “The cinema of Stanley Kubrick”, Daniels thinks Kubrick is implying that since machines are becoming human, men must become something else, something more.

Some have interpreted the theme of a rebellious computer as a mistrust of technology, others, given Kubrick’s fondness for machines and computers, see it as more likely to be a mistrust of man’s misuse of technology. With the HAL computer, the film seems to question could an artificial entity have emotions and care about humans? Does HAL have the emotions he appears to display? And do we have a responsibility to treat it like a living being?
Perhaps HAL can’t live with having made a mistake? Has man managed to make a computer with a conscience? There seems to be a warning in the story to future generations about how far we should let technology advance in terms of artificial intelligence. If the computers are suddenly more powerful and controlling than humans, then Houston, we have a problem!
Incrementing each letter of "HAL" gives you "IBM". Writer Arthur C. Clarke claimed this was unintentional, and if he had noticed ahead of time, he would have changed it. HAL stands for Heuristic Algorithmic Computer. IBM product placements appear in the movie as well, including the computer panels in the spaceplane that docks with the space station, the forearm control panel on Dave's spacesuit, and the portable viewscreens on which Dave and Frank watch "The World Tonight".

One of my favourite scenes is near the end, where the astronaut travels into the star gate. I felt the filmmakers in this sequence were trying to make me the viewer of the film watch Bowman’s experiences through his eyes in the first person, which was cool. Many of the scenes in space are claustrophobic, as astronauts no doubt feel when trapped in a suit. The breathing of Bowman outside the spacecraft Discovery is a great tool to illustrate his fear.

I like, as opposed to for example Inception, that there are many quiet moments, where we the audience can sit back and just contemplate the wonders of space and are place in the scheme of things. People experience the film in very different ways, some find it boring, slow, pretentious, and lacking warm characters, some watch it on drugs, and so on. It’s among that genre of film I like that is accepted in spite of having very little dialogue. The film succeeds in portraying the vastness and mystery of space very well.

I love the ambiguous ending, has Bowman been reborn as a star child, and what is next? Is this man’s next step in evolution? Or is he now a kind of God ruling over mankind? It still gives me chills watching the closing scene with that powerful music, where the star child seems to look back at me, and silently ask, what do you think this ending means?

The film questions what might happen, if we came into contact with an alien life form. Would we even understand each other’s way of communicating and thought process? Would we be able to communicate with a shapeless entity? And are we just a piece of jigsaw in an enormous puzzle, which we have no control over, and never will be able to understand? 2001 is a film that can reveal something new upon each viewing. Part of the continued interest in the film is that not everything is explained, and there are a number of things to interpret. More than just a film, it takes filmmaking to a new level, there is a whole literature on 2001! If you ever have the chance to see the film at the cinema, do so. The ultimate trip, as they say, which still manages to give the viewer chills. For me, one of the few films which is able to marry visuals, music and thoughtfulness. If only there were more directors with the ambition and imagination of Kubrick.

There have been a few imitations over the years, I quite liked Mr. Nobody



Readers, any thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey ?


  1. Ah, what a magnificent film - frustrating, ambiguous & majestic in equal measures. And though not a human, HAL certainly remains one of the most chilling movie characters. Fine writeup on this Kubrick classic!

  2. I still admit that I have absolutely no clue what the end was about. I've watched it four times and still don't know. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the technical mastery of the film.

  3. @Shubhajit : Thanks for stopping by, Looks like we share a mutual respect for 2001, yes the HAL character really was interesting and creepy, I almost forgot it was a machine!

    @ M. Carter @ the Movies: Yes, agreed, 2001 is a film to watch again and again ( : Deliberately ambiguous I think, and that's partly what makes it rewatchable for me.

  4. Great write-up of an incredible film. 2001 is far and away my favorite Kubrick movie. The images are magnificent (I really want to see this projected on a big screen), and I love the deliberate pacing as well.

  5. @ Dave Becker: I think 2001 is my favourite Kubrick too, I do love The Shining as well. 2001 just blew me away visually, a feast for the eyes ( :

  6. I saw 2001 for the first time a few months ago and was completely blown away: I couldn’t believe how modern and non-dated it looked for a such an old movie and even though it’s really long the time just flew by. Best sci-fi I’ve ever seen with no competition! Great Review! Btw, do you think you could send me another random list of random music to listen to. Thanks!

  7. @Dan O: Thanks for praise of my review, took me some time. I wish I could see 2001 for the first time ( : Will e-mail some random tracks, don't know your taste, so no promises you'll like em.

  8. I read the book many years before I ever saw the film. When I did finally see it, the first thing that went through my mind was to wonder how anybody could possibly understand what was happening in the movie if they had not read the book first.

  9. @Chip Lary: I read the book too (after I saw the movie). Have to admit the novelization was not my cup of tea, it tried to explain the ending in a matter of fact manner, the ambiguous ending in the film was exactly what made the story so haunting and memorable.

  10. Great review. I really enjoyed reading it. I like the fact that you put so much time preparing and researching for reviews like this, it's refreshing.

    I hold very similar views about this film. I must say that it's definitely one of the most challenging viewing experiences of my life. I am still not sure whether I absolutely love it or hate it. What is definitely true is that I love talking about it because it's an endlessly fascinating piece of film. Whether it's an actual entertaining experience, I'm not so sure.

    But like Sean Penn once said in the Actor's Studio: "if you want entertainment, you get a couple of hookers and an eight ball", movies can do much more than simply entertain.

    1. @niels85: Nice of you to say so! And yes, I do spend time researching, hopefully my opinion doesn't get lost in the trivia and quotes.

      "2001" is a little slow for the impatient viewer. On the other hand, certainly challenging, and magnificent in terms of special effects. It's a film for me where the ingredients add up to 2+2=5

  11. Try Leonard F.Wheat's 2000 book,Kubrick's 2001=A Triple Allegory,showing how all events are from Homer's Odyssey and Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra-which also opens at dawn,ending with the hero's interrupted last supper!


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