Kubrick disrupts this culture with 2001, an expansive, multi-layered masterpiece challenging not only technology's role with humanity, but humanity's place in the universe. On another level, 2001 challenges us to rethink the way cinema can tell story. One reviewer called it a visual tone poem, fitting for a film where dialog interrupts barely one quarter of the experience.
In keeping with his long-standing philosophy, Kubrick doesn’t patronize the audience by feeding us answers; rather he poses questions challenging us to continue the conversation. There is a surface story that many people find difficult to discern due to the lack of oral narrative, but beyond that lies an incredibly rich set of metaphors embedded in imagery and sound that beg for discussion and interpretation. That Kubrick intended some deeper meaning is hardly in question; he was so notorious for meticulously designing and shooting each frame so that every detail had purpose that these cohesive metaphors cannot be coincidence. With 2001, Kubrick could hardly have been more successful in creating conversation. There are enough books and papers, ranging from inspired to the very definition of loony, to fill at least one library. He himself never spoke to whatever "meaning" (or "meanings") he intended to lay beneath the surface story, leaving a blank palette for viewers to discuss. Given this, please regard my thoughts here as exactly that- mine. They are in no way correct.
Let's get the surface story out of the way first. This is a tone, or image, poem in three acts. Act I is The Dawn of Man. We see a tribe of protohominids literally scratching out a meager vegetarian existence in an unforgiving African climate. They are undernourished, fighting a neighboring tribe for water by day and huddling together in fear of predators by night. One morning the tribe awakes startled to find an obviously unnatural black monolith. They walk around it with both suspicion and curiosity until one of them dares to touch it. The monolith imparts the idea, or knowledge, of using tools. With these tools the tribe gains the upper hand against extinction. A fun fact is that all of the ape-humans are actors except the babies, which are chimpanzees. The costumes and make up are highly realistic, even including milk sacks in the breasts of the females. The film wasn't even nominated for an academy award for costumes or make-up. That year's award went to Planet of the Apes, prompting one critic to wonder if the Academy knew that 2001's man-apes weren't real.
The Dawn of Man continues with the best jump cut in movie history, simultaneously the biggest fast-forward. The year is 2001 and a space bureaucrat travels to a lunar base to address compatriot resident bureaucrats regarding the need for continued secrecy around a discovery they have made. He, Dr. Floyd, then goes on an excursion to see this discovery for himself, which turns out to be a black monolith. Whether this is the same monolith as earlier is often discussed but actually irrelevant. As the sun rises over the horizon the group views the monolith and Dr. Floyd reaches out to it (sound familiar?). A piercing signal emanates from the monolith.This ends Act I. The Dawn of Man is completed when we are able to live beyond our home planet.
Act II is a mission to Jupiter on the space ship Discovery. On board crew consists of five astronauts and a supercomputer. 3 of the astronauts are in hibernation while the other two, David Bowman and Frank Poole, are caretakers of Discovery en route. The computer, which is capable of human-like speech, is named Hal. Hal has complete control over all ship functions. The crew live in a part of the ship that rotates, centrifugal force creating artificial gravity. As they approach Jupiter, Hal malfunctions (?) and plots the death of the entire human crew. Bowman survives and shuts down Hal's higher functions. Bowman then learns the real, secret purpose of the mission: he learns of the monolith and its signal, which was directed at Jupiter. Discovery was to find out why.
Act III has Discovery in Jovian orbit, but it isn't alone. There is a monolith with them. Bowman goes in a space pod to investigate (with the pod's manipulator "hands" open), but the monolith sends Bowman through countless galaxies (and maybe dimensions) before coming to rest in what could be a hotel suite. The only things out of place are Bowman in his space suit and the pod. He sees himself at increasingly older ages (possible because of theoretical physics' postulate that all time exists at each of our perceived moments) until he, bedridden and extremely aged, reaches out to another monolith. Bowman is then transformed, or evolved, into a star-child of an unknown, but advanced, species.
Comments about the surface story:
Kubrick gives us a real balance of views regarding technology. Tools saved us from extinction but could also be used for our own extinction. The bone club, when thrown into the air, becomes an orbiting nuclear bomb - weapon becomes weapon. Yet there is an exquisite sense of awe and wonder he creates in his vision of space exploration - he lingers on the dance of vessels, the views of earth, moon, solar system and universe. Technology creates conveniences like a videophone and confounding complexities, witness the zero-gravity toilet instructions. We can create amazingly intelligent technology, but at what point do we become its servant? The hibernating crew aboard Discovery look almost like relics of a prior era, mummies in high-tech sarcophogi. Poole and Bowman's role seem subservient to Hal. Every human in the film behaves in a predictable, passionless, almost programmed way. In fact Hal is the most human character in the film. Hal lies, manipulates, seeks praise, schemes and fears. Hal tests loyalties- he lies to Poole during the chess game. Poole is not in checkmate, but he doesn't question Hal. However, when Hal asks Bowman leading questions about the mission, Bowman calls his bluff by asserting Hal has underlying motives to the questions. Hal realizes Bowman will challenge him and he fabricates an emergency to see if he can isolate Bowman, to eliminate the one who could complicate the mission. Hal notes that Bowman leaves Discovery in response. When Bowman convinces Poole they might need to shut him down, Hal realizes he can't count on either human to support him without question so he moves to Plan B and tries to murder everyone.
Part of the reason for secrecy over the moon monolith is the concern, even panic we might feel when confronted with another race, with presumably far more advanced technology. Yet the ending is a vision of, dare I say, hopefulness that we one day might evolve into a better version of homo sapiens that connects to our past (fetus in embryo) but has a much grander future.
Kubrick's choice of music for this film is one of the best examples in film for how score interacts with screenplay. Here the audible is an equal partner to the visible. It didn't begin that way. A composer (Alex North) was hired to create the soundtrack and Stanley worked with him on bits, but Kubrick eventually decided that a conventional score that leads people into specific emotions was out of place in a film that rests so heavily on each individual's experience. He wanted emotional responses to the film to be personal, not corporate. The composer didn't know his score wasn't used until he went to the premier.
There are 3 pieces of music that are central to the film: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) by Richard Strauss, the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss and a collection of works by Gyorgy Ligeti titled Atmospheres, Requiem and Lux Aeterna. By the way, Ligeti didn't know his work was in the film until its release and he hadn't granted Kubrick the rights. They worked it out amicably.
Also Sprach Zarathustra has the deepest connection of meaning with the film. Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, founded the Zoroastrian religion sometime around 1600 BCE . This religion is quite dualistic in assigning things as good or evil, which could relate to the film's questions about technology. However, the tighter connection is to Nietsche's treatise on Zarathustra. First, both Kubrick and Clarke were atheist, which fits better with Nietsche's "God is dead" philosophy than Zoroaster's conception of a creator deity who existed before all creation. Also, Nietsche wrote extensively about humanity progressing to become "uebermenschen", translateable as "over", "super", or "beyond", men, which is the essence of the surface story line. The only part of Richard Strauss' tone poem Kubrick uses is the dramatic opening titled "Sunrise". Combining this title with Nietsche's philosophy gives this music the meaning of enlightenment, or the dawn of a new state of being. Note when this music is used: as the tribe leader understands their new future and when David Bowman becomes the Star-child. It's a perfect fit. What was is over, transcendence has occurred and a new "day", a new future, is begun.
The Blue Danube waltz is the quintessential Viennese waltz. In the late 19th century, Vienna was at the pinnacle of Imperial power and culture and grand balls featuring waltzes were celebrations of power, station and and grandeur. In 2001, the Blue Danube waltz accompanies the choreographed movements of spaceships among the examplars of the pinnacle of human achievement, our first residences beyond the confines of our home planet. Again, a perfect fit.
Then we get to Ligeti's pieces. These are avant-garde works composed shortly before filming on 2001 began. He uses a technique called micropolyphony that does have a melodic line, but it is nearly impossible to pick out at first because he has every individual starting at a different part of the melody and he ignores musical structures like meter (beat) and key. Individual parts echo the others, only at different speeds. Parts drop out and enter at seemingly random times, creating different textures within a soundscape that has no real movement, direction or melodic line. Paradoxically, changes occur within a static whole. The effect is unsettling at best. When we experience the film, Ligeti shows up when change is about to happen, and change is often unsettling. Requiem is heard whenever the monolith appears, signalling the death of a stage in our development is happening. Atmospheres comes in when people (or protohominids) are being challenged or shaped by a monolith. And, when monoliths appear, quantum-shift changes happen to who we are. We can't eliminate our past, but we will never be the same. I can visualize neurons or DNA alleles being rewired when I hear Ligeti. We may look the same on the outside, but we are different on the inside. Lux Aeterna, Latin for eternal light, is only heard once in the film, when the moon bus is taking Dr.Floyd and others from Clavius base to the excavation site of the lunar monolith. My interpretation here is that these men are approaching the signpost leading to a new, transcendent existence that will lift humans out of the darkness of an existence threatened by violence of our own making. Again, a perfect fit.
If this film has a central character beyond the (perhaps) unseen advanced race behind, in or of the monoliths, it is Hal, and Hal touches off a galaxy of questions. Computer technology hasn't advanced as quickly as Kubrick, Clarke and a bunch of 1960's technical advisors foresaw, but we are getting close. What should we do when artificial intelligence learns to reason for itself? What responsibilities do creators have for their creations and their creations' actions? What did Mary Shelly try to teach us? Is Hal self-aware? He seems to have emotions of pride and fear and is motivated by self-preservation; is Hal a sentient being or a machine? If Hal is sentient, does Bowman commit a vigilante assault with his digital lobotomy on him? Going more directly to the story line, does Hal make a mistake forecasting the failure of the AE-35 unit or was this a lying gambit and cover-up as I averred earlier? Given that we find out the real mission was hidden from Frank and Dave, forcing Hal to lie to them, are his reactions, including neuroses, really his fault or is he a victim of our paranoia over intelligent life existing somewhere else? Kubrick won't answer those questions, although Clarke gave his answers in his sequel, 2010. Kubrick was so against any possible sequel that he had every model, drawing, mold, prop, costume, set and extra frame of film destroyed and burned. Almost. Somehow one man-ape suit and one space helmet survived. The film 2010 by Peter Hyams and starring Roy Scheider had to recreate Discovery from scratch. 2010 is a perfectly good but ordinary film.
The Special Special Effects:
The film has 205 special effects shots, all of which were either done by Kubrick himself or overseen (read micro-managed) by him. This is well before computer graphics, yet I believe the effects stand up pretty well through the years. An indicator of Stanley's self-confidence in creating special effects is that the entire film was shot in 70mm Cinemascope. Not even Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was filmed entirely in 70mm. Any little flaw would be horribly exposed.
Kubrick hired many technical experts, attempting to inbue the film with a sense of realism despite the pre-history and future settings.Dr. Richard Leakey, the famous anthropologist, gave input to the shape of the protohominids and Jane Goodall commented on their movement. Space engineers helped design all of the craft, the space station, lunar base and space suits, using designs already under discussion. Every bit was built with the idea that form follows function, for example, Discovery's hexagonal engines and spine were lifted from Lockheed and NASA nuclear plasma drive drawings. There are no silly ship designs like those created today. Are you listening, Michael Bay and and James Gunn? If you look, every shot of a ship's exterior or space dock has people moving behind the windows, something my son-in-law Erik observed that George Lucas couldn't do 10 years later. Every instrument was designed by a flight engineer. 2001's original budget was $6. 5 million, which ballooned to about 10. 5 million. The original budget ended up being the cost of special effects alone. The vertical centrifuge used for the rotating part of Discovery, with its complex camera placements, camera controls and rigging for the cast, cost over $1,000,000 by itself. 2001 wrapped filming well before the Apollo 8 mission became our first close look at the moon and at how the Earth looked from the moon and before Apollo 11 showed us what the moon's surface looked like, yet Kubrick nailed all of these shots. So well so that the moon walk denier conspiracy theorists claim all that NASA space footage was done by Kubrick for the government. How else could he have gotten all that money for special effects? Hint: product placement.
There are several instances in the film where we see a combination of the sun moon, earth and monolith in vertical alignment. Some of these are cosmological impossibilities so we must assume that Stanley wasn't trying to imply a time of day, a moment on a calendar or some astrological meaning. If, however, we consider that in every scene containing anything man-made there is no alignment, it is safe to conclude that Kubrick intends that the universe and the race represented by the monolith are a perfection that our human state cannot achieve.
Some people attribute meanings to the use of either circles (or spheres) to rectangles. Most of these people ascribe humans as inhabiting the circles representing eggs and uebermenschen and technology inhabiting the rectangles representing sperm. The human / technology offspring - HAL - is an evolutionary dead-end while the human / uebermensch offspring is the Star-Child.
Beyond the Surface:
Stanley Kubrick called 2001: A Space Odyssey an exploration of inner and outer space. The outer space bit is clear, but what of inner space? Interpretations and analyses of the film, at least the sane ones, range from a retelling of Homer's Odyssey (an argument I find to be contrived and weak) to a metaphor for puberty. As I mentioned before, the following analysis seems right for me. It is not the right answer, it just works for me. I think Stanley would be upset if a consensus grew around one narrative that didn't allow others to be heard. Feel free to disagree and build your own interpretation.
My belief around the film's underlying meaning is centered around its most enigmatic symbol, the monolith. I am not alone in this interpretation, it being also put forward by internet film critic Rob Ager, although some of my reasonings for this interpretations differ from Ager. Clarke's short story, The Sentinel, portrays this object as a pyramid. Kubrick couldn't get that shape to film well, but he didn't try very hard, either. I believe he had something else in mind all along, the iconic black rectangular prism. Clarke had to backpedal on his writing of the novelization of the movie to account for the new shape, and Kubrick suggested a great rationale for it: the monolith was a perfect mathematical shape; the ratio of its sides (Depth by width by height) are 1x4x9, the squares of the first three integers. So what does this have to do with any possible deeper meaning within the film? Remember, the film was shot in 70mm Cinemascope, resulting in an image aspect ratio of 2.23:1. The ratio between the monolith's height and width is 2.25:1. That's awfully close, and I don't think it's a coincidence. Very little of Kubrick's work is coincidence. So, for me, the monolith is a representation of the cinema screen itself. Yes, I know the screen is wider than it is tall and we think of the monolith as standing upright. But it is not always so; it is lying sideways at some critical points. But why would Kubrick create a metaphor for the movie screen? I think he is inviting us into his mind, asking us to join with him on this exploration of who we are and, more importantly, who we are to become. The monolith is an agent of change, and Kubrick hoped this film would change our perception of our future and change our perception of what cinema could be. Cinema is afte all a visual medium. Why do we need so much oral exposition and dialog during a visual experience?
The similarity of proportion between the monolith and the cinema screen is not my only reason for choosing this particular interpretation. The main reason for me is, of course, found in the music. The film opens with a blank, black screen (the monolith) as we hear Ligeti's Atmospheres. From the text above, remember that Atmospheres plays when the monolith is changing, or challenging, those in its presence. That Kubrick is challenging our notions of what cinema can be, focusing on images to elicit emotional reactions at a different level than narrative, can hardly be doubted. There is also the possibility that he is challenging our notions regarding technology, to step back and look critically at using technology that advances our lives without it threatening us or making us subservient to it. At the same time, he points us in a direction of moving beyond our limits as humans, toward a transhuman or uebermensch future. After the introductory blank screen and Ligeti we get the combination of seeing an alignment of the moon, earth and sun and hearing Also Sprach Zarathustra. This cements the interpretation that Kubrick points us toward an ideal of evolving beyond our humanness.
So, there's a brief introduction to a film that received mixed reviews upon its release. Many critics commented that Kubrick's directorial skills were not good because he couldn't elicit any emotion from his actors. They didn't get it. Actually, when you watch the man-ape first grasping a bone and nonchalantly letting it fall, you can see the moment he "gets it". It's a fine bit of acting. And David Bowman, played by Kier Dullea, also puts in a good performance. He is an automaton until he is forced out of his daze by Hal's treachery. Then we see purpose, determination, fear and utter disbelief. My opinion is that it takes a great director to get actors to show that much restraint. Anyway, in spite of the bad reviews and people walking out of the premiere,
2001: A Space Odyssey is now regarded as one of the top 5 films ever. If you don't own the Blu-Ray, you should.