Pros: Good, if sometimes flawed, visuals; nice mix of sound and image; not kid stuff
Cons: Slow-paced; no stereotypical space battles; no easily-interpreted ending
It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Metro Goldwyn Mayer released director Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic-yet-somehow-captivating science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a serious (if not very prophetic) look at a future that could have been but wasn't.
Conceived by Kubrick and inventor/author Arthur C. Clarke as the "proverbial good science fiction movie" in 1964 and involving a long production process that lasted nearly three years, 2001 tackles several Big Topics, including the notion that human evolution may have been given a boost by extraterrestrial intelligence, the dangers of mixing national security interests with scientific exploration, and the strange double-edged sword of humanity's dependence on technology (a theme Kubrick also tackles in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).
And though its gross, in 1968 terms, was not breathtakingly huge ($56,000,000 in the U.S.), Kubrick's film not only marked a departure from the more Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon-styled space films of the early Space Age (1957-1975) by attempting to foresee what our future would be 33 years hence (in '68) based on how technology was progressing, but it also was a harbinger of today's whiz-bang special effects movie franchises.
Many of the production crew, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production designer Colin Cantwell, makeup designer Stuart Freeborn, and special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull would later work on Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman: The Movie (1978) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), just to name the most famous such oeuvres.
Like most movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey is divided in three acts, but unlike most films, where the division is somewhat subtle (unless you know screenplay structure), the story's arc is clearly delineated into three distinct parts.
The first part is set tens of thousands of years in Earth's past. Humanity as we know it doesn't exist; instead, we're shown our ape-like ancestors as they must have lived in the dusty plains of east Africa before they learned how to use rudimentary tools...and weapons.
The film's first 20 or so minutes is devoted to the travails of a small group of man-apes loosely led by one the novel (written by Clarke) identifies as Moon-Watcher. They have three problems to tackle - a leopard is stalking them, they're hungry but can't figure out how to kill a delicious-looking tapir, and a rival band of man-apes controls the local waterhole.
Things look grim for Moon-Watcher and his little band of proto-humans...until one morning the overly curious leader wakes up and finds a strange black monolith, some 40 feet tall and perfectly smooth. We're never shown how the darned thing got there, but to the accompaniment of some strange classical music ("Atmospheres" by Gyorgi Ligeti), we do see Moon-Watcher and his followers touching its surface and somehow...becoming smarter. (No, they don't suddenly start talking in English a la Planet of the Apes, which inexplicably beat out 2001 for best makeup effects.)
The upshot of what the monolith does to our African ancestors is nicely summed up in the scene where Moon-Watcher, to the now-famous strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarazustra" (the Theme from 2001), picks up a bone, starts toying with it gingerly, then more forcefully uses it to smash a bleached white skull. Kubrick then shows us that the monolith-instructed ape-men then learn to hunt, and then, in a sequence that leads to one of the coolest transitions in cinema history, learn how to wage a primitive but effective war against the "others" that control the waterhole.
The second part of 2001 abruptly takes us forward to 1999 (Moon-Watcher tosses a bone up into the air, and in a quick-jump shot, it becomes a laser-armed satellite in Earth orbit), where we're shown a Pan Am space liner making its way to a spinning double-donut space station, to the lovely strains of a Kubrick favorite, The Blue Danube Waltz.
Aboard the space liner is Dr. Heywood Floyd (character actor William Sylvester), the head of the U.S. National Council of Astronautics (NCA). Ostensibly heading to the Clavius moon base to deal with a medical crisis, Floyd is really on a top-secret mission to investigate the discovery of a strange black monolith buried deep beneath the crater known as Tycho.
Dr. Floyd: [upon learning about the monolith while on the moonbus] Deliberately buried. Huh!
There is some dialog between Floyd and his Soviet counterparts on the space station centered on the secrecy of his mission (apparently, in this version of the future, the Cold War is sort of still going on), but the payoff for this sequence is where Floyd and a group of American scientists, all in spacesuits, go to inspect the black monolith code named TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One).
As in the Moon-Watcher sequence, there are no blinking lights or bizarre space rays that zap the humans. Instead, when Floyd places his gloved hand on its smooth surface, the monolith emits a strong radio-like signal toward Jupiter, largest of the planets in our solar system.
The third act of the film is the best known and most maddening of the film. Set 18 months after the second human-monolith encounter, it takes place aboard Discovery One, the first manned spaceship to be sent into Jovian orbit. With five humans (three of them in hibernation) and one HAL-9000 computer, Discovery is on a top-secret mission that only Hal (voice of Douglas Rain) has been fully briefed on, which is one of the big problems that will ensue for Mission Commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).
What happens next, I'll leave for the reader who hasn't read any of the other reviews or seen the film to discover. Suffice it to say that it involves one of Kubrick's main concerns (humanity's love/hate relationship with technology) and the classic science fiction exploration of what is Out There and how we might have been helped up the evolutionary ladder by superior beings, whether they be aliens or a manifestation of a Higher Power.
While I don't remember when I first saw 2001 - I'm not sure if it was ever broadcast on network TV - I do remember that the movie's deliberately slow pace and its sparse dialog (the commentary track on the 2007 DVD points out that there are only 37 minutes' worth of spoken lines in 2001) put me to sleep. It might have impressed me visually at the time - it had, after all, made Star Wars possible - but when I was young I wanted zap guns and John Williams music in my space-faring movies, not some cold, scientifically possible ruminations on the Great Cosmic questions about life, the universe, and everything.
And to many people who have grown up in the post-Star Wars era, 2001 will probably not be their cinematic cup of tea. The score is not a unified group of leitmotivs like Williams' music for the Star Wars series, and because much of the visual magic is there to make the movie realistic, there are none of the clichés from either George Lucas's "galaxy far, far away" of people casually hopping on spacecraft without thinking about what they're doing or Star Trek's transporters or faster-than-light warp drives. In some parts, people float or are kept from floating in zero-g, and in the outer space sequences, we don't hear roaring spaceship engines even when there are space pods literally a few feet away from a character.
Kubrick and Clarke also do not spell out the meaning of the movie's ending, which is fine for many of the film's fans (of which, I hasten to add, I am one) but not for lots of viewers who like their stories to be handed to them all nicely wrapped and tied with ribbons. Kubrick probably had no clear definition of the film's meaning, though in his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke's literary sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, some of the questions were given partial answers.
The 2001 that never was: Maybe one of the reasons 2001 is worth watching 50 years after its release is that it offers a wistful look at a tiny window in time when everything we see in Kubrick's operatic riff on the future looked possible.
Obviously, as prophecy, 2001 clearly didn't get things right. The fast pace of space exploration of the mid-1960s petered out after Apollo 11's historic moon landing in July 1969. The Vietnam War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race, like today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were draining our nation's financial resources, which meant cutting back on space exploration programs. Thus, there were no double-donut space stations or moon bases by the time the real 2001 rolled around. Pan Am and the Soviet Union ceased to exist a decade before the 21st Century dawned, and the International Space Station and the aging space shuttle were the only manned programs going strong during that fabled titular year.
2001 also got computers wrong. Sure, they did become part of daily life a bit before 2001 A.D. and some of the features of the World Wide Web and 21st Century tech were foreseen, such as video phones and web cams of some sort, but today's computers are much smaller than HAL-9000. (There is a myth, which Arthur C. Clarke always denied, that posited the notion that HAL was a clever poke at IBM; each letter of the paranoid computer's name is one that precedes the initials of International Business Machines.)
Nevertheless, for all its gaffes (Earth from space is something that Kubrick also didn't quite get right...it's too pale!), 2001 is a thought-provoking and visually stunning film. It features one of the most carefully-conceived matches between special effects and classical music in movie history, and for those who like "grown up space movies," 2001: A Space Odyssey remains, even 50 years after its release, a mind-blowing and unforgettable experience.