One year ago today, the world’s most beloved alien left our planet and ventured into Deep Space. In honor of David Bowie, we begin our journey across fifty years of cinema with Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film opens like an opera of old, with an ominous musical overture, followed by the iconic planetary movement, accompanied by Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. The imagery at once not only sets the mood, but makes it abundantly clear that this is an epic, a journey for the ages. See for yourself, and do not forget to turn up the volume.
Once on terra firma, Kubrick paints a vision of the Dawn of Man, a young Earth where humanoid apes live peacefully alongside the wildlife. Enter the monolith, and the subsequent discovery of tools, weaponry with which to subject their environment to their will. First comes the apes’ passage into the realm of carnivores, and then the small step from killing for food to murdering for power. The bone club is cast into the air, and cuts to a shuttle in the vastness of space.
Once away from the confines of our atmosphere, Kubrick puts onto screen a serene waltz of spacecraft and station, one approaching while the other whirs through the black, shot with a technical grace still unrivalled. Inside the shuttle sleeps the first main character, Dr. Heywood, who is on his way to Clavius, a lunar base where something strange has been uncovered. After some drinks and dialogue, the matter of his presence on the moon is revealed. The monolith, excavated after a slumber of several million years. The scientists approach, take pictures, and are assaulted by a shriek, which presumably murders them, though the audience does not get to see the outcome, for this is not that sort of movie.
18 months later, a team of scientists, assisted by the on-board AI HAL 9000, travel towards Jupiter when an unforeseen malfunction, or rather HAL’s prediction of such an error, sets into motion a chain of events which lead to the loss of a comrade, a psychedelic journey through space-time and, ultimately, one of the most confounding endings in cinematic history.
As in many of Stanley Kubrick’s works, the film itself takes precedence over all, not serving as a showcase of any one actor or craftsman. The lack of stars or even household names ensures no single presence would overshadow the narrative, while also paving the way for HAL to truly shine. His wonderfully wry and calculated tone, an effective veneer for his massive ego, elevates the second half of the film above the first hour’s rather sluggish setup, and delivers the best remembered lines and moments of the entire film. Technology is thus the true star of the film, be it within the story or the machines with which the story is captured.
Independent of technology, and again much akin to the opera, is the structure, a clearly delineated triptych, linked more by the recurring theme of the limits and dangers of man’s neverending quest for advancement than by its setting or narrative. This leads into A Space Odyssey’s most clear, and perhaps only flaw, namely that the three-part narrative can feel somewhat disjointed, as if three separate movies had been balled into one. All the parts stand well enough on their own, and could be explored and expanded further, but could have benefited from some tweaking, especially in the middle segment.
The final sequence wraps everything up just as neatly as the opening scenes started it, with pure cinematic poetry, original, dense and wrought with hidden meaning on which we can only speculate and wonder, much like what we still do to this day when we look at the distant stars, wondering if there is indeed a Starman in the sky.