Like the other big movie of 1968 (Planet of the Apes), vast quantities have already been written about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As such, this review will not cover everything. 2001 is a huge milestone in sci-fi. It has a few genuflections to its 50s ancestry, but it is the first of the modern sci-fi epics. In it, you can see the foundations of Star Wars and beyond. Yet, 2001 is as enigmatic as it was monumental. With a plot as sweeping as the evolution of man from animal to star child, it is very ambitious. It can be too ambitious and artsy for some.
Quick Plot Synopsis
2001 comes in four distinct "chapters". Here they are in very brief form:
Chapter One: Superchimps -- Dawn comes in earth's ancient past. Clans of chimpanzees graze on plants with other animals. They fight with other chimp clans over a water hole. One night, a big black obelisk appears near one chimp clan. They freak out, but get curious and touch it. They learn to use clubs. With them, they kill animals for meat and drive off the rival clan from the water hole. Man is created.
Chapter Two: Moon Discovery -- Mankind has routine PanAm flights in space, space stations, and bases on the moon. Dr. Floyd travels via these modern wonders to the moon. Men have discovered a strange magnetic anomaly. Excavated in a pit is a big black obelisk (just like the chimps got). When the astronauts touch it, a piercing tone erupts (along with a radio beam to Jupiter, we later learn).
Chapter Three: Hal Goes Mad -- The interplanetary ship Discovery One is en route to Jupiter. Aboard are three researchers in hibernation and pilots Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. The HAL9000 computer runs the ship's systems. All is routine to the point of boring until Hal reports the imminent failure of a component of their antenna array. Frank replaces the unit, but the old one checks out fine. Suspecting that Hal is malfunctioning, Dave and Frank conspire to switch Hal off. Hal figures this out. While EVA to check the antenna again, Hal causes Frank to spin off into space. Dave goes after him in a pod and retrieves his body. Hal won't let Dave back aboard. Dave gets in anyway and shuts Hal down.
Chapter Four: Jupiter and Beyond -- Once at Jupiter, Dave leaves the Discovery in a pod. He encounters another obelisk floating in Jupiter orbit. He goes through a veritable orgy of colored lights and colorized landscapes. Eventually, he encounters himself in a rococo bedroom as an older man. Then he's on his deathbed. The obelisk appears at the foot of his bed. Dave turns into a star child (fetus with big eyes). The End.
Why is this movie fun?
2001 is too big of a movie not to find something to like. The sets and models work is impressive, even in today's world of CGI. The many loose ends of the plot add intrigue. Kubrik's sense of visual art is impressive. The visual "ballet" of ship and station, or the careful steps of the stewardesses, all to Straus's Blue Danube, was fun to watch too.
Cold War Angle
Though not as evident in the movie, Clarke's novel was more overt. In his 2001, the Cold War is still raging. The satellites orbiting in the beginning of Chapter Two were warhead platforms (in the book). Kubrick made them less obviously so. At the end of Clarke's novel, nuclear armageddon is about to start, but Dave as Star Child intervenes. Kubrick glossed over this too with his floating star child not doing much more than staring at the earth.
Companion Book -- Clarke's novel was developed at the same time as the movie's screenplay. As such, the stories in the two are very close. They deviated on a few inconsequential points -- such as Discovery's destination being Saturn in the book, Jupiter in the film. Most of the differences can be chalked up to the nature of print vs. movies. Books can use third person omniscient narrators to fill in details and back story. Movies are primarily visual and action-oriented. Kubrik could only suggest back story concepts with visual symbols. Clarke could monologue details.
The Cusp -- Kubrik's production marks a turning point from old Golden Age sci-fi space dramas, to the modern Star Wars age and beyond. Yet, as that link, it has its feet on both sides. The various space ships and shuttles are all very 70s and 80s. Yet, the big spinning wheel space station is a legacy to the 50s, Conquest of Space in particular. By the late 60s, NASA no longer thought an orbital station was a necessary step to the moon. The Apollo program, then only a year away from landing on the moon, would fly there directly. Yet, Kubrik and Clarke kept the old big wheel.
Evolution's Third Strike -- 2001 was the third movie in early 1968 to inadvertently undermine the popularly held theory of man's evolution. That is, of the slow and steady progress via random mutations and natural selection eventually leading to sentient man. All three movies propose that something from outside interfered and caused mankind as we know it. In Planet of the Apes, it was a nuclear war that sparked all three ape species to sentience. In Five Million Years to Earth, it was the highly advanced Martians who genetically altered earth apes to produce men. In 2001, it was a vague "higher power" that provided the change. Before the appearance of the obelisk, they were just animals -- hungry vegetarian chimps. After the obelisk, they used tools, walked more erect, and they learned to kill. (some might argue that this was not an improvement.) Even 2001's continuing "evolution" of man into a Star Child, is due to the unseen divine hand. Bowman doesn't evolve himself in some Neitzschian way (as implied with Kubrik's choice of "change" music: "Also Sprach Zarazustra", Richard Strauss's tone poem inspired by Neitzche's book of the same name.) Nor does Bowman evolve in the Darwinian way. Instead, he is transformed by a power outside himself and nature.
Classic Technophobia -- The showdown with HAL is the classic battle of man vs. total automation. People did not trust computers, even though in 1968 most people had little contact with them. 2001 is (partially) a cautionary tale about giving automated systems too much control, or people too little. An early foreshadowing of HAL was the self-aware supercomputer in The Invisible Boy ('57). Another precursor to HAL was the super computer NOVAC in Gog ('54). It began killing off the base's scientists because it controlled all of the base's systems. HAL's undoing was the dissonance from being ordered to lie to Bowman and Poole about the nature of the mission. Clarke elevates a human flaw into a virtue. People can handle lying. Logically pure computers can't.
Invitation to the Stars -- Unlike the other two spark-volution movies, Clarke's 2001 frames it as an invitation. It wasn't a nuclear mistake, or a self-serving experiment gone awry. Instead, a "higher power" injects an exception to nature. Even at the last, the obelisk appears before dying old Dave, standing at the door, as it were. Transformation is not forced upon Dave. It's only when he lifts his hand to it, beckoning, that he is reborn by that higher power (not by his own power) -- made a new creature.
Parallel Pits -- Perhaps it is a coincidence, and perhaps not, but the scene of the obelisk on the moon is very reminiscent of the BBC's Quatermass and the Pit ('59). In both, the alien item, buried millions of years ago, is discovered. The object is excavated and sit in the bottom of a square pit, with ramps leading down into it. In both, the object suddenly emits a powerful sound (or influence) on the people in the pit. Had Kubrik (or Clarke) seen the BBC series nine years earlier?
Bottom line? 2001 is a must-see movie for its landmark value alone. It is a deeply thoughtful movie, but has long stretches of little action. As such, it will frustrate viewers accustomed to fast-paced action films. For example, the "orgy" of lights and colors as Dave enters the obelisk lasts for ten full minutes. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, 2001 may be too long for the young and restless. Still, for its cultural impact alone, its worth the time.