Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Douglas Rain
Director: Stanley Kubrick
“After discovering a mysterious artifact buried beneath the Lunar surface, mankind sets off on a quest to find its origins with help from intelligent supercomputer H.A.L. 9000.” (IMDb)
»Currently streaming on HBO Max«
What to Expect
Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL
20-minute psychedelic light show
Why You Should Watch It
2001 was released only one year before humans landed on the moon—and Kubrick’s consorting with NASA during filmmaking not only makes for some fascinating moon and space shots, but also fuel for conspiracy theories—nine years before the first ever Star Wars installment, and two years after Star Trek began airing on television. It was ahead of its time in terms of depicting space travel and future technology (note Heywood’s video chat with his daughter on the space station, and Dave and Frank using tablets from the comfort of artificial gravity generated by a rotating carousel, not to mention the A.I. HAL and using suspended animation for interstellar travel). But beside the technological aspects and stunning cinematography, the story’s concept is so unique that references to it over 50 years later are cause for international fervor. It touches on evolution, advancement, transcendence, and mystery, and you are guaranteed to not know what will happen next the first time you watch it.
Must See! (A)
The Monolith & the Requiem
2001 is divided into four parts: the Dawn of Man, the Moon, Discovery One, and Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite. The one constant uniting these parts is the infamous monolith, its presence heralded by György Ligeti’s Requiem.
A requiem, or lamentation for the dead, seems fitting music to accompany the object, which some see as a catalyst for human evolution. In the Dawn of Man chapter, some of the apes begin using tools to kill and eat tapirs after touching the monolith. The scene transitions from one era to another when an ape tosses a bone triumphantly into the sky, which then becomes a satellite orbiting Earth. After Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) and the others touch the monolith on the moon, the scene soon transitions 18 months later to Dave (Dullea), Frank (Lockwood), and HAL (Rain) aboard Discovery One en route to Jupiter. And the monolith precludes both Dave’s harrowing journey “beyond the infinite,” and his death—after which he becomes a Star Child.
Just before every major change in the film—from ape to modern man, modern man to space man, and space man to star child—the mysterious black box is there, and with it, a haunting lamentation of Man’s former way of life. Irena Paulus even argues that Ligeti’s score “is felt as diegetic music.” The song is used as a leitmotif in nearly every instance where the monolith appears, and is even touched by the prehistoric ape and Floyd—who are four million years apart—“at the same musical place in the Requiem.” (Dave also attempts to touch the monolith when on his deathbed, but is too weak to do so.)
In my past viewings I associated the appearance of the monolith as a moment of awe. The characters were always drawn to it in speechless wonder, and those shots of it floating in Jupiter’s orbit are nothing short of breathtaking. But it wasn’t until this last viewing that I realized the uncomfortable vocalizations of the Requiem’s Kyrie section didn’t inspire awe, but fear. Could 2001 be…a horror movie?
I began to see the film in a new light. Yes, the monolith was the catalyst for apes to use tools, but they used the tools for killing and were exiled by the faction of apes that (supposedly) didn’t touch the monolith and remained dumb. The technological wonders we saw with commercial moon travel were soon overshadowed by the monolith’s mystery as a buried object transmitting radio signals to Jupiter. And of course HAL is famously the most frightening part of the movie as it grapples with our fears of artificial intelligence going rogue.
Even my favorite part of 2001, when Dave reaches Jupiter’s orbit and we see some stunning shots of the monolith centered between the massive planet and its moons—and of course the following light show—was suddenly seen with new eyes. The flashes of Dave show his face contorted as if in horror or pain. This makes sense; imagine farting along to Jupiter and slipping into another dimension. But suddenly this spectacular presentation of lights and florescent blobs is terrifying. And then Dave spends the rest of his (human) life alone in a fancy interdimensional hotel room, never to contact his friends or family again. Was it worth the price of evolving into a star child? Or was it Kubrick’s one last attempt at scaring the audience? The movie’s G rating doesn’t lend itself to a horror movie, and it certainly doesn’t have the same tone as Kubrick’s later work of horror, The Shining, but I think the argument could still be made here.
The Kubrick Trademarks
Kubrick’s more trademark styles of filmmaking lie in his music choreography and camera movements, such as his characteristically long takes in 2001. The initial shots that show the desolation of an ancient Earth last mostly between four to six seconds, with a final desert landscape shot lasting nearly a half minute before the viewer sees the first sign of life in the next scene. Most takes throughout the movie are several seconds or more, which work to pull the viewer in, but could also be Kubrick’s way of communicating the human race’s decline into stoic, machine-like creatures.
The pacing of the film feels excruciatingly slow for those of us who grew up watching screens that flick from one shot to the next every half second, but it makes sense when you consider that this was being presented to a generation that had yet to a) land on the moon and b) become inundated with Star Wars and a slew of other space films. So while younger audiences may not be as impressed with seeing a ship docking for 10 minutes, viewers at the time were blown away with the presentation (well, at least some of them).
As seen with Ligeti’s Requiem, Kubrick also uses musical choreography to communicate deeper meaning in his films without the use of a vocal narrative. The classical music in 2001 can be seen as a contrast to the futuristic setting and robotic mannerisms of the human characters, such as the satellite and space station appearing to “dance” above Earth to Johann Strauss’ lilting Blue Danube waltz.
Most telling, however, is the score used at both the beginning and conclusion of the film: Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann). The tone poem was inspired by the novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Nietzsche famously writes, “God is dead….And we have killed him.” Strauss’ Zarathustra not only bookending 2001, but also accompanying the advent of apes using tools in the Dawn of Man feels as though Kubrick is shouting Nietzsche’s dictum into our ears. Thus spoke Zarathustra, and thus is the central theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey.