On the other side of the camera in 2001 is the byproduct of perhaps the most well-spent budget in Hollywood history. Kubrick was an unapologetic spender with foolhardy ambition, so naturally the film went $4.5 million over budget. The spacecraft you see in the first outer space shot is not a prop; Kubrick had an actual wheel with a 38-foot diameter designed and constructed by engineers. Elaborate interiors permeate every shot inside of a spaceship. Several tons of actual sand were ordered and painted for the moon surface scenes.
It is common knowledge among the film community that Stanley Kubrick, in his unrelenting perfectionism, spent up to full decades on the production of his films, but it wasn’t always that way. 2001 marked the turning point from a decade of fairly consistent releases (Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, Lolita, etc.) to Kubrick’s era of clinically obsessive research, where he would spend unseemly amounts of time scouring entire cities and neighborhoods for a prop as insignificant as a doorway.
But Kubrick’s unrivaled attention to detail was a signature watermark of his films, and a cheap, B-movie production typical of science fiction films during that time period would have been all wrong for 2001. In early 1964, Kubrick reached out to 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke in hopes of creating “the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie”. (His phrasing should hint at the state of the genre in the early ‘60s.) He penned that his interest was in exploring the reasons and potential impact that the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would have on Earth, and that he would like to have “space-probe” land on and explore the Moon and Mars.
They established an enthusiastic correspondence, and together they developed gargantuan set pieces, intricately detailed props, and brilliantly conceived special effects and camera techniques worthy of the original spirit and mystery of the novels the film was inspired by. That the special effects were made without the help of computer technology is almost unbelievable. That the costumes, shuttle designs, and set pieces were dreamt up with the NASA designs having not yet been released was visionary. That the sequences featuring Earth and its moon look as real as the footage released a year later of the actual moon landing (prompting myriad conspiracy theories) is beyond imagination.
It is the astonishing special effects, painstakingly composed and edited by Stanley Kubrick, that are most praised in discussions of the film. And they are just that — astonishing. The role of music in this effect, however, must not be understated. Complementing 2001’s sublime visual display are classical pieces that play behind the images. This was not always the plan, as an original score was actually composed by Alex North to use for the film. While editing, Kubrick played the film over several classical pieces as placeholders. He felt they worked so well that he decided to keep them in the final product. I have listened to North’s original score start to finish and played it alongside the film for comparison. It is a fine score and has compositional merit, but its effect is not as profound as the classical pieces’.
Why? Because scores in the movies are typically there to tell us how to react or to give us emotional cues; music crescendos during a car chase, and violins play when we’re supposed to be sad. Kubrick’s decision to ignore this precedent was essential to the film’s majestic reach; it redefined the way music and film could coexist. The music in 2001 doesn’t exist to heighten the action or emotions. It isn’t trivialized, crippled or cheapened by irony. Instead, it meshes with the images, uplifts them—it elevates them to a different dimension. As the film recalls the silent era in many respects, from largely opting for non-verbal storytelling to showing the often literal silence of the space vacuum, the presence of music is given more weight, and it is allowed to work alongside the images as an equal. With no dialogue or action for it to underscore, Kubrick uses the classical pieces to evoke feelings rather than our reason or intellect—to encourage us to participate, to question and evaluate all of our senses, to actively perceive. The viewer often wonders whether it is the music which flows from the visuals, or whether it’s the visuals that flow from the music. The only thing that is for certain is that the two are inseparable; they enhance each other, creating a pure and enveloping audio-visual experience.
There are two classical numbers which stand out in particular. The first is Richard Strauss’ sonorous piece, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, which famously reigns over the film’s opening and closing sequences: the magnificent celestial eclipse and enigmatic Star Child. What allows Strauss’ composition — and in consequence, the visuals they accompany — to carry such startling power is that Kubrick’s selective use of the piece preserves the composer’s original inspiration. Written in 1896, Strauss was inspired by the philosophical novel of Friedrich Nietzsche that shared the piece’s title. Nietzsche wrote of the concept of “eternal recurrence”: that all of the events of one’s lifetime will occur again, and infinitely. He explored the idea that we are not at the pinnacle of existence, and that man may simply be a link from primitive life to something beyond. It is all too appropriate then, that the five infinitely resonant opening notes accompany moments in the film when man makes monumental leaps: the evolution from apes to men, from Earth inhabitants to moon walkers, from moon walkers to transcending time and space, from the bedroom to the Star Child.
The second piece is Johann Strauss’ light, fleeting waltz, “The Blue Danube”, which plays alongside the docking sequence of the space pod. Strauss’ music creates a tempo for the pod to keep that would’ve been unconventional for a science fiction film at that time. A lesser director would have requested an exhilarating score to play behind a spaceship that would have zoomed with hair-raising speed. For your standard science fiction B-movie, such an approach would achieve its purpose. But Kubrick does not, and the result is one of the great sequences in the history of the cinema. Johann Strauss’ piece lends an ethereal air to the docking bay images, and it insists that the shuttle glides with a deliberate and methodical slowness. We aren’t called to gawk or cheer at the excitement of a gliding spaceship, but instead to stand back and observe the grandeur of the process. Because the music was not composed for the scene, it unfolds as it was written — the way it always has — and so by a curious sort of reasoning, the shuttle isn’t moving through space of its own accord, but simply prancing among the stars to keep the waltz.
But for all Kubrick’s camera technique, visual aesthetic, and musical choices, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s chief defining characteristic is its philosophical inquiries. Let’s get into the plot.
The film breaks the mold of a linear narrative structure, instead sorting itself into several moments. At “The Dawn of Man”, the apes discover a big black monolith. It stands unflinching and noble with its sleek black surface and polished right angles. A switch in their primitive minds flips. This doesn’t just occur in nature. Whatever this is, it must have been made by intelligence. They learn to employ natural tools to conquer the world around them.
In one of the great shots in all of Kubrick, an ape tosses a bone into the sky, which cuts in mid-air to a shot of a space shuttle. The transition is subtle and ingenious: just as the apes before them learned to use bones as their tools to shape the world, the humans have harnessed their tools — the space station and modern technology — to explore the beyond. Some astonishing in-orbit sequences later, we meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (Williams Sylvester), whose team has discovered magnetic waves rippling from the second monolith buried on the moon. His crew unburies the second monolith to reach a similar realization as the apes: Intelligent beings must have put this here.
Continuing in the pattern of advancement propelled by every new monolith discovery, man is now pointed toward Jupiter and equipped with his next greatest tool: artificial intelligence. 18 months later, the Discovery is en route on a half billion-mile journey to the gas giant. This leads to a great shot which has grown to become massively influential on the opening sequences of post-2001 science fiction movies. The Discovery emerges from the left side of the frame, appearing at first to be large, spherical spacecraft. The true size of the ship of is revealed in the next moments through a unbroken, full-minute take (accompanied by a beautiful violin solo), as the ship simply keeps gliding, and gliding, and gliding. The brilliance of this method of reveal has been duplicated and perfected over the years with Star Wars’ famous Star Destroyer chase in 1977, the opening sequence of Alien two years later in 1979, and occuring in similar fashion in many of the Star Trek movies.
But back to 2001. Aboard the Discovery are five passengers — only two conscious — and the most evolved computer to date, HAL 9000 (eerily and mischievously voiced by the great Douglas Rain). Man and his operations are running smoothly now, like clockwork. Kubrick reflects this in his depiction of life onboard the Discovery: the complete isolation of its crew members, the impersonal encounters, the sterile set pieces. The irony in this segment of the film is that it is the supercomputer, HAL , who— with his slightly arrogant voice timbre, seemingly emotion-driven (or quasi-emotion, if you insist) behavior, and unsettling expression of fear in his final moments — seems to be the most “human” presence on board. There is an implicit statement being made by Kubrick here, which has been proven startlingly prophetic, that the arising of artificial intelligence and the central role it plays in relation to human life will in fact turn the tables to make mankind the mindless robots, left to the mercy of their electronic counterparts.
Only when the impeccability of HAL’s judgment is called into question does a true narrative structure arise. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) suspect a malfunction in HAL, and man must work against the artificial intelligence he created to overcome it. Dave, after performing a lobotomy on HAL, continues onto the hypnotic Star Gate sequence. He journeys light and space, traveling through (or beyond?) a previously unexplored dimension. He lands finally in a bedroom of haunting decor, presumably among Jupiter’s moons, where he grows old and spends his final stages in life. Here, he spends his final days in a sort of waiting room — a backdrop, if you will — for him to bide his time. Wherever in the room Dave looks to, he appears; he does looks out of his space pod and ends up on the other side of the room, he looks from there to a dinner table and finds himself eating his last meal, and he finally looks to a bed where he has become immobile and eerily wrinkled. On his deathbed, he discovers the third monolith, evolving him into a new being altogether: the Star Child.
The film ends, but the process is continual: somewhere and somehow, someone is guiding us, placing monoliths from the beyond to advance the minds of its discoverers. The film’s three moments, or acts, make almost no sense on their own. One must experience the entire movie before being able to comprehend any of it, and only in that context does it express a cold, overwhelming truth: mankind is frail in a vast universe. We are belittled by nature, by our own habitat, by each other, and even by the tools we’ve created to harness the outer space we live in.
This, in turn, invites questions. What is the monolith? Why is it there? Who put it there? These ponderings are left unanswered, and to the benefit of Kubrick’s film. Do we need to know? Some audiences will think so—audiences who have been trained to passively consume films, to take them at face value and listen for the director to spell out for them what to think and what to feel. Why 2001: A Space Odyssey remains an immortal film, while so many other releases have already escaped our minds before we walk out the theater door, is because it inhabits our imaginations, evoking those real-life experiences where we look up into the sky and wonder what’s beyond. And so rather than provide an answer to every question it introduces, 2001 shows us that not everything needs to stand for something, and that maybe it’s the mystery that makes it worth pondering. If anything, the monolith simply stands for a question without an answer.
What is the biggest revelation that 2001: A Space Odyssey offers? That after Dave’s process of transcendence from man to the beyond, of looking from one place or state to the next, the Star Child looks upon us. Kubrick is opening the doors to active involvement, inviting us to take the next step — to recognize that man is distinctly man because he is intelligent, to realize that we are set apart and have the means to move forward. Where is our monolith, you might ask? You need look no further than the big black theater screen that stares back at us after the credits have rolled. Like the polished slabs placed to guide man in 2001, Kubrick has used the cinema screen to guide us, to tell us a parable on the mystery of man.
And yet, moviegoers today disregard 2001 as slow and uneventful, lacking in character, and never bothering to tell a conventional narrative. The fact is that the film is all of those things, and this is not a criticism, but an observation. It fails completely on a dramatic level, and succeeds as dazzling, meditative visual poetry, because 2001 is not about its characters or an adventure, but the eternal search for man’s next step.
It does not wish us to laugh or cry at the personal struggles of people, nor does it suggest a compass for morality. Instead, it teaches us: we are not simply matter, but minds, and we’re not merely inhabitants of an environment, but capable intelligence with the means for progress. Let’s take the next step.
The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001" is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.
No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North's score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for “2001" because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action -- to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.
Consider two examples. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,'' which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.
We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it's keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.
Now consider Kubrick's famous use of Richard Strauss' “Thus Spake Zarathustra.'' Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent.
The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man's consciousness into the universe - -and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film. When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the “William Tell Overture'' without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick's film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.
I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future -- everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.
To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?'' There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film's slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).
The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.
What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man's place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it -- not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.
The film falls into several movements. In the first, prehistoric apes, confronted by a mysterious black monolith, teach themselves that bones can be used as weapons, and thus discover their first tools. I have always felt that the smooth artificial surfaces and right angles of the monolith, which was obviously made by intelligent beings, triggered the realization in an ape brain that intelligence could be used to shape the objects of the world.
The bone is thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle (this has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema). We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), en route to a space station and the moon. This section is willfully anti-narrative; there are no breathless dialogue passages to tell us of his mission. Instead, Kubrick shows us the minutiae of the flight: the design of the cabin, the details of in-flight service, the effects of zero gravity.
Then comes the docking sequence, with its waltz, and for a time even the restless in the audience are silenced, I imagine, by the sheer wonder of the visuals. On board, we see familiar brand names, we participate in an enigmatic conference among the scientists of several nations, we see such gimmicks as a videophone and a zero-gravity toilet.
The sequence on the moon (which looks as real as the actual video of the moon landing a year later) is a variation on the film's opening sequence. Man is confronted with a monolith, just as the apes were, and is drawn to a similar conclusion: This must have been made. And as the first monolith led to the discovery of tools, so the second leads to the employment of man's most elaborate tool: the spaceship Discovery, employed by man in partnership with the artificial intelligence of the onboard computer, named HAL 9000.
Life onboard the Discovery is presented as a long, eventless routine of exercise, maintenance checks and chess games with HAL. Only when the astronauts fear that HAL's programming has failed does a level of suspense emerge; their challenge is somehow to get around HAL, which has been programmed to believe, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.'' Their efforts lead to one of the great shots in the cinema, as the men attempt to have a private conversation in a space pod, and HAL reads their lips. The way Kubrick edits this scene so that we can discover what HAL is doing is masterful in its restraint: He makes it clear, but doesn't insist on it. He trusts our intelligence.
Later comes the famous “star gate'' sequence, a sound and light journey in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) travels through what we might now call a wormhole into another place, or dimension, that is unexplained. At journey's end is the comfortable bedroom suite in which he grows old, eating his meals quietly, napping, living the life (I imagine) of a zoo animal who has been placed in a familiar environment. And then the Star Child.
There is never an explanation of the other race that presumably left the monoliths and provided the star gate and the bedroom. “2001'' lore suggests Kubrick and Clarke tried and failed to create plausible aliens. It is just as well. The alien race exists more effectively in negative space: We react to its invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation.
“2001: A Space Odyssey'' is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards. Much of the dialogue exists only to show people talking to one another, without much regard to content (this is true of the conference on the space station). Ironically, the dialogue containing the most feeling comes from HAL, as it pleads for its “life'' and sings “Daisy.''
The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us. Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail, and although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, Trumbull's work remains completely convincing -- more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. “2001: A Space Odyssey'' is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.