2001: A Space Odyssey

Greenscreening Series #32

May 13, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick

*2001: A Space Odyssey*


A year before the first moon landing, Stanley Kubrick envisioned an outer space where vast spacecraft revolve weightlessly to the strains of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz. 2001 revolutionised the depiction of the cosmos on film, at the same time – with the HAL-9000 computer that fatally malfunctions during a mission to Jupiter – sounding a warning about unbridled technological advance. Beginning with primordial apes discovering tools and climaxing with astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) travelling beyond the limits of the known universe, Kubrick’s film was an intellectual (and psychedelic) event in the late 1960s. - BFI

Find 2001: A Space Odyssey via Reelgood

Why 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Throughout this series, we’ve highlighted films which take an established genre into a completely new direction. Very few films change the entire course of a genre - or of filmmaking styles - quite so radically as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film marks the beginning of modern science fiction films, of big-budget special effects, and a high water mark of the New American Cinema, marrying spectacle and art. 2001 is the mother of Star Wars (and Trek), Blade Runner, and The Terminator, and the grandmother of Interstellar, Avatar, the MCU and more.

Stanley Kubrick established himself as an emerging auteur during the late 1950s and early 1960s, directing the hits Spartacus (1960) and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963). He was well respected in Hollywood and by film critics, and had significant bargaining power with studios, even though he had earned a reputation for blowing past budgets and schedules.

Kubrick set out to make a film about man’s relationship to the universe, with a more realistic and science-based approach to depicting space.

Before 2001, science fiction films were typically low-budget B-movies, with predictable plots, cardboard characters, and cheesy special effects.

Science Fiction

Kubrick's film, on the other hand, was a big-budget epic that aimed to be both scientifically accurate and artistically ambitious. He was inspired by a short film, To the Moon and Beyond, that played at the World’s Fair in 1964 in a domed theater, and which imagined a trip to outer space and zoomed down to the atomic level.

Kubrick was a perfectionist who took years to develop the film's groundbreaking visual effects and painstakingly researched the scientific concepts presented in the film. He partnered with author Arthur C. Clarke to adapt several short stories into the screenplay for the film, only to dramatically alter the script and cut out most of the dialogue and large elements of the plot.

2001: A Space Odyssey is unlike pretty much every movie of its day, or any day. It's a visually stunning film with special effects that hold up to this day. The film features long stretches of silence, abstract visuals, and a non-linear narrative that challenges the viewer's expectations and especially for today's audiences, their patience. This is a film of ideas and imagination, less about what happens and more about what might be. Kubrick tackles human evolution, artificial intelligence, and the search for meaning in the universe.

Science Fiction

One of the film's most distinctive features is its use of classical music, including works by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, and György Ligeti. The score is so iconic, in fact, that many of the pieces are now synonymous with the film. You'll probably recognize the piece from its association with visuals from this film, or media paying tribute to 2001.

The film's enigmatic ending has been the subject of much debate and interpretation. It features a psychedelic trip through time and space, along with the emergence of a strange space baby traveling towards earth, as the iconic piece "Also sprach Zarathustra" plays. Some see the ending as a symbolic representation of human evolution in relation to technology, while others see it as an abstract exploration of the nature of consciousness, and still others see it as the impending self-destruction of life on earth through technology run amok. Kubrick himself remained neutral, encouraging viewers to come to their own conclusions, so I encourage you to do the same.

Besides the ending, there are two incredibly famous and influential sequences:

  1. The Dawn of Man. The film opens not in space, but on earth, with a lengthy silent sequence depicting an encounter between primordial apes and a mysterious black monolith. The sequence uses the piece "Also sprach Zarathustra," and the images and music have become inseparable. The apes learn to use bones as tools, and when one throws the tool into the air, Kubrick match-cuts to a ship flying through space, compressing millennia into a single cut. This sequence has been endlessly referenced and parodied in films, television, and commercials, most recently in the first teaser trailer for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023).

The Dawn of Man

  1. HAL-9000 and Dave. The middle section of the film details an astronaut’s relationship with and struggle against a powerful artificial intelligence system that controls his ship. This sequence is largely responsible for how popular culture has portrayed artificial intelligence and its potential for conflict.

HAL-9000 and Dave

When 2001 was released, critics were sharply divided, with some praising the film's visual effects and artistic ambition, while others criticized its slow pace and lack of a conventional plot. However, the film was a commercial success and played for years in cinemas around the world, often with crowds under the influence. The film grossed over $30 million on its initial release.

Over the years, 2001 has grown in adulation and influence. The film appeared at Number 6 in Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll, and number 1 in the 2022 Directors Poll.

*2001* monolith

What to Watch For

  • Repetition: of images, music, movement, and characters' actions
  • Images of eyes: real and artificial. Eyes are the gateway to understanding, the windows to the soul. Here they also signal a moment of recognition/understanding before a change in tone and action.
  • Norman Holland made the observation that characters are frequently bored amidst the wonders around them, and that each sequence shifts the characters from boredom to wonder. As you watch the film, do you feel like you oscillate between these two states, boredom and wonder?

Learn More About 2001: A Space Odyssey

Analysis of 2001 by Norman Holland

Roger Ebert’s 1968 review of 2001 and his Great Movies Essay on the film, 30 years later.

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