2001: A Space Odyssey- A Retrospective of Kubrick’s Cinematic Magnum Opus at its 50th Anniversary

To begin with, Stanley Kubrick, the legendary filmmaker himself, whilst mostly reluctant about expressing his intended messages, did nonetheless speak about the aurora of mystery and alluded to the enigmatic meanings/interpretations surrounding his science-fiction masterpiece (which he co-created with the internationally renowned science-fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke) after the film’s original release in 1968:

2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, there are only a little less than forty minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content…. 

I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God…. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of years in advance of us…. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans [1].

Then, in 2012, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was voted as the 6th Greatest Film of All Time in the Sight And Sound Poll, a total of 132 people in the industry voted in favour of its inclusion to the list. Below are only a handful of personal justifications as to why this can be viewed as entirely relevant (i.e. a no brainer):

2001: A Space Odyssey is a stand-along monument, a great visionary leap, unsurpassed in its vision of man and the universe. It was a statement that came at a time which now looks something like the peak of humanity’s technological optimism [2].

—Roger Ebert, revered American film-critic and creator of http://www.rogerebert.com

2001: A Space Odyssey is a filmmaking exploration of the greatest kind that leaves an audience with one of the most incredible cinematic experiences possible. The sound, visuals and ideas within allow us to get lost in a progression of thought and concept that fully challenges our every sense. One of the most referenced films since it was made, 2001: A Space Odyssey pushes the lengths to which cinema can go in every capacity [3].

Charlotte Cook, programmer at The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

2001 is the closest I come to a religious experience with cinema. I don’t necessarily believe in God or intelligent design, but I, like Kubrick, want to believe in symmetry. The image of all the planets in our solar system aligning with a black rectangle asks as many questions as it answers – and is all the more glorious for it [4].

—Edgar Wright, British director of The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (2004-2013),  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)and Baby Driver (2017)

I have seen this film more than any other. Kubrick took paperback science fiction and turned it into a paleontological opera, man in the cave, man playing God when creating HAL and staring at his own image in its reflection. The movie for me has survived 1970s esotericism and is simply sublime [5].

—Oliver Schmitz, South African director, most notable for Mapantsula (1988) and Life, Above All (2010)

I remember being dropped off at the cinema, with my best friend. We were about seven years old, the cinema was almost empty. I didn’t understand the film then, and I’m not sure I do now, which is probably why I keep coming back to it. But I thought it was a most extraordinary experience, both visually and sonically, and it has stayed with me throughout my life [6].

—Gary Tarn, British director of Black Sun (2005) and The Prophet (2011)

I saw this in the Futurist on Lime Street as a re-release when Star Wars came out. If there ever was a towering giant of a film, this is it. Completely genre-busting. No sound in space. It threw down a gauntlet to modern sci-fi which has never really been taken up, with the exception of Alien (which could also be in my top ten). I love the way 2001 shows you the story but doesn’t tell you it. Courageous filmmaking. It occupies its own place in the cosmos [7].

—Chris Shepherd, British director of numerous short films such as Dad’s Dead (2003) and Bad Night for the Blues (2011)

Suffice to say, just from the list of quotes above, it is completely understandable as to exactly why the incomparable cinematic masterpiece that is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is today regarded by innumerable filmmakers and critics as the greatest science fiction film of all time, and one of the greatest films of all time full stop. Hence, it can be stated that the film has an intense legacy and influence on cinema half a century on from its original release. This was exemplified just over a fortnight ago, when I myself went to experience the film in a brand new photochemical restoration taken from the original camera negative in 70mm presentation format at Fact Picturehouse, Liverpool in recognition of its 50th Anniversary.2001space002

The scene is set: it is 19:30 on Monday, 2nd July 2018, and the overture of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres suddenly plays on the pitch black cinema screen; the audience in the front seats seem polarized as the overhead lights remain on, and they subsequently turn around to the position of the projector, seemingly unsure about what is transpiring at this very moment. The eerily music continues as minutes pass, before what seems like infinity, the lights slowly fade and the cinema screen widens to its full 70mm format, to then display the all-encompassing navy MGM logo set to the start of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. The logo is then replaced by the obscure grey-blue outline of a spherical object (the Moon), which gracefully descends to reveal a majestic half sun, situated just above a shadowed Earth. The Sun then slowly ascends as the domineering, extremely oppressive music fills the auditorium- it reaches its crashing crescendo as the film’s title encapsulates over the by-now familiar full star and planet in the background, before the screen suddenly fades to black. That, of course, is only the opening scene!2001space005

What follows is a series of serenely beautiful shots of expansive African landcapes, the vast majority of which take place at sunrise/sunset, which are stunningly composed to the extent that they completely transfix the entire audience solely on the cinematic screen. Personally, whilst I am very familiar with the film (having seen it a number of times before this screening and read so much about it), my heart is heavily beating regardless and my jaw is slightly dropped at the mere sight of these ecstatic frames on the big screen (and in its original presentation format). Even more so, because of the fact that the projection is in 70mm, the imagery is crystal clear and thus this allows for the perception of minute details contained within each individual frame; it arguably creates a much more richer, satisfactory experience. This remark is a clear overstatement to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, as he was a relentless perfectionist who had complete and utter control of virtually every single aspect of production throughout his entire oeuvre. Therefore, the entire film is very precisely constructed.2001space061

In the subsequent sequence, which showcases spacecraft floating through the endless expanse of space itself above the Earth, the film presents another example of visually breath-taking shots- they are totally immersive when viewed in such large a format as 70mm. This is only enhanced by the fact that the entire sequence is set to Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, which is surely one of the loveliest (and most extraordinary) pieces of classical music ever composed. As a result, the whole effect of pairing the gracefulness of the floating spacecraft with Strauss’ piece of music creates what can be described as a “waltz in the cosmos”; it is simply sublime. Moreover, because the spacecraft are positioned very close to the camera lens, when viewed in 70mm, this creates a 3D illusion in the sense that it is as if the composition of each shot is projecting itself out of the cinematic screen.2001space290

Nowhere is this idea conveyed more thoroughly than towards the end of the feature with the “Stargate Sequence”, which consists of a psychedelic array of dazzlingly colourful imagery that rapidly flow towards the camera; it is a spectacular kaleidoscope that flows seamlessly from one colour and pattern to the next. It is at this point that 2001: A Space Odyssey transcends conventional science-fiction tropes as the sequence has a uniquely hallucinogenic and phantasmagorical quality- it can be fully labelled as an expression of pure cinema. Conveniently, this is exactly what Kubrick wanted to achieve with the film; he wanted to extend the boundaries of the limitations previoulsy thought in the medium of cinema, and open up new doors to the thoughts of the endless possibilities of the Seventh Art. The result is a spellbinding achievement in visual effects, which, despite being arguably dated, are thoroughly meticulous in nature and completely capable of arousing indescribable thoughts and emotions- it is utterly awe-inspiring and, of course, provocative. Also, just on the basis of this one lengthy, slow sequence, it is a testament to the indisputable power of works of art; the fact that a single image can speak a thousand words, but one word cannot conjure up a thousand images.2001space319

The final act of the film, however, is, visually, very ethereal. This is because it is extremely subtle in its composure of the shots in the frame and in the pace of each frame in the first place- once again, it can be stated that the film verges on the edge of the sublime, yet beautiful. Further reinforcing this notion is the careful usage of total silence and sound (both diegetic and non-diegetic), which is very effective in building an atmosphere comprised of bewitching aurora and fascination with the unknown/incomprehensible. In addition, the film’s final hypnotic (if overtly enigmatic) images are once again accompanied by Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra as the narrative veers back to the pitch-black, infinite space above Earth and the music reaches its accustomed crashing crescendo as the audience stares at an extremely uncanny form of a futuristic human; it seems the feature has come full circle, and perhaps speaks for a sense of closure to the entire feature because this is the end of the journey (both literally and metaphorically) that we have just experienced with our very awestruck eyes. It is no accident that 2001 was billed on its original release as “the ultimate trip”, and so it certainly seems that Kubrick was always more interested in taking the audience (and for that matter the characters) on a journey than he was in revealing any answers [8].

Bearing in mind that, above, I have just described my latest experience of the feature, it is now time to consider those all important questions- what is 2001: A Space Odyssey actually about? Or perhaps, what does the entire film mean? Is it even supposed to have any meaning, or be taken seriously in the first place? The answers to these questions are very tricky to answer. This is because it is a fact that art has no concrete/definitive interpretation as what matters is that any work of art arouses an emotional, and not an intellectual, response from each and every individual. This means that, for any piece, the intended messages are entirely subjective to the viewer- i.e. my interpretations are as good as anyone else’s. But that is just the point of the whole experience of watching 2001, as Kubrick clearly wanted people to formulate their own interpretations of his entire oeuvre (see top of page).

Nevertheless, again, with the support from the quotes at the top of the page, it is blatantly obvious that there has been a whole host of interpretations and discussions on the very nature of 2001: A Space Odyssey ever since it first appeared to the world 50 years ago. Indeed, it is undoubtedly endless in its ambition and scope- this is a film that is forever destined to demand repeated viewings (which, on the other hand, make for very rewarding experiences). But, the fact that it is essentially an avant-garde experience has resulted in it, even to this day, still proving to be polarizing/mind-boggling/incomprehensible for modern audiences (ironically, this was its reception on original release). Thus, it is very unorthodox in the conventional sense. Though, of course, what it supposedly lacks in terms of a conventional narrative, it more than makes up for in its deeply rooted concerns of the philosophical, unknown and mysterious aspects of the universe- thsese qualities make it wholly grandeur and visionary. So, it can firmly be labelled as an allegorical/metaphorical/symbolic work-of-art.

Here is a cohesive list of the many interpretations or theories of 2001: A Space Odyssey:2001space092

  1. As 2001 is arguably concerned with the theme of human advancement, it has been recognized as an allegory on the subject of conception, whereby the spacecraft’s represent human sperm cells and the stellar bodies (most notably Jupiter in the final act) represent human egg cells. Therefore, the journeys undertaken are, metaphorically speaking, akin to the journey taken by the sperm cells in order to fertilize the egg cells. This is reinforced by the notion that the embryonic-like “Star Child” at the end could very well symbolize a human foetus; this is what the whole film has been building towards [9].
  2. Due to the prominent usage of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the feature, the film has regularly thought to be concerned with Friedrich Nietzsche’s eponymous philosophical masterpiece of the same name, which depicts the potential (and perhaps destiny) of mankind to evolve/journey from the notion of  “ape” to “human”, to finally the ideal “superman, or Ubermensch”. Again, this is convenient as the film begins with the sequence aptly titled “The Dawn of Man”, and then proceeds with modern humanity in the early 21st Century, before finally showcasing the “Star-Child” in the final images- this is potentially representative of the next stage in human evolution [10].
  3. Like with subsequent films in Kubrick’s oeuvre, most notably The Shining (1980), the journeys undertaken by the principal characters are uncannily akin to the whole idea of Gnosticism. This dictates that the world (and indeed the Universe) that we perceive was created wholly by an incompetent being, and is therefore not perfect in any way. Because of this, it can be thought of as a deceptive labyrinth in which man must navigate through this imperfect creation in order to achieve oneness/unity with his notion of God (or perhaps an Alien God?). The final act of 2001 that sees mankind reach Jupiter and the subsequent birth of the “Star-Child” highlights this Gnostic approach [11].
  4. The movie has been subjected to a wide array of contentious theories, including the possibility that it is essentially a visceral experience centred on the act of eating, or that the mysterious, black “Monoliths” actually serve as functioning movie screens for the confused audiences (both in the film and in the cinema), and so the film is a meta-cinematic experiment [12].
  5. Shortly after the film was released, a 15 year old student at North Plainfield High School named Margaret Stackhouse wrote her reflections on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick completely lauded for their precision and scope [13].
  6. More recently in this past month of the year, a “lost” interview from 1980 was unearthed in which Stanley allegedly explained the enigmatic ending of the film. It appears that it does indeed imply that there is “god-like entities of pure energy with no comprehensible shape or intelligence” at work in the final act, and that mankind is ultimately just an elaborate zoo experiment for them to study; he is placed into a “human zoo” and is transformed into the “Star-Child” once the entities have finished. This explanation was intended as a mythological suggestion [14].
  7. With the support of Kubrick’s statements at the top, the entire film could be viewed as being concerned with the metaphysical aspects of the Universe (i.e. what really exists). This insinuates that, because the feature supplies no concrete explanations, the viewer is left to ponder on the whole nature of reality itself. This raises questions such as are the symbols in the film emissaries of extra-terrestrial life or proofs of the existence of God?

All in all, 2001: A Space Odyssey is unquestionably a hands-down tour-de-force of a film; visually astonishing, precisely constructed, meticulous in appearance, shrouded in densities of mystery and meaning, endlessly provocative and intellectually challenging- the ultimate science-fiction movie. This is completely reinforced by the fact that, without this multi-layered classic, science-fiction (and more importantly cinema) would simply not be the same- no 2001, no Close Encounters (1977), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Blade RunnerE.T. ( both 1982), and The Matrix (1999) thereafter. Even today, its influence is still undiminished half a century on, as the film industry’s recent outputs of sci-fi have been more slow and philosophical in nature (Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), Ex Machina (2015), The Martian (2015), Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Endless (2018) etc.); it seems that science-fiction has become less of a special effects extravaganza and more of a rummaging on the nature of everything. Indeed, for all films in the science-fiction genre embrace the unknown, but it truly is a rarity that such a film as 2001 adopt this simple convention to the absolute fullest.



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