Half a century on, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is once again dazzling and mystifying audiences in cinemas around the world. In 1968 it was met with both praise and ridicule. Since then it has been widely accepted, in the words of Avatar director James Cameron, as “the all time great science fiction film.”
2001 is a film of big ideas, but deliberately obscure ones. Kubrick worked with Arthur C. Clarke to lay the film’s foundations in the form of a novel, the broad stroke themes of which are the origins of intelligence, humanity’s destiny and the nature of ‘god’. Kubrick chose to leave much of the book’s explanatory material out of the film, keeping the meaning out of reach. As such the novel is more accessible, but can’t produce the same sense of wonder as the film.
The story consists of three main parts. The first is a depiction of a certain popular theory of humanity’s ‘natural’ origins, but with ‘early man’ prompted by a higher intelligence to advance in their evolution. The middle part most closely resembles a traditional narrative, and features the legendary HAL 9000 computer – one of the most chilling villains in cinema history, and a prophetic warning about the rise of artificial intelligence. The third act lives up to the film’s tagline ‘the ultimate trip’, as Kubrick treats us to psychedelic photographic effects and a surreal climax that has the power to either hypnotise or bewilder. Martin Scorsese described the finale as “one of the best religious moments in moviemaking”, and 2001 certainly has a sense of spiritual zeal. The classical soundtrack, grand shots of the heavens and deceptively simple plot combine to transform the cinema into a cathedral – a place for contemplation and awe.
Steven Spielberg suggested that 2001’s sense of mystery stems from the three sections of story not quite fitting together. Kubrick’s decision to keep things mysterious can be attributed to his belief that a film should be “more like music than like fiction”, “a progression of moods and feelings”. Viewed more as a concert piece than a traditional story, 2001 is a special opportunity to appreciate cinema’s unique power to stir emotions through the marriage of pictures and music.
Kubrick said 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”. But he falls into the inevitable trap that in trying to replace God as creator with a superior alien civilisation, the same question has to be asked about who created that civilisation, and so on. Conceding that a higher power is needed, even just to coach life on earth, is a backhanded admission of the existence of God – but Kubrick and Clarke use the hypothesis as an excuse to deny that conclusion.
Kubrick’s wife called the film the prayer of an agnostic. 2001 reflects a filmmaker considering the possibility of a god-like being and the consequences that would have for scientific thought. These heady concepts are expressed through one of the most exquisite and uncompromising works of art of the 20th century.
★★★★★ Majestic and maverick, but with important themes that stop short of their logical conclusions.