2001: A Space Odyssey Explained


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Stanley Kubrick’s Sci-Fi masterpiece (in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke to produce the definitive Science Fiction Film,) still transcends all that followed it in the near fifty years since it graced the silver screen back in 1968, one year before Apollo 11′s Moon Landing made History in making “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. Kubrick ensured the Sci-Fi film genre took a leap out of the stone age and into the modern age.  One would argue that what followed (with the exception of ‘Silent Running’ and Gerry Anderson’s ‘Space 1999′) didn’t take up the mantle laid down by Kubrick.  It would be left to film makers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott to take up the sci-fi baton and run with it, taking us and our imaginations to places other film makers of the genre failed to take us for much of the 1970s.

One could argue in his time that Stanley Kubrick with this one film became the Father of the Modern Science Fiction Film and the above-mentioned merely his sons.  Others would argue He is now the Grandfather of the Modern Science Fiction Film in that Spielberg with ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Ridley Scott with ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Prometheus’ and George Lucas with his masterful storytelling via the Star Wars Trilogies, are now Fathers in their own right of the genre and Kubrick now merely the fondly remembered Grandfather who is now no longer with us.

What cannot be denied was the science fiction film came of age in 1968 (much like the Western did in 1939 with ‘Stage Coach’,) in that everything of the genre that came before 2001, looked so inferior when compared to it. Of course many will denounce the above and cite the many classic serials such as ‘Flash Gordon, ‘Buck Rogers’ and movies like ‘This Island Earth’ and ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. I would not argue they are classics in their own right.  I have watched many of the Science Fiction films of that era – Indeed I have always quoted Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ as a classic but like 2001, no one was making a science fiction film like it in 1926, much like no one was making a movie like 2001 in the mid-1960s.  Both pushed the boundaries and are still debated.  Indeed, Metropolis has never gone away. I first saw the Film in the mid-1970s and was one of the films that captured my imagination, despite growing up with Gerry Anderson Sci-fi. The rock bank Queen’s cover of  their Album  ‘News of the World’ had  a robot that always reminded me of the Film, which itself  was re-released with a modern rock musical soundtrack in the mid-1980s with contributions from Freddie Mercury and others in collaboration with Producer Giordio Moroder,  A stage Musical of the same name opened at the Piccadilly Theare in London in 1989.  And if all of the above wasn’t enough, artists such as Kylie Minogue, Queen, Madonna and Whitney Houston have all paid homage to the Film in their Music Videos whether using actual film footage from it or used the film’s concept.  A good Science Fiction film can inspire one generation after another.  So too does 2001 but in a very different way.

2001′s minimum use of dialogue forces its audience to think.  Nothing is explained. One has to work out for themselves what is going on.  Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ does something similar, even though there is more dialogue.  The ending of the Film (2001,) itself has provoked much debate.  A film maker I auditioned for told me he could never rate 2001 because its ending is too random. I would argue that is the reason why it is such a classic.  So much has been written about what the ending could mean.  Even the ‘Stargate Sequence’ as many have called the beginning of Dave Bowman’s journey to where we can only stretch our brains and imagination to think of, has also been the subject of much debate.  What makes 2001 a classic for me is that no one had not only conceived of doing a science fiction film of this type and magnitude but had not created a whole process and technology in order to bring such a vision to the Silver Screen.  But Kubrick did.  The resulting effect of his completed film vision of where Mankind as been, currently is, and will eventually be, can be seen in films such as ‘Silent Running’, ‘Star Wars’, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman: The Movie as notable examples because the people who worked on these movies all worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The real test of a classic film of any genre is how well it crosses over into the everyday consciousness of the populace.  Unlike films such as The Matrix where this is instantly noticeable (via the ‘Bullet Time’ sequences where we see fired bullets slowly flow through the air,) 2001′s influences are much more subtle but once you have seen the film a few times and study it, its influences are clearly visible.

A short cut to understanding the Film can be found at this excellent Website:-

http://www.kubrick2001.com/

I already had my own view and ideas of what 2001: A Space Odyssey was all about but after watching the film numerous times and feeling I knew what the film was about, each new viewing presented new ideas.  I discovered this website purely by accident in September 2000.  The animation is now clearly dated but what isn’t is its ability to condense and explain the bones of the story and give the audience a concise view of 2001′s story and the concepts that lie behind it.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

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3 responses to “2001: A Space Odyssey Explained

  1. I will agree that 2001 is among the best SF films ever produced and that it did also introduce many techniques that work well when SF is the subject and have also not been used since (to the extent that they could be), but your justifications I find leave out many SF films – both before and since 2001 – that can make the same claim.

    We can start with Kubrick’s own A Clockwork Orange, produced three years after 2001, is at least as visually striking as 2001 and it can be argued that the subject matter may be even more important that that covered in the previous film.

    In your review of films prior to 2001, you fail to mention Forbidden Planet (1956). This film was as visually ground-breaking for its time as was 2001 a decade+ later.

    Indeed, not only did we get Clockwork Orange three years after 2001, we also got: The Omega Man and Lucas’ own THX1138 in the same year – both vibrant SF films with TOM receiving the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. Admittedly far Earthier than 2001, TOM is perhaps the best big screen adaptation of one of the genre’s seminal tropes and is based on Matheson’s wonderful novel, I Am Legend.

    Moving on through the decade preceding Star Wars (I expect that a lot of folks will take exception to the characterization of that movie being based on Lucas’ “masterful storytelling”) we also find Silent Running (which you mentioned) and Slaughterhouse 5, the animated Fantastic Planet, another Heston blockbuster in Soylent Green, Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog, The Man Who Fell To Earth and (I hesitate to include it) Logan’s Run.

    You mention as a positive that 2001 induced the viewer to think; while the above mentioned films are certainly not as visually entertaining, nor as enigmatic as 2001, they all also share that inducement to the audience.

    If your accolades are restricted to SF film that largely takes place in space, I don’t think your assessment is too far off, but within the larger realm of all films that are considered to be SF of one type or another, there are plenty of others from this period that deserve serious consideration.

    We all love us some 2001 (and Kubrick, who also gave us Dr. Strangelove -1964), and it absolutely deserves to be in any Top 10 Of All Time list, but it certainly does not stand alone.

    BTW: the Queen cover may be invoking SF visions because it is a Kelly Freas cover adapted from the Astounding October 1953 issue http://philsp.com/data/images/a/astounding_science_fiction_195310.jpg

    • Hi Steve,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read my little piece on 2001. You make some very good points about the sci-fi film genre, some of which I missed. However, we both agree 2001 is one of the best science fiction films ever made. For me personally, it was the greatest film of the genre ever made, and while we have come a long way in film generally, for me it still ranks head and shoulders above many others. Avatar (which I didn’t mention among many others,) will certainly contend for the title now and for many years to come come. We have come a long with regard to the genre.

      As you say there are many other films that are just as good and are also acclaimed. As I said in my piece others will denounce my claims and yes I did leave out many of those sci-fi films but I will explain why.

      First off, you mention A Clockwork Orange. Oddly I have never seen this Film as a science fiction film, despite the fact it is set in a futuristic London. The subject matter it could be argued is certainly more important than that covered in 2001, which is why both are still debated for different reasons. One deals the human condition and the issues surrounding it, while the other deals with our road to the next stage our evolution. Simplistic descriptions I know, as both films deal with themes on a massive level.

      As to Forbidden Planet, I clearly missed this one, when discussing films prior to 2001. Yes, it is visually stunning, has a cult following to this day – There is comic book store in Central London called the Forbidden Planet – In fact there are two separate chains of comic book stores with the same. And dare I mention the Musical based on the Film. But it is still a film firmly rooted in the period it was made (as all sci-fi film are 2001 included,) but The Forbidden Planet clearly has 1950s written over it, as many films of that period (or any film of any period,) which is why it was overlooked, not deliberately, it just didn’t come mind when I was writing my piece. That said, when watching 2001, I don’t feel I am watching a film made in the 1960s though clearly it is all there. For instance Pan-Am was the major airline of choice when heroes in films had to get from place to another. Whether it was James Bond flying to Russian With Love, Frank Bullitt chasing his quarry to a plane bound for Rome, Pan-Am was the airline concerned so why wouldn’t Pan-Am be flying Space Liners to giant orbiting wheels in the Sky? Made sense at the time though history and reality tells us something different in PanAm went bust and no longer exists. But it made sense, still does within the context of the Film and again 2001 transcends the time it was made in, something Forbidden Planet does not. It is firmly rooted in the time it was made. That is not a criticism just my reason why I passed over many of the sci-fi films prior to 2001.

      Now we get to the 1970s where you may have guessed I don’t really have much time for the films from this period. My main reason for this is they are all a little too dystopian for my liking. I remember a friend many years ago berating me for this view. He explained it simply as the 1970s being ‘Pessimistic times’. By this I think he meant Richard Nixon firmly entrenched in The White House via a landslide victory in the 1972 Presidential Election, Vietnam (War) ranged on, the international oil crisis, the rise in airline terrorism and terrorism generally and the ever ready threat of nuclear annihilation. One would believe that the world was going to hell in a basket. This is one of the reasons I passed over the 1970s. You did mention films I watched from that period and while I watched them and found some of them interesting, they were far too doom-laden for my tastes. Soylent Green in addition to being an interesting detective story, did discuss mass homelessness, the breakdown right across Society, the fact those in power were so far removed from what was happening in Society, they didn’t care and…Here’s the big one: When times are so desperate, do we really question what we are eating in order to survive? Charlton Heston was a major film actor for many years. He worked on so many big films, that a major film was any film that he was in. I just wondered whether Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, would ever have got made on such a scale if he wasn’t involved. That is just my personal view. To be honest, Silent Running aside, the major sci-fi films of the 1970s never grabbed me. Logan’s Run included. The other films we didn’t mention were the other Planet of the Apes sequels, The Forbin Project, Rollerball, Embryo, Demon Seed, Damnation Alley. The 1970s dystopian view of the world going to hell or under the control of one giant computer, did nothing but give me nightmares throughout that Decade. I could never understand (despite my friend’s historical analysis of pessimistic times,) why film makers didn’t have one good thing to say about The Future.

      I am sure people will take exception to my description of George Lucas as a master storyteller. As someone who read a lot of classical literature while growing and to this day, when I first watched the original version of ‘Star Wars’ it was not lost on me the correlation between Luke Skywalker and the heroes of Greek Myth such as Perseus, Theseus and Jason. Like Luke all were of noble birth whether a scion of Zeus or some murdered King, like Luke, they were raised in seclusion until by chance or destiny, they are drawn into a conflict that is bigger and all-encompassing than anything they have ever had to deal with. And yet, somehow against the odds, they prevail. If you watch Star Wars: New Hope and Clash of the Titans back to back, I think you will get my drift. And why I think George Lucas is a master storytelling. He took all the classic elements of storytelling and set it in ‘…a galaxy far, far way’, And in doing so created a whole industry unto himself. Think Lucasfilm, The Skywalker Ranch, Skywalker Sound, Industrial Light & Magic, the THX Sound System, Lucas Digital etc. Name another film that was the staging ground for film making and digital conglomerate? I can’t think of one unless James Cameron owns it.

      Whether 2001 stands alone as I like to think is subject to debate and it should be subject to scrutiny as my piece above is. In the greater context of sci-fi, of course there are other films with stories that deserve equal acclaim for their subject matter and 2001 will not stand alone. For me the reasons why it stands alone is that without stifling the film in endless dialogue it allows its audience to think for themselves and ascertain for themselves exactly what is going on. Not many films of the genre allow this on such a scale. I may well be wrong here and if so, I would like to know why one thinks I am. I also mentioned another reason why 2001 is so revered by me in that without, it and the work done on it, there would have been no Silent Running, no Star Wars, no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, no Superman. Those who worked on those film were those who assisted Mr. Kubrick in bringing his vision of man’s journey in the next stage of his evolution to the silver screen in the 1960s.

      Ps. Dr. Strangelove is a great Film, a funny Film but I have always saw it as a satire rather than a sci-fi film. Also I was aware of the background to Queen’s album cover for News of the World and the story behind it. Just reminds me of Metropolis for some reason. Always did. I should note that my sci-fi fix during the 1970s came via TV whether it was Dr. Who, The Six Million Man. Fantastic Journey and reruns of Star Trek, Lost of in Space, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I just wanted to watch something more upbeat, with a sense of adventure, as well as entertaining during that period.

  2. Pingback: Stanley Kubiak’s Real Meaning Behind The Monolith: 2001 A Space Odessey… « Just Spit it Out Already!·

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