© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
One of the most successful and widely-discussed films of the late 1960s, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey resurrected science fiction film at a time when the genre had largely faded from view during the four years after Kubrick’s own Dr. Strangelove had essentially made the Cold War paranoia SF film obsolete. Brilliant, thought-provoking, and visually stunning, 2001 brought new credibility to the science fiction film as an art form, demonstrating the ability of film as a medium to produce precisely the kind of mind-expanding images that readers of science fiction literature had long imagined but had never before seen on the screen.
2001 relies far less on plot than most other science fiction films. Indeed, it largely leaves it up to viewers to construct a coherent story that connects a sequence of narrative fragments. Moreover, plot is almost beside the point. This is a film that stretches the resources of the medium to their limit, creating some of the most striking sights and sounds ever experienced by film audiences. It also stretches the resources of the mind, demanding that viewers ponder a number of important and serious ideas in order to appreciate the film. Nevertheless, it is possible (and helpful) to discern a story beneath all of the film’s dazzling images and dizzying ideas.
As if to announce its self-consciously artistic nature (an announcement already made, in fact, in the film’s titular allusion to the Homeric epic), 2001 begins more like an actual opera than a space opera, with a long (nearly 3 minutes) musical overture (György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”), during which the screen is entirely blank. Then, to the dramatic music of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening credits flash over a shot of a sun rising over a planet. After a fade to black, we are presented with a sequence, introduced by the on-screen title “THE DAWN OF MAN,” in which the sun rises over a primeval landscape, followed by a series of scenes involving primitive man-apes, the ancestors of modern man. In the first sequence, a group of man-apes scrounges for food until one of them is attacked and killed by a leopard. In the second sequence, two groups of man-apes battle over a water hole, until one group retreats without any actual blows being struck. In the third sequence, the man-apes huddle together at night as ominous animal noises fill the air. A glowing streak is seen in the sky. As the fourth sequence begins, the man-apes awake to eerie, cacophonous musical sounds (Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs, and Orchestra”) to find a strange rectangular black monolith that has appeared nearby during the night. The sun is shown rising over the top of the monolith. In the next sequence, one of the man-apes (apparently having received an intelligence boost from exposure to the monolith) hits on the idea of using a bone as a club—again to the accompaniment of the Also Sprach Zarathustra theme. This advance marks a breakthrough in the ability of the man-apes to kill large animals for food—and to kill their fellow man-apes in the competition for resources, as we see when the newly-armed group of man-apes uses its bone-clubs to drive the rival group from the watering hole, killing one of them. A man-ape triumphantly tosses his club into the air, which then fades into a shot of a similarly-shaped orbiting spacecraft, which is thus identified as the ultimate result of the technological advances that began with the bone-clubs.
Accompanied by Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, the second major sequence of the film begins with shots of the earth as seen from space and a wheel-like space station to which another spacecraft is traveling, carrying a single passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) of the National Council of Astronautics. Extensive shots of the weightless interior of the spacecraft (still accompanied by The Blue Danube) are followed by the waltz-like approach of the craft to the space station. Floyd is shown arriving in an elevator-like compartment at the “main level” of the station, as announced by an attendant who accompanies him—and who speaks the first words of the film, after more than twenty-five minutes without dialogue.
Floyd checks in with station security, then calls home on a picture-phone, speaking with his small daughter, whose birthday party he will be missing because of his trip to the moon. He runs into a group of Russian scientists, professional acquaintances of his, who suggest that strange things are going on at the American Clavius Base on the moon, to which Floyd is headed. He explains to them that he is not at liberty to discuss his trip or the rumors that some sort of epidemic has broken out at the base.
When Floyd arrives at the base after another flight on which he is now the only passenger (and during which we again get an extensive view of the trappings of future technology), he is briefed on the recent shocking discovery that has prompted his trip: a monolith (like the one shown in the first segment) has been found buried beneath the surface of the moon, apparently left there by an advanced intelligence four million years earlier. Concerned about the “social shock and cultural disorientation” that this evidence of alien intelligence might cause on earth, the authorities have carefully suppressed news of the discovery in favor of the cover story about the epidemic.
Floyd travels out to the site of the mysterious monolith in a shuttle craft. While he is there, he and the others in the party hear a piercing, high-pitched noise, apparently coming from the monolith. They cover their ears in pain, followed by a fade to black and an on-screen announcement bearing the title of the next segment of the film, “JUPITER MISSION, 18 MONTHS LATER.” (Significantly, all of the action on the moon is still a part of the “Dawn of Man” segment, suggesting that, until the location of the second monolith, humanity was still in its initial stage of development as an intelligent species.)
We will eventually learn that the discovery of the monolith on the moon triggered a signal that seems to be aimed at Jupiter, causing the authorities on earth to mount a mission to Jupiter in an attempt to discover the nature and origin of the monolith. This new segment of the film begins with a long, slow external pan of spaceship Discovery, followed by a long shot of the exterior of the ship, then a cut to the interior, in which a man (at this point unidentified) jogs along a rotating circular path that uses centrifugal force to simulate gravity. We then see a variety of views of everyday life on the craft, which is manned by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the commander of the mission, and Dr. Frank Poole (the jogger, played by Gary Lockwood), his deputy, in addition to three other crew members who were placed in hibernation before departure in order to save life-support resources. The day-to-day operations of the ship are controlled by an advanced HAL 9000 computer, an intelligent machine designed to think much like a human, except more quickly and more efficiently. Indeed, HAL is supposedly incapable of error.
We see the crew members exercising, eating, watching the BBC, playing chess with HAL, and receiving videophone messages from their families back on earth. All is very routine, especially with the infallible HAL ensuring that the ship operates smoothly. Still, HAL’s soothing-but-creepy voice (provided by Shakespearean actor Douglas Rains) suggests an air of menace, especially when the computer begins to shows signs of condescension toward the human crew. This voice, in fact, becomes one of the most memorable features of the film and is now one of the signature sounds of modern American popular culture.
HAL suddenly announces that the ship’s AE-35 unit is about to fail; Poole must then go outside the ship in a space pod to replace the unit, which is crucial to maintaining communications with earth. The replacement goes smoothly, but when Bowman and Poole examine the replaced unit they can find nothing wrong with it. HAL, seeming puzzled, recommends that they put it back in operation until it fails, so that they can better diagnose the problem. Mission control endorses the plan, especially as their own analysis shows that HAL was in error when it predicted the fault, indicating a potentially serious problem with the computer. HAL responds that no 9000 series computer has ever made a mistake and that the only possible explanation is some sort of human error, again signaling its growing sense of its own superiority to humans.
Bowman and Poole go inside one of the pods so that they can discuss the situation without HAL overhearing. They agree that, if the computer is indeed malfunctioning, they will have to disconnect it and continue the mission under earth-based computer control. However, just as the film goes into intermission, it becomes clear that HAL is reading their lips through a window in the pod, which sets the stage for a sinister turn in the computer’s behavior in the latter part of the film.
After the intermission (during which the screen then goes blank, with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” providing a musical backdrop), Poole goes back out to replace the original AE-35 unit, exiting the space pod in order to do so. HAL then takes control of the pod and kills the astronaut by ripping loose his air hose and sending his body hurtling off into space. Bowman goes out in another pod and retrieves the body, though he knows it is too late to save Poole. In the meantime, HAL cuts off the life support to the three sleeping crewmen, killing them as well. HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors to let Bowman back in the ship, claiming that the mission is too important to allow humans to jeopardize it by disconnecting the computer.
Bowman manages to use the mechanical arms of the pod to open an emergency hatch and get back into the ship. He then sets about the daunting task of disconnecting HAL, which is made difficult by the complexity of the computer and by the fact that no HAL 9000 computer has ever been disconnected, so no one knows exactly how to do it. All the while, HAL pleads with him to stop, but he finally succeeds, sending the computer into a reversion to its infancy as it begins to sing a song (“Daisy”) taught it by its first programmer nine years earlier, then drifts off into oblivion.
The disconnection of HAL triggers a recording designed to explain the full parameters of the mission upon arrival at Jupiter. The recording explains the discovery of the monolith on the moon and notes that the monolith has done nothing since but emit a single, very powerful radio signal aimed at Jupiter. The screen then cuts to the title of the next segment, “JUPITER AND BEYOND THE INFINITE.”
In this segment, Discovery approaches Jupiter, again to the sound of the Ligeti Requiem that usually announces the appearance of a monolith. Indeed, when Bowman leaves the ship in a pod, he approaches what seems to be one of the monoliths slowly spinning in space. Suddenly, he seems to enter another dimension (hyper-space), goes through a Stargate that is something like a psychedelic tunnel, then emerges in a field of stars. He then moves through a series of strange, incomprehensible sights and shapes, taking him out of the solar system and into a different part of the galaxy. At the same time, the film shifts from a relatively comprehensible SF narrative and into a mode of avant-garde art cinema. The pod seems to be flying over a sort of canyon (in a variety of weird changing colors), then an ocean and more planetary surface. Finally, as the cacophonous music builds to a crescendo, then falls to near silence, Bowman realizes that the pod has somehow come to rest. He discovers that he is now in a simulated period hotel suite, decorated with bits and pieces of earth furnishings, apparently designed to provide comforting surroundings for someone from earth, though the overdone decor of the room suggests that it may have been an alien’s idea of what an earth hotel room would look like. Bowman, now an old man, emerges from the pod and begins to explore the suite. He approaches an old man eating at a table. The man turns around and looks at him, then slowly rises and approaches him. It is an even older version of Bowman himself, and the space-suited Bowman now disappears from the film. After the other Bowman drops and breaks a glass on the floor, he looks over onto the bed and sees an even older version of himself. A monolith appears at the foot of the bed, and the aged Bowman in the bed is suddenly replaced by a gestating fetus (apparently as a signal that he dies and is reborn), the Star Child. Also Sprach Zarathustra again plays, announcing another step in human evolution. As the film closes, the fetus is seen approaching earth from space, inside a sort of embryonic bubble.
The Source of the Movie
2001 is based (very loosely) on a short story entitled “The Sentinel,” by Arthur C. Clarke. In the story, a strange alien artifact is discovered buried beneath the surface of the moon, left there long ago by an advanced alien race as a means of detecting when the human race had become advanced enough to travel to the moon. From this seed, Clarke and Kubrick constructed the screenplay of the film. Meanwhile, Clarke simultaneously expanded his short story into a novel with the same title as the film. The film is thus not literally based on this novel, though some of the novel was written before the script and helped provide a basis for it. The novel fills in numerous details on which viewers of the film are left to speculate. In particular, the novel provides an ending that is less vague than that of the film, making it clear that the Star Child, representing the next step in human evolution, has returned to earth to become master of the planet (he destroys an orbiting weapons station as he approaches the atmosphere), even though he is as yet unsure what he will do with this power. Otherwise, the plots of the film and book are similar, though there are a few differences in details, as when the pivotal space mission in the book is actually aimed at Saturn, rather than Jupiter, as in the film.
Images, Sounds, and Ideas: Science Fiction as Art in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The science fiction ideas that inform 2001: A Space Odyssey are relatively conventional. For example, the notion of an advanced alien race guiding human evolution can be found in any number of science fiction novels, such as Clarke’s own Childhood’s End (1953) and Octavia Butler’s more recent Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–1989). More recently, David Brin’s popular series of “Uplift” novels makes such evolutionary guidance a central feature of intergalactic civilization. The notion of a runaway computer that turns on its programmers is by now a virtual cliché (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville is perhaps the locus classicus of the motif in film), though it was not quite as familiar in 1968 as it is now. In fact, in many ways, the story of HAL in 2001 is simply a high-tech retelling of the Frankenstein story. Nevertheless, 2001 is an extremely innovative film that broke important new ground in the history of science fiction cinema. Its use of sound and visuals to create a compelling SF vision of a fictional universe represented a genuine breakthrough. The film won an Oscar for its special visual effects and was nominated for best set direction, best director, and best original screenplay. It was ranked twenty-second on the 1998 American Film Institute’s list of the all-time great films, making it the second highest-ranked science-fiction film on that list (Star Wars was ranked fifteenth).
Initially, 2001 was greeted by audiences with a combination of astonishment and bewilderment. Many complained that the film was simply boring and incomprehensible, but the film did well at the box office, partly because its unconventional nature (especially the psychedelic light show near the end) helped it to appeal to the countercultural sensibilities of the late 1960s. Critics were even more strongly divided than audiences. Pauline Kael, in a remarkably unperceptive review published in Harper’s, called 2001 “monumentally unimaginative” and concluded that it was “the biggest amateur movie of them all.” Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, called it a milestone in the art of film that surpassed anything he had ever seen in terms of technical achievement.
If it appears that Kael and Champlin were seeing different films, then perhaps they were. Such disagreements came about because 2001 is such a complex film and because it cedes so much of its work to the imagination of viewers, allowing different viewers essentially to construct different films from the material at hand. Because of its combination of excellence and complexity, 2001 has spawned a great deal of academic criticism as well as a number of book-length guides intended for the general viewer—several of them proclaiming 2001 the greatest science fiction film ever made. Other commentators go even further, as when Leonard Wheat, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory (London: Scarecrow Press, 2000, p. 160) calls 2001 “the grandest motion picture ever filmed.” Book-length works from Jerome Agel’s early The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (1970) to Piers Bizony’s recent 2001: Filming the Future (2000) have detailed the intricate three-year-plus process of making the film, while one book-length work, The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (2000, edited by Stephanie Schwam), compiles testimonies on the making of the film by those involved in the process, as well as a number of reviews of the film.
All of this available commentary is highly useful given the intricacies of the film itself, while the continuing critical interest in the film testifies to its ongoing importance. The special effects, made in the days before computer-generated imagery revolutionized the entire field, continue to impress; the way in which Kubrick’s camera seems almost lovingly to caress the technological artifacts it films represents a powerful pro-technology statement, even as the malfunction of HAL sounds an ominous warning. The glorious music that accompanies many of the film’s images of high-tech devices makes these devices seem to be works of art as much as technology.
Indeed, the much-discussed music of 2001 is, as a whole, one of the key ingredients that makes this film so special. For one thing, the choice of classical music for the soundtrack announces that this film takes itself very seriously as a work of art (complete with overture and intermission), as opposed to the often cheesy and campy SF productions that had preceded it. The music certainly makes a substantial contribution to the grandeur that many viewers note when they watch the film, and in some cases even makes thematic contributions. For example, the title of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, strategically placed at points in the film when the monoliths are about to initiate a new stage in human evolution,is taken from a book by nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose best-known concept is the notion of the coming of a new variety of superior human, or “Übermensch,” who could lead humanity into a new era.
Nevertheless, despite the film’s impressive score, it is the visual imagery for which 2001 is ultimately most important. Kubrick himself was heavily involved in designing the special effects for the film, though it also had several “special photographic effects supervisors,” including Douglas Trumbull, who went on to become something of a legend in the special effects world, designing special photographic effects for a number of the most important SF films ever made, including The Andromeda Strain (1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982). He also directed such excellent SF films as Silent Running (1972) and Brainstorm (1983) and developed the special “Showscan” process which has been used to provide the visual effects for a variety of automated theme-park rides.
The ballet-like presentation of the various space vessels in 2001 is particularly effective, but for two seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the various spacecraft and space stations in 2001 look entirely realistic and convincing, far more so than in any previous science fiction film. On the other hand, audiences are entirely aware that the technology of 2001 is not real, that it is merely the product of movie magic, which only serves to make the film’s special effects all the more impressive. Indeed, the real technological marvel of the film is not the Discovery spacecraft or the HAL computer but the ability of Kubrick and his special effects team to create such vivid and believable images of what the technology of the future might be like.
In 1968, one year before the first manned landing on the moon would occur, and only eight years after the first manned spaceflight of Yuri Gagarin, it was easy to believe that technology would advance to the state depicted in the film by the year 2001. Interestingly, enough, however, the film’s images of future technology remain just as effective in our own post-2001 era, when we know that the level of spaceflight technology represented in the film has not been reached and is not likely to be reached in the near future. Again, that is because the real object of representation in 2001 is not spaceflight technology at all but special effects technology—and the special effects of the film are all the more impressive because we know that the available technology for the production of special effects has now moved vastly beyond that which was available to Kubrick and his team, yet no subsequent film has been able to produce images that were more aesthetically stunning or technologically convincing than those produced in 2001.
The dazzling images of the film clearly outweigh its plot and themes in importance. In fact, at first glance, one of the most noticeable things about 2001 is its almost total absence of any sort of social or political commentary, especially for a film released in 1968, the peak year of the global political unrest that marked the 1960s. When there are themes, they seem more metaphysical than political. However, the film is actually thematically richer than might first appear, sometimes in ways that have distinctly social and political implications. For example, one of the most striking things about the representation of spaceflight in the film—at least as regards flight between earth and the moon—is how utterly routine it has become, as when Heywood Floyd’s flight to the moon is carefully constructed to look very much like contemporary airline travel. In fact, the flight is not only routine, but boring; when we first see Floyd, in fact, he has fallen asleep while watching television on the flight.
This routinization of space travel seems at first to be simply an indication of the technological advancement. On the other hand, a closer look at the film suggests that this sort of routinization of technology is part of a far broader tendency toward routine that afflicts Kubrick’s future society. Meanwhile, the film’s lack of dialogue (usually interpreted as a sign of the primacy of its images) can also be taken as a sign of the general linguistic poverty of the denizens of the year 2001. One perceptive early reviewer, F. A. Macklin, noted in Film Comment that the film revealed “the wretched decline in language” in Kubrick’s future world, a motif common to dystopian fictions such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and that can be taken as a hint at the dystopian nature of the future society of the film. When the first human voice is finally heard in the film, it belongs to the uniformed attendant of the high-tech elevator that delivers Floyd to his destination on the space station, giving him what is basically a prepared script: “Here you are, sir. Main level, please.” Floyd responds with meaningless small talk, then walks into the lobby where he is greeted by a similarly-uniformed receptionist with whom he exchanges similarly empty chatter. She asks him, “Did you have a pleasant flight, sir?” to which he responds, “Yes, very nice, thanks.” Mr. Miller of station security then greets him with an equally banal exchange, then takes him to a video screen on which a recording asks him to identify himself and the nature of his journey for security purposes.
What is striking at this point is that the language of the video recording is no more mechanical than that of the humans we have encountered thus far in the film. Indeed, as the film goes forward, we discover that all of the characters in the film tend to speak and act mechanically, almost as if they have been programmed to speak and act in this way. In some cases, this manner of speech seems motivated by the situation, as when various characters speak in purely official capacities or when Floyd speaks with the Russian scientists on the station, each side (especially Floyd) tiptoeing verbally through the conversation in ways that indicate the ongoing distance between the two sides in a Cold War that continues in the 2001 of the film. Meanwhile, most of the communication in the film is purely impersonal, as in Floyd’s speech upon arrival at the moon base (a masterpiece of trite bureaucratese). Later he receives clichéd congratulations from colleagues on the quality of the speech, followed by his own formulaic reply that they themselves have done a “hell of a job” in handling the matter of the monolith. However, even personal (and potentially touching) moments, such as Floyd’s call home to his daughter, consist of nothing more than an exchange of clichés, bereft of emotion. Floyd’s cute-but-fidgety daughter seems bored by the entire conversation; she seems neither disappointed nor surprised that he will miss her upcoming birthday party, while the fact that her first choice of a birthday present is a telephone suggests her total lack of imagination, a telephone being the first thing at hand. It also emphasizes the mediated nature of most communication in this future society, in which technology allows for the exchange of messages across great distances, including those of outer space. In fact, the only other personal “conversation” that occurs in the film is even more mediated; Poole’s parents wish him a happy birthday via a recorded message sent to the Discovery and to which he is not even able to respond.
It is also significant that Floyd’s video display shows us the cost of his call home ($1.70) immediately after the end of the conversation with his daughter, suggesting the way in which even the most personal of relationships in this future society have been reduced to the status of mere economic commodities. Similarly, in their birthday greeting to their son, Poole’s parents speak largely of economic matters, assuring him that he will soon be receiving his promised pay raise and asking how much they should spend on a gift he has asked them to buy for some friends.
Of course, the “hell of a job” mentioned by Floyd consists of little more than suppressing information about the monolith on the moon, a tactic that might be understandable but that also gives this future society a subtly dystopian flavor. Indeed, Floyd comes to the moon as a representative of the National Council of Astronautics, which seems to have political authority on earth that goes well beyond that of NASA, its real-world counterpart. For example, the Council has requested, among other things, that formal security oaths be obtained in writing from everyone who has any knowledge of the monolith. The requirement of such oaths (reminiscent of those associated with the era of McCarthyite anticommunist repression in the U.S. in the 1950s), like the official suppression of information about the monolith itself, suggests anything but a utopian future.
Of course, this suppression is consistent with the general lack of real communication among the characters in the film. The mediated and mechanical conversations that fill the film suggest the alienation that separates one person from another in this dystopian future, where the phenomenon of the “waning of affect” that cultural critic Fredric Jameson sees as a crucial aspect of experience in the postmodern world has reached an extreme. Indeed, the question posed of HAL midway through the film about whether he actually has feelings and emotions might just as well have been posed of any of the human characters in the film. Thus, when Poole (speaking in the typically banal language of the film) suggests of HAL that “you think of him really just as another person,” it is not clear whether that is because HAL is so humanlike or because the humans in the film are so robotic and computerlike.
Humans in the film not only act and speak alike, but they also look alike. Most of them dress in uniforms, of course, but even the civilian clothing in the film has a uniform-like quality. And the fact that Kubrick chose two nearly identical looking and sounding actors to play the parts of Poole and Bowman was surely no accident but can be taken as another marker of the suppression of individuality in his society of the future. Meanwhile, the citizens of this society are limited by an almost total lack of genuine sensual experience. There is no hint of sexuality in the film; the only food we ever see consumed is the unappetizing, characterless blocks and puddles of prepackaged food served aboard spaceships; and the only culture available is canned elevator music and banal television programming.
In fact, it has been frequently observed that HAL may well be the most “human” of all of the characters in the film. While most of the humans in the film seem to be operating in an almost trancelike state, HAL remains alert, engaged, and alarmed. He is also capable of taking radical action on his own, while the humans seem to need instructions from the home office (or HAL) before undertaking even the simplest of tasks. Probably the most poignant moment in the film occurs as Bowman begins to shut down HAL’s memory circuits, causing a reversion to “childhood” in which the computer first begs for its “life,” then announces its growing sense of fear as its “mind” goes. “I can feel it,” it repeatedly says, which sets it apart from the many humans in the film who seem to feel nothing at all. It then regresses through the nine years of its programming, a time period chosen by Kubrick in order to endow the computer with additional humanity by giving it a personal history (even though it now seems absurd to imagine that a nine-year-old computer would not be obsolete, a fact Clarke apparently understood by making HAL only four years old in the novel version).
Indeed, as Carl Freedman notes in an extremely useful essay on 2001 that appears in his book The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity, and the Politics of Culture (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), HAL’s relatively lively intellect and personality highlight the “vacuity of humanity in the human crew members” (109). However, whereas Freedman sees the banality of the film’s plot and characters as a sort of metafictional commentary on the difficulties of science fiction film as an art form (and thus sees 2001 as essentially apolitical, if in an interesting way), I would argue that there is a great deal of implicit political commentary in Kubrick’s presentation of a future in which forces of conformism and routinization have battered humanity into a collection of lifeless and essentially interchangeable near-robots. Granted, Kubrick does not overtly diagnosis the malaise of humanity in the year 2001 as specifically political, though it does have clear political dimensions via the vague mentions of the shadowy “Council.” Humanity seems to have reached a sort of impasse, a dead end; the stage of development labeled in the film as “The Dawn of Man” has gone as far as it can go. The revolt of HAL, meanwhile, signals the fact that humans have now been outstripped by their own technology, which again means that the first stage of human evolution has reached its limit. The evolutionary “boost” provided by the film’s mysterious aliens (or gods, or whatever they might be) is thus not only desirable but necessary for the continued survival of the species—if, in fact, the Star Child is still the same species at all.
There is, of course, a certain optimism in the film’s suggestion that, just as humanity has been all but exhausted, something will come along to inject new life into the human endeavor. Indeed, Freedman concludes that 2001 “conveys genuine utopian energy in its glimpse of a spiritual richness that may rescue humanity from the bureaucratic pettiness of Heywood Floyd or his Russian counterparts” (110). One might argue, however, that the film’s requirement of supernatural, or at least superhuman, intervention for this rescue to take place makes it a rather weak utopian gesture that signals the inability of human beings to achieve a better future on their own. From this point of view, the film is profoundly pessimistic, suggesting that we are already inescapably on the downward historical slope toward the film’s dehumanized future. There is, however, a powerful utopian proclamation in 2001 and that is the film itself, the sensuousness of which contrasts dramatically with the sensually deprived society it depicts. The film, with its dazzling sights and sounds, announces its own ability to transcend its banal plot, characters, and dialogue—just as the film’s impressive inventiveness stands as concrete proof that there are still human beings in the year 1968 who can think beyond banality and who are not quite as bereft of imagination as the film warns us we are beginning to be. The film thus stands not as a pessimistic prediction of an empty, routine, and banal future but as a suggestion of directions we might take to avoid that future.
Science Fiction as Cinematic Art: The Legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001 has no peers or direct successors in SF film. However, elements of it resemble a number of other films, partly because it has been so influential on subsequent SF films. It inspired a sequel in the form of Peter Hyams’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), which directly continues the narrative of the original film but is otherwise unremarkable, never quite reaching the grandeur of its predecessor, though it does at times attempt to reproduce the look of 2001. Virtually every other SF film made since 1968 draws upon the imagery and themes of 2001 as well, including dozens of films that visually or verbally refer to the film and a number of others (such as Mel Brooks’s 1985 Spaceballs) that include spoofs of it. Meanwhile, Kubrick’s own slightly later A Clockwork Orange (1971) is not only occasionally visually reminiscent of 2001 but also, in its depiction of a future society that employs psychological conditioning to enforce conformity, echoes the earlier film’s concern with a social tendency toward the banal and the routine.
Films that involve journeys
into outer space have been particularly influenced by 2001, as when the famous special effects of Star Wars (a film otherwise distinctly different from its
illustrious predecessor) sometimes recall Kubrick’s film in their attention to
detail in the representation of space-travel technology. Star Wars also seeks to achieve some of the grandeur of 2001, though in a sort of pop cultural
way quite different from the classicism of 2001.
Other space-travel films, such as Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), contain plot elements that are reminiscent of
2001, while SF films such as The Abyss (1989) frequently attempt to
announce their importance by projecting a sense of magnitude and grandeur,
especially through the use of music, again suggesting the influence of
Kubrick’s film. With the release of such films as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), we have clear evidence
that the influence of 2001 on
subsequent science fiction films remains strong have a century after the film’s