Science Fiction is probably one of the most thought provoking genres in fiction. It presents us with visions of the future and hypothetical situations which test our moral compass, or make us think about the some of the biggest questions there are. The movie I’m about to discuss challenges us to think about where we came from and the origins of our species. It poses questions of creation and of our role in the universe. I am of course talking about Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, and my third favourite movie of all time: 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Space Odyssey is not so much a film as it an out of body experience. It is a majestic, beautiful, and vibrant work of art that challenges our perception of the world and our notions of humanity’s origins. This film goes above and beyond pretty much every movie made in the 60s in terms of scope and presentation. After explaining the premise/plot, I will not only go in depth about the technical elements of this film, but the themes and my interpretation of the movie as well.
This film, essentially, tracks a large object from space known as a Monolith. Starting on Earth in prehistoric times, a group of apes encounter this object and begin to worship it. Afterwards, the apes develop the ability to use tools and begin to evolve. We then transition to thousands of years into the future, where a group of scientists have found the Monolith on the Moon. The Monolith proceeds to warp the scientists minds, and we then cut to a year or two later, with a group of astronauts travelling to Jupiter. However, the ship’s AI, known as HAL 9000, begins to malfunction and go rogue, killing off the astronauts. The only survivor, named Dave, manages to shut down HAL 9000, and receives a video message explaining the true nature of the mission, which is that a Monolith has been found near the planet and these astronauts must observe and study it. When Dave finally reaches the Monolith, he is transported through space and time till he reaches a room. Here, he witnesses himself grow old before his eyes till he is on his death bed. There, a Monolith is seen in his room and we are then shown the final, iconic image of a space baby known as the “Starchild” staring down on earth.
This film is beyond reproach and utterly masterful. Brilliant script, great characters and performances (Douglas Rain is absolutely unnerving and scary as the voice of HAL 9000, and Keir Duella was fantastic as the astronaut Dave Bowman), amazing cinematography and editing (it’s Kubrick, that’s a given), amazing score and soundtrack (Again, Kubrick), mind blowing set design and special effects (this was made in the 60s and it blows even modern movies out of the water with its look and scope), fascinating philosophy, etc.
On a technical level, this film is absolutely other worldly. Firstly, Kubrick’s eye for shot composition and editing is on full display here. The shot composition and framing in this movie is so scientific. Each shot is set up with painstaking intent, and each cut is purposeful. The film pulls our attention towards certain things. The transition of the bone throw to the space station, the majestic sequence of the spaceship entering into the space station, with the shot of the hangar doors opening and the spaceship entering, the way the camera pulls back in the interior of the space station, showing scope, the former almost like a mouth opening up to envelop the ship. One of my favourite sequences in this movie is the scene of one of the astronauts on the Jupiter mission just jogging. The way the cameras are set up and the way the shots are framed, and the angles are all absolutely unlike any movie out at this time. Another of Kubrick’s penchants on full display is his use of music. The iconic Richard Strauss piece “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” evoking feelings of triumph as apes have evolved and as the Starchild hovers over earth, and the use of Johan Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz as the spaceship enters the station, revelling in the beauty and majesty of space travel. Funnily enough, this classical music was temp music. There was supposed to be a proper score composed, but I doubt any original piece could evoke the power that these classical pieces could. But an aspect of this film that cannot be overlooked is the amazing special effects and sets. These intricate, practical, and expansive rooms all teaming with life and interesting little details, and the images of space all beautifully painted. The one sequence that deserves particular attention is the scene when Dave goes “beyond the infinite” or as JonTron would put it, he went into “The Kubrick”. We see these trippy, beautiful colourful animations as well as the distorted and coloured shots of oceans and canyons, and it creates the feeling that what we are seeing is beyond human comprehension.
Speaking of comprehension, I think it’s time to talk about what this movie is trying to say. Now, this is my second time going through this movie. While Kubrick himself has stated that this film is open to interpretation and that it is the sign of something great that it can evoke such deep discussion, I do believe that there are some very obvious lines of thought that the movie is trying to convey. The thesis I’ve been enamoured with when watching the movie this time is the religious aspect of it. Think it shallow or base level, I don’t quite care. But I believe that, maybe, the idea of the Monolith and the search for extraterrestrial life is an allegory or a metaphor for man’s quest for spiritual answers, for whether or not there is a God.
When the Monolith is first introduced to the apes, we seem them scared of it, in awe of its size, but as they move closer, they begin to get excited and it’s almost like they’re worshipping it. The apes take in its knowledge and are suddenly able to use tools, and for good or ill, have enlightened themselves. We then jump forward, to the scientists on the moon. The scientists devise a cover up for the discovery of the Monolith, saying there is an epidemic on the base. The reason for the cover up is that people at this time cannot comprehend what they have found. Flip some terms around, this can easily be interpreted as a person’s wrestling with the idea of what is out there, and trying to make sense of it all, make up something to keep them at ease because the real answer is much too meaty and big. Further, when they reach the Monolith, and their minds are warped by it, the knowledge it is granting them is too much for them to comprehend or handle, and they physically reject it, destroying them in the process. We finally enter “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” as Bowman encounters the Monolith, he is transported through space and time, and we see fantastical things beyond human understanding. What Bowman is seeing is the truth, he is becoming enlightened and entering the divine plane of existence (maybe Bowman died on the way to Jupiter and this is his spirit transcending to the next world? Probably not, but just a thought.) We then see Bowman in a white room, and he sees himself age before his eyes. On his death bed, he sees the monolith, and reaching out for its knowledge, he is transformed into a space baby (The Star Child). In a sense, Bowman was born again, and he has found God, and he has become an enlightened being that has risen beyond mortal problems.
Now we could easily switch some terms around, and we can make this a Nietzsche allegory that is not so much about God but about the UberMensch. Another theory I had when I was watching is that humanity is a science experiment by a highly advanced alien species, and that the monolith is a sort of test mechanism. I’ve also read that this movie is about child birth. Really, all of these are worth exploring, because this movie is so rich in imagery and ideas that it warrants discussion and multiple interpretations of the material. It is a sign of a great work, in my eyes, that a movie evokes the same excitement in you as when you first saw it, whether from an emotional perspective, or from an intellectual perspective, and Space Odyssey is a movie that pulls you back in and challenges you to think about what it is trying to say and to make up your own mind about its message.
Overall, this film is a cut above the rest. It is the greatest science fiction movie ever made, and it is Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork. It is a movie that is nothing short of majestic, and the minute a big screen showing of it comes to my city, I am immediately going to it. Space Odyssey is a journey through space and the human experience that is both technically marvelous and intellectually evocative of the origin of our species and the quest for what is beyond. This film may not be your cup of tea, but as an exercise in film history, you owe this movie at least one watch. Mandatory viewing.
10 out of 10