The Greatest Movie of All Time: A Look at "2001: A Space Odyssey" on its 50th Anniversary

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Howdy there Trove brethren, and thank you once again for tuning into the Trove blog!

As some of you know, a couple weeks ago we did our first bio blog on Atlanta’s own creative titan Donald Glover (what a man). This week, we’re doing another bio, of sorts, but not really on a person, but a film. A film, in fact, that this humble blogger believes to be not just easily the greatest science fiction movie ever, but the greatest film ever made … period.

Even if you haven’t seen it, the movie is so outrageously influential you’ve probably seen allusions to it and haven’t even realized it. Whether it’s Homer Simpson living as an ape in prehistoric times, Derek Zoolander and Hansel descending into primitive savagery as they attempt to work a computer, or even the villainous robot in “WALL-E,” the film has permanently imprinted itself on pop culture forever. It’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” directed by possibly the greatest director of all time in Stanley Kubrick, and this year, it turns 50.

With the film fixing to be re-released for a new, restored theatrical run thanks to Christopher Nolan (I was going to list movies he’s made here but c’mon, you people have GOT to know Nolan by now, good god), we at Trove figured it was worth taking a look at what makes the film so special. Because it’s not really a film; it’s an experience. Watching it is like reading a great novel, observing a profound painting, eating a Twinkie for the first time. It’s something you won’t soon forget.

But, before we dive in too deep here, let’s get a bit of a refresher on the film, shall we? Yes, we shall.

What’s It All About? : The Plot of “2001”

Alright, so when we say “plot” in the case of “2001,” we’re using that term a little loosely. When I said the film is an experience, I meant it; the plot is so broad and attempts to encompass so much content and time that the word “plot” is a difficult one to use in its context. Having said that, let’s try anyway.

So the “plot” of “2001” is split into three parts (four if you count the epic, cosmic, interplanetary introduction), entitled “The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter Mission,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” These three parts focus on pivotal points in mankind’s history (both past and future) where a massive evolutionary leap is about to be taken. The arrival of these leaps are heralded by the appearance of “monoliths,” giant black obelisks that show up out of nowhere, without any explanation. But when one shows up, stuff goes down.

Take “The Dawn of Man,” portion, where we get to hang out with monkeys! Well, not monkeys, but our eaaaaaarly ancestors, the earliest of ancestors, which were basically monkeys. Initially, our ape ancestors are just savages, yowling and chaotic, without any leadership or order (fun fact, the apes are actually played by a troupe of mimes, as they are of course the best with body language).

 I am monkey, hear me roar.

I am monkey, hear me roar.

But all that chaos stops when a monolith shows up. Moments later, we see one of the apes begin to realize that they can use a bone as both a tool and a weapon, accompanied by some of the greatest use of classical music you’ll ever hear in a movie (Kubrick is the king of music, and classical music is in a majority of his films.) Suddenly, that ape is ruling the roost, and just like that, man is born. The ape throws the bone into the air …

And we transition with a jump cut, probably the most famous jump cut in history, as the soaring bone changes to a spaceship and we leap millions of year forward in time to Part 2, “Jupiter Mission.” Here Kubrick lets us just bask in the stunning visuals of an imagined, galactic future, touring us through incredible spacecraft. We encounter the monolith yet again, which brings us to meet who could be considered our “protagonist”, astronaut Dr. Bowman, and our “antagonist,” the robot HAL 9000 (again, terms used loosely here given the abstract nature of the movie). We also get our main source of conflict, as HAL goes rogue (more on that later) eventually turning on Bowman and his crew.

What follows, as Bowman heads to Jupiter in the third part, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," is a cosmic head trip the likes of which I can’t even begin to describe. An absolute visual festival of insane colors and sound takes Bowman through the “Infinite,” into what very well may be another dimension. Finally, the film ends with a mind blowingly wild vision of mankind’s next, transcendent stage of evolution, that being the famous image of the “Star Child”; a fetus, in a globe of light, floating above the Earth.

Suffice it to say, it’s wild, wild stuff.

Meet Your Maker: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of “2001”

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick was still an up and coming director, not yet the legend that he would eventually become. He was 36, and fresh off the biggest critical success of his career, “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (freaking GREAT movie, one of my faves). He became enamoured with the idea of making a science fiction film about extra-terrestrials and “man’s relationship to the universe.” He was recommended to work with Arthur C. Clarke, seen as one of the “Big Three” of science fiction writing at the time (the other two being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, not bad company) and using Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” as their jumping off point, the two spent the next four years of their lives crafting both the screenplay and novel that would become “2001.” Their relationship wasn’t the most stable or conflict-free, but the two sat down and managed to crank out something totally astonishing despite that occasional animosity (think McCartney and Lennon).

Two years into the writing process, Kubrick began to work on the special effects for the film, and just as that mime-ape began to dominate his world thanks to his discovery of tools, Kubrick began to dominate the world of film with his visuals. In his past films he had exhibited directorial restraint and particularity, a trait he would become famous for, but his borderline maniacal devotion to arresting visual detail would begin with “2001.” It’s because of Kubrick’s work on “2001” that the door was opened for him to make other visually miraculous and ambitious classics like “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon” (shot with a majority of natural light), “The Shining,”and “Eyes Wide Shut,” (with scenes lit mostly just with christmas lights).

 In 1966 Kubrick's ferris wheel only cost 750 grand ... not too shabby.

In 1966 Kubrick's ferris wheel only cost 750 grand ... not too shabby.

With “2001,” Kubrick went all out. He had a giant ferris wheel (of sorts) constructed to simulate some of the zero gravity scenes; models of ships, as small as two feet long or as large as over fifty, were used for the space scenes; he had ships look like they were moving by connecting the camera to the gears of the ships, so as the camera moved, so, seemingly, did the ship; massive projections were used as green screens of sort, projecting images of Africa for “The Dawn of Man” sequence, and the moon, resulting in a sharper image of the landscape; and to create the cosmic, rainbow, psychedelic imagery of the venture into the Infinite, paint and chemicals were dumped in a tank in a darkroom.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a creative man. A mad man maybe, yes, but a creative one.

“What Is This Bull#@%&?”: Interpretations of “2001”

Forgive the above profanity, but that is a direct quote from famed actor Rock Hudson, which he was heard asking when he and 250 other people walked out of the film’s premiere in Los Angeles. While I disagree with the man’s choice of words, his reaction is one shared by many who watch the movie. When the credits roll, even the wisest of film critics may respond with a “Uh … what just happened?”

When you’re trying to tackle as complex a subject as the role of mankind in the universe, as Kubrick was, suffice it to say, these reactions may be pretty commonplace. But with these awe-struck reactions has also come intense discussion over how the film should be interpreted.

Some see the film as being religious, and that the movie isn’t so much about man’s connection to the universe, but about his connection with God. The monolith, as we’ve discussed, appears at critical junctures in humanity’s evolution. Is this the hand of God nudging man in the right direction? Or strictly a symbolic sign post of scientific breakthroughs? At the end of the film, after flying through the Infinite, Bowman finds himself in a fancy shmancy neoclassical room, and finds himself rapidly aging to the point where he’s on his deathbed. The monolith appears in front of him, and he lifts a finger as if to touch if from his bed. Some take this as a direct allusion to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and, therefore, interpret the film religiously.

 What does this, the "star gate" to the Infinite, mean? Who knows, looks cool though.

What does this, the "star gate" to the Infinite, mean? Who knows, looks cool though.

Other’s interpret the film as an examination of man’s intelligence, and where it will take us as a species, both good and bad.

In the worst case of this interpretation, we see mankind both evolve, but devolve in the process. What does our favorite monkey use the bone for as soon as he becomes able? As a weapon, and for murder. When we flash forward to the future, the human characters we meet are practically automatons; they barely show emotion, and seem cold and devoid of feeling, as if their progress has impeded their actual humanity. In the same vein, the most human character we see in the film … is HAL. Tasked with keeping the true nature of the mission from Bowman and his crew, but also created to be infallible and never lie, HAL faces a legitimate existential crisis, leading to what some could actually call a mental breakdown of sorts. When Bowman goes to shut HAL down, we hear legitimate fear in HAL’s voice. There’s something wrong with a humanity whose most human members are artificial.

But, in some cases, this examination of man’s intelligence is celebratory. The ape tosses his bone in the air, and in that famed jump cut mankind’s capacity for growth is celebrated by millions of years of progress portrayed in just a few seconds. Bowman, after surviving HAL’s rampage and voyaging where (so sorry for this) no man has gone before, achieves a new existence as the Star Child, a level of omniscience that man has never known. In this way, “2001” could be seen as (and this is how I personally interpret it), as encouragement to humanity; keep working, keep striving for progress, and we’re capable of accomplishing things we can’t even imagine.

Holy moly, that’s some inspiring stuff!

So that’s it for this week’s blog guys! I hope you enjoyed our film-centric focus, and if you haven’t seen “2001,” FOR GOD’S SAKE GO WATCH IT IMMEDIATELY. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out our other blogs on our website! See you next time!