2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In the past, I believed this was among the greatest movies ever made, even though I had nothing more than a vague understanding of the film. The cinematic quality of the movie–i.e., the combination of images and sound–by itself–was exceptional, and I didn’t feel an urgent need to discover a coherent interpretation of the film.

Well, I recently re-watched the film, and I do think I have a better understanding of the film, one that is significantly different. In this thread, I’ll present my current understanding of the film, but before I do, I wanted to mention a film random comments that don’t pertain to the interpretation.

  • I always thought Star Wars significantly influenced subsequent sci-movies, serving as a kind of archetype for many sci-films, particularly in terms of the visual aspects of spacecrafts . But while watching 2001, I could see 2001′s influence on the Star Wars films–from the exterior materials for spacecrafts, the white plastic looking, with nobs and etchings, to interior, tube-like passage ways, and even the tracking shot of the Odyssey 1 spacecraft, which Lucas copied when introducing a star destroyer.
  • On a related note, on previous viewings, I never thought the film looked dated, including the clothing, which had a 60’s feel, but seemed stylish, not ridiculous. The special effects still look very good. I don’t think there has been a sci-fi film that has made the effects of Star Wars and 2001 passe.
  • What’s the purpose for the very plodding and methodical scenes (e.g., space shuttle docking)? Prior to this viewing, I thought the film did this to create a more painterly effect, with the intention of wanting viewers to absorb the images and symbolism, as well as the aesthetic elements. But in this viewing, my sense is that the film’s goal is realism. That is, Kubrick wanted to create the most realistic depiction of space travel. (In the scene where the astronauts go into space, the film alternates between playing the sound of the breathing apparatus and silence–the former is the only sound the astronaut would hear in his helmet, while there would be no sound in space. This was not only realistic, but effective dramatically.) I would compare this to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, where creating realistic dinosaurs seemed like not only a big objective, but also one that, if successful, would entertain audiences. (It did for me.) The same applies to 2001. Having said this, this goal isn’t mutually exclusive from intentions to enhance the aesthetic experience or allow viewers to process the symbolism.
  • I’m not sure I’m going to touch on this subject, so I’ll comment about it here–namely, the question of whether HAL is evil or nefarious. I’ve long held this opinion, but in this viewing, I perceived HAL henious acts as acts of self-preservation. That is, he killed Dave and Frank because they were going to “kill” him. On the other hand, as someone point out to me: why did HAL kill the three hibernating astronauts, especially so quickly? They didn’t pose an immediate threat, which weakens the self-preservation reading. Another hypothesis is that HAL has gone crazy–which is related to the error that he made earlier (about the part that needed repairing). Or perhaps HAL’s fear–and it did seem to feel fear–caused him to overreact. In any event, these theories seems more compelling to me, than the idea that HAL was evil.

One thought on “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  1. Here’s my take on the film: (spoilers)

    To me, the film feels like a modern creation myth, explaining the origin and possible future for humanity. In the “Dawn of Man” sequence, an alien life-form augments the brain of an ape-like species that will likely evolve into homo sapiens. The augmentation enables these ape-creatures to conceive of objects as tools and later make their own tools and technology.

    When humanity is able to make tools that enable them to leave the planet–and perhaps create artificial intelligence–the alien life form presumably believes humanity is ready for it’s not augmentation or evolutionary step.

    To me, the movie is really vague about this new step, but the transformation will be so significant that it will be a kind of rebirth. In the Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Dave Bowman transforms into a “starchild,” which is a god-like being that can travel through space and even manipulate planets, if I’m not mistaken. But the film isn’t this specific.

    For me, I interpret the ending as pointing to some dramatic transformation. Additionally, HAL is the apotheosis of man’s tool making, but he malfunctions. Here, I feel like the film is saying that technology will not be humanities highest achievement; technology will not be as significant to humanity as the next evolutionary step (which was caused by an alien lifeform).

    In the novel, Clarke is explicit that an alien lifeform is the impetus behind humanities origins, as well as shepherds, guiding them to a more advanced lifeform. Here, aliens replace God.* On some level, I can see this being a satisfying story for atheists, although it doesn’t explain the cause of the universe and the way these advanced aliens came about.

    *And in the book the aliens are godlike: at some point, they free their consciousnesses from their physical bodies, putting themselves into structures they’ve made. Later, they free themselves from these structures, and they becomes spirit-like beings, able to travel through outer space, or at least I think they’re able to do this. (I didn’t read the entire novel.)

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