2001: A Space Odyssey movie poster

"2001 isn’t warm and fuzzy. But neither is infinity, and no movie has taken a greater swing at the infinite." -Mike D'Angelo, The AV Club

If there is any one film in Kubrick's body of work that is most agreed upon to be his masterpiece, it is "2001: A Space Odyssey." It also happens to be one of the most controversial, at least at the time of it's release (see Historical Context). The only overtly science fiction film Kubrick made, it's almost universally accepted today as one of, if not the best in the genre.

Released in 1968 and co-written by Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote the book of the same name concurrently with the movie), the movie takes place in the titular year, when man already as a base on the movie and is exploring the rest of the solar system. The is separated into four sections: The Dawn of Man, TMA-1, Jupiter Mission and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. TMA-1 introduces us to the first major character, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) as he investigates a strange monolith that has been dug up on the surface of the moon.

Following TMA-1, the protagonist shifts to David Bowman (Keir Dullea), an astronaut on-board the "Discovery One," a spaceship on its way to Jupiter. Much of the ship's functions are run by the HAL 9000, a sentient computer characterized with an unsettlingly monotonous voice and a creepy red light for a camera. HAL is supposedly a perfect computer, until it begins to lose it's artificial sanity and attempts to kill Bowman and his crew-mates.

Mood and Themes

"2001" is incredibly distinctive for it's rejection of straightforward narrative and sparse use of dialogue. The four sections of the movie are anchored by the presence of the monolith, a tall black slab unknown material and of unknown origin. Critics and scholars still debate the overall meaning of the film, particularly it's symbolic ending, but at fundamental level the overall theme of the movie is the question of mankind's place in the universe and it's ultimate destiny. Man has created great works and ascended to the farthest reaches of the universe, but the film suggests that we were helped along the way and we will not ascend further unless we are helped again.

The overarching mood of the film is a mix of detachment and mystery. All of the actors speak their few lines of dialogue similar to HAL, with a coldness that suggests ambivalence to the technological wonders that surround them. These characters would have lived with these innovations for years, so their lack of wonder is realistic.

Speaking of realism, it's worth pointing how how scientifically accurate Kubrick made the name. Just to name a few examples, there's no sound in space, the mission to Jupiter takes years (with the rest of the crew in stasis so they don't age) and the "Discovery One" has a rotating deck in order to simulate gravity. This level of attention to detail makes this potential future all too real, and it helps sell the theme of mankind's advancement and place in the universe.

Use of Music

Kubrick usually eschewed the conventional movie score in favor of using songs already known to the public. Oftentimes he chooses his music as an ironic contrast to the action in the scene , as in "Dr. Strangelove" and "Full Metal Jacket." In "2001," he chose the compositions of Johann Strauss to give the movie a much more epic feel, to great effect.

In The Dawn of Man, in which an early species of humans discover a monolith and are granted the knowledge to use tools, Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" begins to swell as one of the primates takes notice of a bone, and climaxes into a grand triumph once it understand that the bone is, in fact, a club, and the human's dominance over the Earth is ensured. It's a magnificent scene and I wish I could include it here, but copyright restrictions prohibit embedding scenes from the movie, but you can watch an edited version of the scene on Youtube here. The song, however, is embedded below, and it should give you some idea of its power on the scene.

Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra

Not long following this scene, The Dawn of Man ends and TMA-1 begins with an extremely quick cut that transform the bone club into a satellite in orbit, a great transition from early man on Earth to man in space. Strauss begins to swell again in the silent vacuum of space, this time in the form of "The Blue Danube," a fanciful composition that highlights the wonders of the future. Since the piece is a waltz, Kubrick included a shot of a pen as it floated in zero gravity, as if it were dancing on air. I wish I could include it, but it can be viewed here. Stupid copyright laws.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra" is also the closing song of the film. It represents another kind of triumph, that of the ambiguous ending. I couldn't do it justice by describing it, and there's no point in viewing the scene out of context. You'll just have to watch the movie for yourself.

Historical Context

Professor Turim sees a lot of influence earlier science-fiction movies had on "2001," especially in it's commentary on society and human nature. Watch part 3 of our interview to learn more.

While Turim looks to the past to better understand "2001," I look to the future, specifically how it's depiction of technology has shaped our own. Unfortunately, since we're already into the second decade of the 2000s and I still can't hop on a Pan Am flight to Mars, the film's influence on our future comes up short. That being said, the world depicted in "2001" very much reflects where the world was in 1968, a world full of both turbulence and optimism. The Vietnam War was gaining strength, the civi rights movement was dividing the country on racial lines and what were once peaceful protests were beginning to turn violent.

Yet, less than two years after "2001" was released, man walked on the Moon. "Star Trek" was quickly becoming a cultural icon. The hippie movement was actively seeking a form of human enlightenment not unlike the film, albeit through drug use, and they and science fiction fans alike flocked to the theater to witness it. It inspired the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to create their own sci-fi worlds, and the dated special effects of the time had suddenly leaped forward. Not everyone loved the film, in fact many critics panned it as unimaginative and boring, but it can't be denied that "2001: A Space Odyssey" was both a product of its time and an indicator of times to come."