2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

I’m sorry Dave. I can’t stop talking about this film.

2001: A Space Odyssey is undoubtedly the most influential science-fiction film released prior to Star Wars. It’s special effects, cinematography, soundtrack and thematic elements have kept audiences talking about this film for over 50 years!

First Impressions

Classical music. Documentary looking footage. Astronauts and spaceships in space. This looks like a different kind of sci-fi film. From the trailer there’s no real clue as to what is going on, but it looks beautiful!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The Dawn of Man–On the ancient plains of Africa, a tribe of australopithecus (ape-men) eat various bushes, and exist in harmony with tapirs. Daily life is made up of looking for food and water and escaping the random attacks of leopards. One day while drinking from a watering hole a second tribe comes over the rise and chases the first tribe away. The initial tribe hides in their rocky crevice, going without water for the night. The next morning the ape-men awaken to a large black monolith in the middle of their camp. Their leader, named Moonwatcher (Daniel Richter) in related media, cautiously approaches the matte black slab and touches it. As Moonwatcher’s tribe eats amongst the skeletons of dead tapirs, he realizes that one of the larger bones can act like a club. He smashes the skull of the dead animal understanding the bone is now a weapon. He kills a live tapir by smashing its skull. They now have meat to eat.

This tribe returns to the watering hole, a number with bone-clubs, and takes back possession of the watering hole, killing the other tribes leader. Moonwatcher flings the bone in the air…jump cut to a satellite in space, millions of years later. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) takes a Pan-Am shuttle to a space station and then on to Clavius Base on the moon to meet with scientists who have discovered something. Buried in the lunar surface. In the Tycho crater is a giant black monolith, identical to the one seen in the first sequence. Floyd and other spacesuited scientists investigate, touching the smooth obsidian structure when a squelching burst of noise floods their comm system.

2001: A Space Odyssey

An alien monolith presents itself to primitive man, millions of years ago.

Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later–On board the Discovery XD-1 spacecraft Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) go about their duties as the ship nears Jupiter. They are part of a five-man crew, the remaining three which are in hibernation, sent to Jupiter to investigate…something. Their onboard and sentient computer HAL-9000 (Douglas Rain) finds the circumstances of their secretive mission troubling. HAL notifies the astronauts that their AE-35 antenna will fail in 72 hours and recommends a replacement procedure. Bowman goes EVA with one of the ships pods, but when they investigate the circuitry on the antenna they find no problem. The two men have a private conversation in one of the pods and both agree that HAL is acting “strange,” vowing to deactivate him if the antenna does not fail.

It’s now Poole’s turn to go EVA and replace the circuit. As he is working on the repair, his pod turns toward him and “attacks” him. Bowman jumps into another pod without his helmet and heads after his companion, bringing his limp body back to the ship. HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors, so Bowman is forced to make entry through the emergency airlock, sans helmet. Once back inside he dons a helmet and heads for HAL’s memory circuits. HAL has terminated the lives of the hibernating scientists stating that, “the mission is too important to allow you to jeopardize it.” As Bowman begins deactivating the various circuits, HAL states he can feel his mind going. He sings the first song taught to him, Daisy. Either by this action, or based on the arrival at Jupiter, a pre-recorded message from Dr. Floyd plays informing Bowman of the monolith found on the moon and the radio transmission it directed towards Jupiter.

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite–Floating outside Jupiter’s orbit is a giant version of the monolith. Bowman takes a pod out to investigate and is sucked into what is usually referred to as a Star Gate. Colors and shapes race from infinity past the edges of the screen. A galaxy explodes or goes supernova, and then expands filling the frame. Alien worlds streak by, brightly colored and hued. Strangely familiar yet entirely foreign at the same time. Close-ups of Bowman’s eye, reflect the outrageous imagery he sees. Suddenly the pod is sitting in a room that appears to be out of the French Renaissance. It’s tranquil and clean, with a white illuminated grid for a floor.

Bowman observes a figure in an orange spacesuit outside the pod. The pod is now gone and the audience is focused on the new figure, a middle-aged version of Bowman. He walks into the bathroom to look into the mirror. He hears a sound outside and looks, seeing an even older man at a dining table. The new man, older Bowman, looks into the bathroom and sees no one. He continues eating, knocking a glass onto the floor. As he bends to pick it up he sees a very old Bowman in the bed. The dining table is now gone, and old man Bowman is drawing ragged breaths. A monolith appears. The old man is gone, replaced by a fetus enveloped in a sphere or light/energy. The music swells as this Star Child drifts in space near the Earth and the moon.

Except for a single very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter the four-million year old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.” – Dr. Floyd

2001: A Space Odyssey

Primitive man discovers the use of tools after a close encounter with an alien intelligence.

History in the Making

2001: A Space Odyssey is a monumental watershed moment in science-fiction, both in film and for the genre in general. It was nothing like any sci-fi films that had come before. It broke new ground in the portrayal of space exploration, both technically and thematically, started a new appreciation of visual effects, and proved that a well-produced sci-fi film could also make money for a studio. It’s presentation was also unlike anything in the sci-fi genre had ever seen before. First the film was long, almost two and a half hours. In its original release it featured an overture (music playing against a black screen) prior to the start of the film, an intermission, and exit music. Its scope and style was definitely in the mold of the epic films of the time such as Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur, and Spartacus (which coincidentally was also directed by Stanley Kubrick).

Unlike many previous key sci-fi films, 2001 was not based on a book. A novelization of the movie was produced which was written by Arthur C. Clarke in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. The two realized the story for the film and novel at the same time, and it’s one of the few times that the novelization of a film was written in concert with the film. Clarke receives a screenplay credit for his contributions on the film.

The film was released only one week after another important sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes, and 15 months before Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. Excitement about the space race was definitely heating up. It had been 6 years since John Glenn orbited the Earth, and dozens of NASA missions–from Mercury to Apollo–had already taken place. On the week that 2001 opened (April 4, 1968) NASA launched the Apollo 6 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida using a Saturn V launch vehicle. This was the final unmanned test flight of the Apollo program’s Saturn V, and the same rocket that would take Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon.

Kubrick wanted to make a serious science-fiction film, unlike the standard fare in theaters. 2001 is definitely unlike anything in the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon vein of sci-fi adventure. In fact, the film seems more like a documentary, than a fiction film. All of the space ships, and other non-terran moments, were planned out meticulously for their authenticity and scientific accuracy. Kubrick also wanted to say something about the nature of life and humanity, two themes that were just starting to be explored in genre films and television.

So why then did Kubrick and Clarke decide to call the film 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why not 1999 or 2000? The “odyssey” portion of the title refers to the ancient Homeric poem, The Odyssey, about a man’s journey home after a long war. From a plot standpoint, the film is more about exploration and discovery, but thematically the film addresses mankind’s return to its origins with the monolith. This journey of self-discovery, fraught with peril, is a return to the beings that created man. As for the year, 2001 was chosen as it was the first year of a new millennia and the first year of the 21st Century, not 2000 as some want to believe. From 1968, this year was the next big potential turning point in human history. Kubrick and Clarke decided to create something worthy of that milestone. It was far enough away that the ideas presented could seem futuristic but not so far away that audiences couldn’t relate to the characters. Sadly, the historical implications of 2001 have not come to pass, in either the space-faring realm, or the discovery of alien life. But the film created many other legacies for other movies to live up to.

2001: A Space Odyssey

A Pan-Am shuttle docks with Space Station 5, as Dr. Floyd continues his trip to Clavius Base.


For nine years, this film was the inspirational and thematic pillar of sci-fi cinema. It took that long for another film to come along an de-throne the Kubrick classic. But the influences of 2001 didn’t end with the release of Star Wars. To say that 2001: A Space Odyssey influenced science-fiction film is probably an understatement. The film signified the beginning of the “smart” and more realistic science-fiction film. Films like THX-1138, Solaris, and Silent Running would be released within the next decade raising the level of sci-fi films from popcorn matinee movies to serious films with serious themes. Other elements such as the depiction of space travel, the use of artificial intelligence, and the discovery of aliens would forever be altered.

2001 took its space scenes seriously. Spaceships did not race around outer space like jet fighters. Artificial gravity was created by spinning objects, and if they weren’t spinning the characters were weightless, just like real astronauts had shown. The astronauts wore suits that looked like they might actually protect them from the vacuum of space. It’s actually quite prescient how much elements of this film look like real the real space missions of the late 60s and early 70s. Other than the slight bounce astronauts have when walking on the moon, which 2001 didn’t show, so many other elements were accurate. It’s not to say that the influence of this film changed all sci-fi films from action-adventure films to showing the slow and realistic depiction of space travel, but 2001 showed that there were alternatives. Films like Interstellar and Ad Astra would never have come about were it not for the groundbreaking travels of Dave Bowman and the Discovery.

As I’ve discussed in previous Sci-Fi Saturdays articles, robots had been around since the earliest sci-fi film, Metropolis. By 1968 The Day The Earth Stood Still’s alien robot Gort and Forbidden Planet’s Robby had captured audiences imaginations. HAL would instantly add himself to that very short list. Kubrick and Clarke designed HAL as an artificial intelligence, setting him apart from the other, more typical robots of sci-fi. He didn’t have a body, his voice was preternaturally human (thanks to the dulcet tones of Douglas Rain), and most importantly he didn’t follow Isaac Asimov’s “three laws of robotics.” These are rules created by the author for his 1942 short story “Runaround,” and they provide the fundamental instructions for the machine to follow: never harm a human, always follow a human’s orders, and preserve your existence, with each rule being caveat of the preceding rules. As the screen’s first “murder-bot” HAL certainly seems to be confused by the predicament he gets placed in. His orders to maintain the secret of the monolith obviously proved too much for his circuits, but it does provide dramatic tension for the audience. In the early 21st Century we don’t appear to have any HAL’s running around, but we do have Siri, Alexa, and numerous other “personal assistants,” which aren’t AI (yet) but sometimes feel like it. HAL’s depiction on screen led to other killer robots, from Colossus in 1970s The Forbin Project, to the gunslinger in Westworld, WOPR in WarGames, Robocop, The Terminator, and a whole host of others.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Clavius Base, Earth’s Moon. Status: currently under quarantine procedures for unspecified outbreak.

2001 also presented a thoroughly new and unique presentation of alien species. Predominantly aliens were depicted as humanoid, if not straight out humans in “futuristic” garb, but the aliens here are never seen. The monolith is the representation of the alien culture and their technology. Hiding their true nature as a significantly advanced race is a choice that the filmmakers made which allows the audiences’ interpretation of the alien to fill in the gaps. The moment a director places an alien on screen, no matter how strange, it removes any doubt from the audience about the beings nature. The physical form of a creature has to be something that can be filmed, perhaps less so nowadays and computer-graphics allow the ability to depict strange shapes and lighting patterns. But historically, and especially in the late 60s the team was limited by existing technology. Had the aliens been shown as little beings, or balls of light, it would have lessened the impact of the themes of the film. The non-presentation in their depiction created yet another choice for future filmmakers to startle and shock their audiences with.

One other important aspect of the film is its soundtrack. The use of a musical score had never been an important part of sci-fi films. 2001 changed all that. While Planet of the Apes used a score that was atonal in nature and complimented the film, the music was not much more than incidental noise to heighten the action moments. Kubrick’s idea for 2001 was to create a film that didn’t fit ordinary narrative structures, and as such decided to use existing classical compositions to literally set the mood. Much like Apocalypse Now gave Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyrie” new life, pairing it with a helicopter attack in Vietnam, so too did Kubrick make Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” synonymous with the scope and awe of the universe. The film also makes great use of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” accompanying Floyd’s shuttle to the space station and Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra,” a chorale heard during the appearances of the monolith. An epic sci-fi film score would not come close to the music from 2001 until John Williams original soundtrack for Star Wars.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Dr. Floyd addresses the staff of Clavius Base on the discovery of the monolith an the need for secrecy in this matter.

Societal Commentary

Of all its technical achievements the greatest thing that 2001: A Space Odyssey does is its commentary on the human condition. Star Trek had been doing similar things on television for the last two years, but with more of an action/adventure vibe to it. 2001 was, and still is, a definitive film on the questions of who are we, and why are we here?

Stanley Kubrick’s films always had spoken to larger issues. Both Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) addressed themes about the absurdity of war, and abuse of power, Spartacus (1960) dealt with freedom and death, and 1962s Lolita addressed themes of sexuality, lifestyles and suburbia. So in creating 2001, the leap to discussing the human condition was not new territory. To date, no science-fiction film had dealt with the questions that 2001 did and certainly not in the same way.

2001: A Space Odyssey

H.A.L.-9000, an artificial intelligence computer that became operational on Jan. 12, 1992 in Urbana, Ill. It is a Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer, hence the name HAL.

The film is divided into three sections, as indicated in the writeup above: The Dawn of Man, Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. These events, which are separated by millions of years each indicate the major steps in the evolution of mankind. The film takes the stance that there was a physical evolution between the australopithecus primitives and a modern day spacefaring man by making what filmmakers call a match cut on a bone tossed into the air with a similarly shaped space satellite. This editing technique is used to bridge two distinct thoughts, time periods, or situations by creating an edit based on shape, movement or color–matching the footage on either side of the cut.

Kubrick shows the monolith present in each of these three narrative sections. Its presence indicates the helping hand of an advanced race (perhaps gods, as we might see them) guiding primitive man into the use of tools and weapons. Then, the discovery of a monolith buried on the moon generates the starting point for the next step in man’s evolution. By finding this artifact it indicates that humanity is ready for the next step. Finally Bowman’s transcendence through the larger Jupiter monolith, and his discovery of a third obelisk in the strange room pushes one individual into a new state of being. The advancement of the human race into a Star Child, which has something to share with all of Earth.

These moments are some of the most discussed and theorized elements in film history, for there are no definitive answers to any of them. Arthur C. Clarke has his explanations. Stanley Kubrick has his own. But it’s also up to each audience member to make up their own mind about the events being shown on the screen. No on-screen narrator explains what is happening while the long expanses of film trail on, with the classical music and special effects building in tempo. Kubrick uses these long stretches of pure cinema to allow time for the audience to participate in the discovery of the film. It’s not just a one-sided presentation, but a collaboration between the filmmaker and his audience.

2001: A Space Odyssey

HAL’s point-of-view of astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman as they test the circuits of the AE-35 antennae, which HAL has predicted will fail in 72 hours.

The Science in The Fiction

In terms of the special effects and the portrayal of space travel, 2001: A Space Odyssey acts as the most scientifically accurate portrayal of space travel to date in a motion picture. In fact it won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects for Douglass Trumbull’s model and effects work. Much effort was put into the accuracy of models, and systems that they would use in a manned effort to travel to Jupiter. The space sequences either featured music (such as “The Blue Danube” waltz) or no sound, except the breathing from the astronaut inside their suit. There were no sound effects from the engines, or laserblasts, or hyperdrives. The world of 2001 is purely the world we live in presented in the most honest and documentary-like way possible.

In part, this approach to the world of the film, is what allows Kubrick’s thematic approach to the nature of man to be so well realized. The world in the film is not a fantasy or fictional future, but an extension of the present day. One in which hope is present. Some of the elements that the film chooses to show in detail include the docking of the Pan-Am flight into the Space Station, the existence of the Zero-Gravity Toilet, as well as the everyday moments that astronauts would live with like the video phone calls to Earth, or running in a circular track in simulated gravity.

2001: A Space Odyssey

At the end of his journey, Dave encounters a monolith just before transcending his human body for the next step of evolution.

The Final Frontier

Many stories surround this iconic film, which happens surrounding cultural phenomena. Some of the stories are true, while some have the flavor of truth. Others are patently absurd, but still linger on. For example, a popular theory exists that HAL is named as such because each letter in his name is one step-backwards in the alphabet from IBM. This is a great idea, but one which the filmmakers have denied. Clarke says is namesake is because he is a Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer. Also IBM logos can be seen at a couple places in the film, meaning that HAL is not the successor to an IBM computer. But still the story makes for a good telling. Others tell the tale of the ill-fated product placements in the film. Several futuristic films have stories of a curse on product placements, such as Blade Runner, but there’s also nothing real about this. The production chose several popular brands from the time assuming they’d still be active in the year 2001. Pan-Am went belly-up in December 1991. Bell Systems, whose logo was on the picture phone in the space station was absorbed into AT&T prior to the new millennia. And Howard Johnsons, whose name is also seen on the space station was sold in 1986 to the Marriott chain, and is now part of the Wyndham Hotels brand.

The biggest conspiracy theory surrounding the film has to be that Stanley Kubrick used the time and sets to also film footage of the first moon landing. Conspiracy theorists that believe America has never landed on the moon point to potential “special effects” and “cinematic” moments in the footage from the 1969 event attributing the style to Kubrick. As if Stanley Kubrick would have allowed such low-quality footage of anything he shot be released!

A sequel was written by Clarke and release in 1982 called 2010: Odyssey Two. This was adapted into a film, 2010, by Peter Hyams in 1984. It features a new cast, with Roy Scheider playing William Sylvester’s role of Heywood Floyd, returning to Jupiter 9 years later to investigate the missing Bowman, the maniacal HAL, and the defunct Discovery. Both the book and film address and answer many lingering questions about the original film. Both Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain reprise their original roles, as Bowman and HAL, providing some closure to the mysteries from 2001. 2010 is a good film that seeks to offer new hope during a time of detente between the United States and Russia, extrapolating 1980s political crises in the 2000s.

While the 2001 of reality does not match up with the film, that does not diminish the efforts of the film. It’s possible to watch this film two decades into the 21st Century and still feel the awe and hopefulness that the film brings to the viewer. This is not a cynical science-fiction film. It’s a film that was released on the eve of mankind’s greatest moment, at the end of a decade in turmoil. It can still provide the message of exploration and hope for new generations who may, at one time, live amongst the stars.

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