Posted by: daveed | September 17, 2008

On permanent rotation V: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is my cinematic yoga. It also happens to be my favorite film.

Yes, el numero uno.

Nothing for me so perfectly visualizes an experience crafted through special effects that, 40 years on, still hold up. Every scene is a meditation of its tremendous themes—on cosmic birth (note the ova-like cataract of the moon, Earth and sun in very the first shot), evolution and transcendence, self-awareness. Mankind is the unborn seed in the big empty, cloistered in our protective, technological womb. And our creations—the technology that keeps us alive in the void—is paradoxically destroying our humanness. We become dependent on technology for even our most quotidian actions, like feeding ourselves, exercise, even expressing emotion.

The film postulates many questions but provides few answers. Yet every time I watch it certain pieces of the puzzle are revealed and I always relish in its compositional beauty. I see more of the symmetry between scenes—early man scratching out a primal, savage existence while consuming raw flesh; scientists having a picnic lunch of ham and roast beef sandwiches aboard a lunar shuttle.

Kubrick composed most shots around a circular or global object, often with a human at the center, reminding us of the film’s anthropocentric theme and man-versus-technology conflict. The carousel space station wheeling in its orbit. The bulbous head of the sperm-like Discovery on lonely track through the void. The iconic fisheye of HAL, the artificial intelligence that becomes self-aware.

So much visual poetry. And many surprises. Watch how the console lights play upon Bowman’s face in the pod as he comes to grips with HAL’s betrayal, reflecting his inner, repressed rage with almost demon-like ferocity.

Some have criticized 2001 for being cold and lacking emotion. I disagree. The mystery behind the monolith creates unease, and the sonic blast emitted by the monolith uncovered on the moon is made more dreadful when it abruptly ceases.

Of course, there’s Kubrick’s choice of music, such as the unforgettable “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube”. But the track that’s most effective is “Gayane Ballet Suite”, heard at the opening scene of the Discovery on its way to Jupiter.* That is followed by one of the most poignant moments in the film—Frank Poole’s birthday “celebration” aboard the Discovery; only his parents are on hand, transmitted across millions of miles in a pre-recorded message.

Where I feel the film lags and fails to achieve the same levels of greatness is in the overlong time warp sequence. But soon enough we’re brought to the eeriness of Bowman’s “cage”, the ornate and oddly-lit bedroom where he lives out the rest of his human years in mundane solitude.

I probably pop in the DVD (mercifully re-released last year with decent special features) once every two months or so. I can’t watch this film enough.

* James Cameron recycled "Gayane" for his opening to Aliens when we see Ripley's derelict
  shuttle floating adrift in space.


  1. The Jules Verne Festival’s EXTRAORDINAIRE Series of screenings at the Edison will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    It will be held Sunday, October 12, 6PM, in Los Angeles, at the Edison. Starring Vivien Kubrick, Keir Dullea, Dan Richter.

    The JULES VERNE LEGENDAIRE AWARD will be presented to the film and accepted by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter and the cast of the film.

    Tickets on sales:

  2. Boy, I sure was hoping you were going to spell out what your take is on the ending. I have the hardest time with this film. I like the insight that our technology acts as a womb in which we’re gestating toward the next phase of evolution. So perhaps Bowman’s dismantling of Hal says that technology is ultimately to be discarded and transcended. Like the training wheels of human evolution, if you will.

  3. Yeah, having seen it probably two dozen times, I still don’t fully grasp the ending. I think it was left deliberately open-ended by Kubrick (in Clarke’s version, it’s a little more explicit with the Star Child’s role).

    But I think you’re on to something about discarding technology—the tools that helped mankind achieve a certain state—in order to evolve. And I intuit that at the next stage, there will be yet another set of tools we will have to take up in order to survive. It’s a continual process of innovation-advancement-enslavement-transcendence-evolution. And it never ends. Until perhaps man achieves godhood. But I’m not sure Clark and Kubrick, both being atheist-humanists, would have conceptualized it that way.

    BTW, the film and the book were created concurrently (as opposed to the movie being adapted from the novel). Clarke and Kubrick had discussed many of their ideas and instead of collaborating on one project, set out on their own creative paths.

  4. […] can be only one As I wrote about in an earlier post, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is my […]

  5. […] and ends [Now that I’m on this Space Odyssey vibe, I’m going to roll with it for a spell. See where it takes […]

  6. […] Ah, good-old 80s euro wave: Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” cut to—no shit—2001: A Space Odyssey. And it’s pretty fucking […]

  7. 2001 was bloody brilliant. I could go on for hours about the circular imagery and the chilling use of sound and music. My favorite scene is the end when Hal’s pleads are juxtaposed with Dave’s breathing. Freaking awesome.

    Not a big fan of the length though. The beginning dragged, I wanted to get to the meat of the matter faster.

    Overall, I think 2001 knocks Clockwork Orange out of its place as my favorite Kubrick film.

  8. […] encouraging my 2001: A Space Odyssey fixation, the second stage of The HAL Project has been launched. The site is an excellent Flash-up […]

  9. Koyaanisqatsi for me.

    2001 is in my top 5- but the lack of narrative & melding with Glass’s music along with the cinematography makes this one for me.

    Rounding out the top 5 are Jaws, Once Upon A Time In the West, & Its a Wonderful Life.

    I’m a sap for Christmas.

  10. More on IAWL- it really is a dark film- the beat down the mans dreams get his whole life- and then how strange the town seems when he is granted his wish to have never been born- like out of the Twilight Zone or the best Hitchcock- the look of sheer terror on Stewart’s face when he realizes everything he loves is gone- chilling!
    I haven’t read much about this- but the parallels to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” are unmistakable.

  11. […] as a sci-fi thriller. Judging from the trailer there are — serendipitous, perhaps — echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Soderburgh’s intriguing but flawed Solaris […]

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