A tribe of prehistoric apes struggle with life in the desert. One morning, the tribe awakens to discover an eerie black monolith standing near their habitat. They nervously inspect it. Later, inspired by the discovery, one of the apes scavenges through a pile of bones and develops the first tool, which he uses to teach the others how to survive. This includes killing a competing tribe.
From bones to spacecraft, the story jumps to the year 2001. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) arrives on an earth-orbiting station aboard a Pan Am shuttle. He stops to talk to a group of Soviet scientists. They discover Floyd is on his way Clavius, a base on the moon. They’ve heard strange things about Clavius, possibly involving an epidemic, but Floyd refuses to comment.
On his way to an excavation site aboard a moonbus, Floyd reveals the mystery. An object has been discovered that was deliberately buried in the moon four million years ago. Scientists land and approach the object, the same eerie black monolith from the dawn of man. When sunlight touches it for the first time, the monolith emits a high pitched tone.
Eighteen months later, the spaceship Discovery travels through space. Three male scientists are frozen in cryogenic hibernation, while two pilots, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) man the mission. The sixth member of the crew is the HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the artificial intelligence that operates the ship and has been programmed to mimic human emotions to communicate more efficiently.
HAL detects a failure in the ship’s communication array. Bowman boards a pod to inspect it, but discovers that the unit is operating fine. Bowman and Poole retreat to an area where they think HAL cannot hear them. They express concern that if their super computer is malfunctioning, they might have to disconnect it. To keep itself from being deactivated, HAL reacts as any human might.
Director Stanley Kubrick began collaborating with author Arthur C. Clarke in 1964 on a science fiction movie about man and extraterrestrials. Clarke suggested they use his short story The Sentinel – which chronicled a survey expedition discovering an object buried on the moon – as their basis. Kubrick mainly focused on the screenplay, while Clarke wrote the novel, which was published three months after the movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey was not my favorite sci-fi movie as a kid. Staying awake through the measured 141 minute running time was one problem. Later, the movie gave me a cold shoulder with its relative lack of dialogue or characters. The ending baffled me on both occasions. Now a semi-open minded adult and giving this one more shot, the film completely blew me away.
The exchanges between the human characters are indeed flat and unemotional. And there is less than 40 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. The use of the now instantly identifiable orchestral music of Richard Strauss (“Also Sprach Zarathusta”) and Johann Strauss (“The Blue Danube”) – juxtaposed against revolutionary visual effects – are used by Kubrick to tell the story.
That story may be the greatest science fiction tale ever put on film. It involves an unseen alien race which employ monoliths to explore the galaxy and ignite intelligence. This is put to use on Earth among primitive apes at a loss to survive, and millions of years later, when their supposedly advanced descendants are learning to walk, talk, eat, and even use the bathroom in the infinity of space.
I can understand how many might see this as bewildering, boring, annoying, possibly all three, but 2001 reached into my imagination in a way most sci-fi films only dream about. Kubrick created a powerful, influential and singularly unique vision of the universe that is more than a locale for space battles or aliens. It’s also a place of mystical vastness and infinite unknowing.
2001 became the second highest grossing film in the U.S. the year it was released, a blockbuster with the counter culture (posters proclaimed “the ultimate trip”) and mass audience alike. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and Kubrick won for Best Effects, though his film wasn’t even considered for Best Picture. It was recently named #22 on the AFI’s list of 100 Greatest American movies of all time.
Douglas Trumbull served as special photographic effects supervisor and ushered in a new generation of visual effects with his work here. “Open the Pod Bay doors, HAL” became a geek chorus for “technical difficulties”. Though with the Internet, you can go now online and read the complete instructions for the Zero Gravity Toilet glimpsed in the film.