What is there to be said about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn’t been said already? At once a profound, visionary, iconic and enigmatic work of art, 2001 is one of those rare and stimulating films that changed the grammar of cinema and opened up new possibilities in both storytelling and filmmaking. It is, undoubtedly, my most favorite science fiction film and watching it is akin to performing meditation. I can’t think of any other film that made me contemplate the mysteries of the universe and the origins of our existence the way this film did. Every time I see it, I go into a trance-like state. It makes me want to go out, get a camera and shoot a science fiction film.
What makes it such a great and compelling film? The prophetic nature, for one. And every successive viewing invokes a new idea or thought in our minds. It’s a superlative example of pure visual storytelling. The stunning and ground-breaking special effects that are so realistic even compared to some of the films made today with the help of the most advanced computer technology there is . Most of the futuristic technology depicted in the film has already come out – space travel, artificial intelligence, teleconferencing, computer guidance systems, flat panel televisions, computer gaming and tablet PCs to name a few. However, I think it would take another 100 years for technology to reach the much superior level of progress shown in the film. But above all, it’s the thought-provoking ideas it carries that fascinated me the most.
The entire film is so eerie and surreal. Kubrick depicts space as it is – cold, dark and dead silent. Kubrick did a wonderful job of giving you a tangible sense of life in the prehistoric era. The thought of living in a time where technology is non-existent is terrifying. The transition from the prehistoric era to the space age is achieved with the greatest jump cut (also called a “match cut”) in cinema history. 4 million years in 10 seconds of film. The film is a masterclass of editing and composition and Kubrick conveyed so much with so little. His obsessive attention to detail and clinical precision is evident in every frame. This film was brainchild a man who had an incredible determination to deliver audiences with a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s as if he wanted to say, “Look at this. This is how cinema should be!” and he went to great lengths to achieve it. The level of artistry and craftsmanship that went into the making of the film is astonishing.
Kubrick’s decision to use classical music to go with the graceful, balletic sequences of the spaceships is an inspired one. And he found two of the apt and most effective ones for these sequences – Johan Strauss II’s Blue Danube and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, among others – which move in perfect tandem with the images that are up there on the screen. It’s as if Kubrick wanted to synchronize the minds of his viewers with his spellbinding blend of sound and imagery. The novel, written concurrently with Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick’s development of the screenplay, goes into a little more depth than the film but doesn’t explain all the ambiguities. Kubrick was successfully able to extract the images from the novel and present some of them in an abstract way in the film. I liked the idea of using the monolith to represent the aliens instead of using giant men in prosthetic makeup. In doing this, Kubrick was able to impart a highly mystical atmosphere throughout the film.
The best part of 2001 for me is its confoundingly ambiguous ending of which everyone has their own interpretation. I have few of my own. The film and its ending bring to mind a quote of Ernest Hemingway:
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Man begins life as a savage creature devoid of empathy or logic and undergoes a massive transformation after the monoliths appear. The “Star Child” could represent his evolution to a higher state of consciousness – a transcendent, “superhuman” level which he is capable of achieving if he got rid of all the things that are holding him down: fear, religion, superstitious beliefs and maybe even the complex machines that he created to serve him. Look at the way we are using technology now (especially smartphones). Aren’t we becoming enslaved by it? The ghostly and eloquent supercomputer HAL is the perfect embodiment of technological enslavement. We can include this among the film’s many prophecies.