Stanley Kubrick is revered as the silent generation's "big bang" director due to his innovative and unconventional styles of filming. During his expansive career, Kubrick invented and monetized numerous cinematic techniques. These creative processes include the "one-point perspective" shot, which leads the viewer's eye towards a central vanishing point, and the initial use of the Steadicam, most notoriously implemented on his Stephen King adaptation, The Shining. Aside from his advancements in modern cinema through astounding special effects, Kubrick is also renowned for his ability to inject varied genres of film with a culmination of his expertise. Primordially, it is because of his direction of photography, attention to sonic detail, and extensive editing that his films have garnered revolutionary praise and copious awards. A majority of them have been nominated for various Academy Awards, including Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket, but no other film stands the test of time (or even surpasses it) like the psychological and transcendent 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"You are free to speculate, as you wish, about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of 2001—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point."
In 1968, Kubrick released his 11th directorial contribution, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to polarized critical opinion, receiving congratulatory exaltation and vehement ridicule. The 148 minute long feature is a hypnotically gargantuan endeavor that is both as breathtakingly majestic as it is claustrophobically harrowing, but it does not solely rely on its detailed set design and cinematography to enthrall and inspire. Ahead of its time, much of the negative reaction behind the film is due to its misunderstood metaphorical and symbolic plot.
The epic science fiction film was co-written by Kubrick and famed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, and was inspired by the latter's short story, "The Sentinel." It was developed by the duo and translated into its theatrical form in order to encompass its complex revolutionary thematics involving extraterrestrial life and the evolution of mankind.
The film opens in an African desert, approximately four million years ago, when a mysterious monolith is deliberately placed among a tribe of apes. Its purpose is presented as a challenge, as Kubrick does not explicitly explain its meaning. It can be inferred however, that the monolith's arrival has instilled in the ancestors of man the characteristics of fear, curiosity, and courage. This event in turn leads to the apes' revolutionary invention: The tool, which is depicted in a lingering shot where an ape first discovers the functionality of carcass bones. On a higher plane, whether it be religious or evolutionary, this establishing information leads the viewer to believe that the progression of man is being encouraged or directed by an unseen higher power.
2001 then travels to the future, where mankind is soaring at its peak evolutionary state, having transformed into homo sapiens with a civilized, rational, and scientific approach to life. Still, it is subtly suggested by Kubrick that despite all of the technological advances, there are challenges to be endured. This idea is further reinforced by the notion of man in space, where he is out of his element, and gradually must fully depend on the tools that got him there. Without gravity he must learn to walk again. Along with formula food being supplied and zero gravity toilet training, it is implied that man, who has mastered living conditions on earth and space travel, is only but a child in the expanse of the universe.
Furthermore, the weakness of evolutionary humanity is its dependancy on their tools, their technology, as computers begin to take a curious human form. When the protagonist and his team encounter the second monolith on the moon, in contrast to the initial reaction by the apes, they are blinded in awe by their discovery. They posses no fear, but mankind has much to learn, for the monolith stands as a cognizant sentinel; an introspective look at the progression of humanity - our triumphs and our shortcomings.
18 months after the discovery of the monolith, the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One is on a mission to Jupiter. Onboard are five pilots and scientists; two conscious, three in cryogenic hibernation, and the ship's computer HAL 9000, referred to by the crew as "Hal." Prior to the film's second act, Kubrick removes most dialogue as the focus, because he wants the film to be primarily a nonverbal experience. But when the two conscious pilots and Hal are interviewed by BBC about the mission, the exposition allows further understanding about the morality of the script. In this crucial scene it is evident that Hal, which has been programmed to be foolproof and incapable of error, has also developed genuine emotions. In fact Hal, the computer, is the only character in the film to display an array of emotions that range from pride to self preservation.
It is not accidental that artificial intelligence begins to detach itself from its human counterparts, as space provides a perfect illustration of man's fallacy. Like a fish out of water, man needs to breathe, whereas computers do not. This makes Hal superior in space and his sense of superiority interferes with his ability to take orders, as the computer now deems the scientists as subordinates. The cataclysmic conflict of the story is presented here, when Hal does commit an error and undergoes an acute emotional crisis because it is unwillingly incapable of accepting evidence of its finitude.
The conflict of man vs. himself is personified by the struggle of the protagonist to command the artificial intelligence he has created, which is an allusion to God's creation of Adam and Eve. Hal, in wanting to replace its creator, is cast out of the garden - shut down indefinitely. This event poses the ensuing threat: Man at the mercy of his machines is no longer able to function as his dependancy has rendered him futile. Alone in space, the conflict of man vs. nature is introduced as he faces imminent death.
The final act of the film incorporates the ideology that the supernatural entities that created us are waiting for us beyond the cosmos. This belief is represented in 2001 as an ethereal room where man must come to terms with his mortality, for none of our earthly actions will prepare us for the realm beyond. There is an interesting and understated scene where the protagonist is having his last supper and accidentally drops a glass of wine. Upon first viewing, this action seems superfluous, but upon further inspection it is apparent that although the glass retained the shape of the wine, the liquid still exists even without a container. This parallels the idea of the separation that occurs when our spirit leaves our carnal body.
Essentially, the subject matter of 2001: A Space Odyssey revolves around the evolution of mankind and our dependency on technology. We created artifical intelligence so advanced that it almost replaced us. It tried to destroy us. Without our creations, without our legacy, and only our mortality secured... what is truly left of us?
2001: A Space Odyssey is a monumental milestone that documents the history and future of mankind, and serves as a brilliant intergalactic satire on modern technology. Apart from its superficial influence on film, music, and literature, what is most compelling about 2001 is its understanding of the human need for technology. It has been almost 50 years since the release of the film and although it inaccurately predicted our space travel advancements, more alarmingly what the film did correctly depict is our addiction and inability to perform without the help of our tools.
The message behind the premise is universal, and the film has aged well with special effects that surpass most of today's lackluster CGI efforts. The film is exceptionally shot, with much regard to detail, and no expense is spared in its glossy and symmetrically aesthetic orchestration. It is a cinematic marvel that exceeds time and space, and although inferior films have come after it, such as Sunshine and Interstellar, they all rightfully embrace what made 2001 an insurgent effort: Its humanity and attempt to tackle the unknown. We may not be alone in the universe, and perhaps there is a spiritually advanced intelligence out there that is looking over us, watching, and waiting. All we know for sure is that death is inevitable, and that through time we all succumb to our mortality. Until the day comes that the darkness consumes us, we will keep evolving because there is nowhere to grow but up, and Stanley Kubrick cleverly demonstrates this with his most controversial and substantial film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.