In April 1968, an unusually constructed science-fiction film released in a single theatre in Washington, impressing some and puzzling some. 2001: A Space Odyssey earned mixed reviews as it moved from city to city, the adjectives ranging from “a landmark for a spacemark” to “dull” and “unimaginative”. Painstakingly slow and full of self-importance, it could come across as dull to some viewers even today. What it is not is unimaginative.
Written jointly by director Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke — who collaborated for the subsequent novel, too, although only Clarke is credited as the author — 2001 is ostensibly about human evolution and space exploration. But it also raises questions about artificial intelligence — the talking computer HAL 9000 wrests control of a spaceship from its human creators — and, seemingly, also makes a statement about humans pushing the frontiers of knowledge further.
Although the events happen chronologically, this is not your straightforward science-fiction story with a beginning and an end. With a series of innovative scenes that puzzle viewers and talk to their senses at the same time, it is the narrative that is imaginative, besides being a slap on the faces of those who insist on a “story” to be able to enjoy a film.
Now that the film has turned 50, science commentators as well as followers have tried to explore what makes the film special – so, what is it? Partly the science, but it’s mostly movie magic. Let’s break it up into five special reasons:
The Science Fiction
Like most genres, science fiction finds different ways to click with viewers. The grandmother of them all, Metropolis (1927), and later Blade Runner (1983), engaged viewers by creating a dystopian future and raising questions about the relationship between human and AI. In between, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the Stars Wars trilogy (1977-83), used science fiction as a vehicle to explore universal themes such as childhood innocence and honour.
2001 talked to a generation already in the thrall of space exploration. The Moon landing would come the year following the release, so the colonisation of the Moon might have looked inevitable, as might a Jupiter mission, followed by undefined future pursuits.
Now that 2001, the year, is behind us, what 2001, the movie, predicted accurately — and what it didn’t — keep coming up from time to time. Hits include the design of 21st-century spacecraft, video calls, and flat-screen television. Misses include computers with punch keys rather than a keyboard, use of a phone booth rather than a mobile phone, and colonisation of the Moon. Such discussions are all over the internet, a testimony to the film’s enduring relevance.
Sight and Sound
2001 is among a handful of films in which the visual and sound effects play roles comparable to those of the characters themselves. For the soundtrack, Kubrick relied largely on classical hits including Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss and The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. Kubrick, it is said, wanted the film to be primarily a non-verbal experience with the music evoking moods.
The Blue Danube, for example, accompanies a scene in which a space shuttle docks with a space station, a process that would have to take place with extreme caution, the late Roger Ebert noted in his review. “We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch,” Ebert wrote. “We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it’s keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.”
The docking sequence is one of the film’s supreme visual effects, as is a trip through a kaleidoscopic series of images that carries the astronaut Dave Bowman to Jupiter. Three other visual landmarks, two accompanied by visual effects and one without sound, are even more special.
For a film to achieve greatness, the whole is rarely enough by itself. It needs the parts that linger long after the film ends. 2001 provides several such memorable moments, including the shuttle docking, the Jupiter landing, and three others that are more likely to win any viewers’ poll.
Bone turns into spacecraft: Often described as cinema’s most famous match cut — in which one scene is cut to another with the two scenes matched by the action or subject — this one shows a prehistoric human tossing a large bone into the air in a moment of triumph. During its descent, the bone is match-cut to a spacecraft.
Stewardess spin: Inside the spacecraft, she carries a tray of food and steps into a circular walkway. She walks up the side of the walkway, until she stands upside-down on the ceiling and steps through a doorway. It is a hypnotic scene marked by her laboriously slow steps, in sync with the notes of The Blue Danube.
The foetus: This will be a spoiler for those who have not seen the film; so it must be kept brief. At the end of the film, a giant human foetus joins the planets in orbit. It is a moment that is both rousing, helped by Also sprach Zarathustra, and mystifying.
Over the last 50 years, many viewers have looked for answers. What does the foetus mean? What is the significance of the giant monolith that appears on earth, the moon and Jupiter? Clarke is said to have explained some of these in his novel. Which I hope I never read. And although I did watch 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) a few years after it released, the fact that it addressed some of the questions in 2001 was lost on me because I had not yet watched the Big One then. In any case, no true fan would ever want to know the answers.
What is cinema if not a means to induce a sense of wonder? 2001 does that from beginning to end, and then forever. If it is a choice between retaining that sense
of wonder and gaining a clear understanding, give me wonder any time. Let the mystery endure.