Reviews of Classic Movies: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

When you think of modern science fiction, what’s the first image to pop into your head? Epic space battles? Gritty future dystopias? As-yet impossible technology? Today’s sci-fi is expansive and imaginative, but when it comes to sci-fi movies, there’s a single origin point for every spacecraft and laser beam that flashes past us in the theatre. That “birthplace” is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that simultaneously defines the science fiction genre and stretches beyond it. Read on for my full review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, including my ranking out of four stars!

2001 is unlike most films in that it does not tell the story of a single character or group of characters. Instead, it follows the developments of the human race as a whole – starting with our evolution from apes and ending at our first contact with extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence.

Kubrick divides the movie into four main parts: “The Dawn of Man”, “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One”, “Jupiter Mission” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”. Each chapter covers significant episodes in the development of the human race, as it relates to human space exploration.

The first chapter shows how contact with a mysterious black monolith allows a tribe of apes to gain mental superiority over another tribe. In the second chapter, the monolith encounters humans again, millions of years later on the Moon. The third and fourth episodes then take this progression to its fullest extent, illustrating the monolith’s ultimate goal: to help humans evolve far beyond their Earthly limitations.

The film is set to a score that, to a modern viewer, initially feels like a strange choice for science fiction. The classical music soundtrack is made up of pieces like Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube waltz and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, pieces Kubrick selected because the dance rhythm reminded him of the tumbling motion of satellites. The music accompanies all the chapters of the film, and the relative lack of dialogue means that the music is a far more prominent element of 2001 than interactions between characters.

Rather than trying to emphasize explosive action or alien effects, the film depicts the space setting in a faithful manner, with lengthy shots of traveling spacecraft and silent, determined astronauts. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, space travel is not a sensationalized experience – it’s as routine as taking the bus. There are no worries about extraterrestrial attacks; indeed, the greatest danger is the human travellers’ technology, specifically an insane ship’s computer named HAL 9000.

When the film was produced, it sought to depict the extent of space exploration in the year 2001. It’s now 2011, ten years after the imagined events of the movie, and the world’s space programs are nowhere near the Moon bases and artificial intelligence seen in the film. Still, it would be a mistake to judge the movie on its ability to predict the future – popular culture has expected flying cars for years, and we certainly don’t have them yet.

The object of 2001 is to show future space travel to the best of its ability, and by consulting experts from NASA back in 1967-68, Kubrick was able to get a number of things right, including life in antigravity environments, the construction of spacecraft and moon settlements, and the appearance of extraterrestrial life (rather than little green men, it is unlike anything seen on Earth).

This involves some landmark special effects, and Kubrick eventually won an Academy Award for a host of groundbreaking visuals. Some of the more notable effects are the shots of spacecraft, using minutely detailed models, and the Star Gate sequence near the end of the film. Special effects are a necessity of science fiction, and what Kubrick and his team achieved in 2001 inspired a long line of directors, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

The feeling I was left with upon seeing this movie was that everything feels truly plausible (except, perhaps, for the sequence at the end). We may not have yet reached the technological heights promised by the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if space travel ends up like 2001: A Space Odyssey – intelligent, utilitarian and extensively planned. This sense of reality is due to the seriousness with which Kubrick and writing partner Arthur C. Clarke approached the movie – while the film does have a collection of lighter moments, it consistently looks towards a perfect, peaceful future in the stars.

For all its achievements, I would argue that 2001 is not a perfect movie. At the end of the fourth chapter, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, the viewer is met with a sequence of mind-blowing shots, showing astronaut Dave Bowman as he is transported across space and time by the black monolith. This journey, and the ethereal location Bowman is brought to, might lose a few viewers due to its high-concept imagery. It takes a number of viewings and a bit of thought to fully sort out what Kubrick is doing here, which might be too much of a challenge to some modern viewers.

That is not to say that 2001 isn’t worth the effort. Part of the concept behind my Reviews of Classic Movies series is to argue how these movies are worth watching now, as part of a more complete film “education”. Despite the intellectual, contemplative style, it’s worth muscling through the denser portions so you can understand how the film informed so many movies (science fiction and otherwise) that came later.

As a modern viewer, I believe that the film feels fresh even forty-three years later, especially in comparison with excessively loud and ugly sci-fi movies like Transformers or the upcoming Battleship. For its ambitious and unmistakeable visuals, its philosophical consideration of human evolution and evocative score, 2001: A Space Odyssey gets three and a half stars out of four.


Have you seen 2001? How did you find the high-concept portions of the film? Or is it one of those movies you’ve been meaning to see, but kept forgetting? Let me know in the comments, or catch up on the rest of my continuing series, Reviews of Classic Movies!

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