Until "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) science fiction films tended to be straightforward affairs: a superior technology is used in some way that causes problems for people that must be overcome. It had been that way since the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Arthur C. Clarke, who, along with director Stanley Kubrick, wrote the story, made his name with highly technical stories that predicted, among other things, geosynchronous satellites.
The grand possibilities inherent in science fiction were left unfulfilled by focusing on hardware and aliens. Fortunately, one or both of the two men came up with the idea of adding a mystical element to all the metal clanking around, and the genre changed forever. That paved the way for "Star Wars" to go in a similar but slightly different direction and add the element of fantasy. Science fiction films would never be the same again.
|The opening section figures directly into the resolution|
After first seeing this film, I was fascinated and made a point to read the book. I followed it with every other Arthur C. Clarke book I could find in the library (I thought that "Childhood's End" was the best, aside from "2001," and that they had quite similar themes). Yes, those were the days when kids went to the library by themselves and checked out novels. At least this kid did.
|The Discovery spacecraft on its way to Jupiter|
In "2001," astronauts on the Moon find an object that was deliberately buried by someone or something millions of years ago. The clues point to Jupiter being involved, so a mission is mounted to explore that planet. Along the way, problems develop and mysterious events occur. The ending has confused a lot of people. I think it is because those viewers are trying to think about it literally, rather than mystically. The ending makes no sense in a classic science fiction sense. But if you look past the mechanics, I think it is crystal clear in a metaphorical way.
"2001" introduced all sorts of ideas that since have become commonplace. Many were way, way ahead of its day. Flat screen TVs? Space shuttles? Wireless video phone calls? Chess-playing computers? All were portrayed in this film, and now are taken for granted, but they were way out there in 1968.
|Very colorful space suits|
The special effects also created a sensation. The idea of spaceships as huge, lurking entities, essentially self-contained traveling planets, instead of either tiny capsules or flying saucers, originated here. Today, I would take Douglas Trumbull's special effects in "2001" along with the signature Kubrick touches (the extended docking and other shuttle scenes, etc.) over those from any subsequent film. That is all pure science fiction in the classic sense, science merged with fiction.
|2001: A Space Odyssey print ad|
There hasn't been a better portrayal of future technical development, the only error was in the year chosen as the benchmark, but that simply reflected the unbelievably fast pace of scientific advancement that decade. Made at the absolute height of the Apollo years, this film brilliantly captured the optimistic Zeitgeist of the 1960s, when the US went from not even having had a man in orbit, to placing several on the Moon and returning them safely.
|The Pod Bay|
I purposefully don't want to dwell on the plot, because in my opinion "2001" is pure philosophy and not really a "story." The focus on everyday events - staff meetings, supposedly innocent "chance" meetings with foreign colleagues, routine maintenance aboard a spacecraft - helps convey the idea that Space is just as normal and mundane a place as anywhere on Earth. The classical score (highlighted by "Thus Sprake Zarathustra" by Richard Wagner) reinforces this notion, equating the area around space stations and the Moon with the Danube. The lead actors - Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester - never became big stars, and that also helps the message that Space is a place for ordinary people, not just larger-than-life movie stars or heroes.
|The space shuttle and space station|
You can nit-pick all you want. "What difference does it make if the planets are aligned?" regarding a key visual cue is my favorite. Another is, "How could an embryo float in space?" When you hear questions like that, you just nod and move on. There's nothing you can do to explain it in a way that they would understand. Anyone who has similar questions is better off with the animated film "WALL-E."
|The Star Child|
Everybody focuses on the computer character of HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain, who is the film's heavy. Why does he do what he does? This is a case where the sequel, "2010," also a fine film, essentially answers that question quite nicely. Returning for a moment to the recent pseudo-remake, "WALL-E" (2008) - well, OK, it was more "influenced by" than a remake - that also was a high quality film. Some would even say that it attains the same level as "2001" and is more entertaining. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion about what entertains them, but what they are not entitled to are their own facts. When confronted with an opinion like that, all I do is ask a simple question: which, objectively, is the more influential film, "2001" or "WALL-E"? That ends that debate right there.
You could do yourself a a favor and see a good copy of this film, without interruption, at night, with a good sound system and on a big screen in a darkened room. And if you like it and want to understand more, read the book.