2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke and an MGM film with screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Clarke. The film stars Keir Dullea (as Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (as Frank Pool).
It is probably best for sci-fi fans to read the novel after seeing the enigmatic film. The novel helps to make sense of the movie, but for me it’s a bit pedantic. On the other hand, the movie is widely regarded as a cinematic classic. It was even on Pope John Paul II’s top 10 list of favorite films. And before the Star Wars debut of 1977, this sci-fi film was a benchmark for all the others.
In a time before CGI and the first moonwalk, 2001 was groundbreaking, and rightly recognized as such. The apes in the opening shots were painstakingly researched and constructed. Actors studied the movement of real apes and were filmed with actual baby apes. Anthropologists were consulted, partly because “Man The Ape” was a resonant theme back then.¹ In fact, in the late 60s, it was hip to be “Anthro.” And the apes in 2001 were leaps and bounds ahead of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes movie (also released in 1968).
Watching the film today, we find some awkward anachronisms that just wouldn’t wash in 2016. For instance, when Dr. Heywood Floyd he arrives in an orbiting space station, he is generically asked by a computer to enter his “Christian Name.” Russians are cast as a sneaky lot (this negative stereotype continuing until the new millennium, around which point Hollywood branched out to find new ethnicities, cultures and personality types for their cardboard cutout characters).²
The special FX in 2001 were mind-bending for 1968. Today they seem pretty lame and most of the sets dated. But we have to remember that this is an older film with big ideas.
With a bare minimum of dialog and certainly no love story, two related themes are explored:
- The evolution of Mankind
- Mankind vs. Machine
The machine, a HAL 9000 computer, malfunctions and murders astronaut Frank Pool and several others traveling in suspended animation en route to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel). The catalyst for the Jupiter mission (and for the eventual transformation of Bowman) is a signal emanating from an anomalous, rectangular monolith discovered just underneath the Moon’s surface (TMA-1).
The film tells us that another, identical object was present on Earth at the dawn of mankind, which we see in the opening scenes with the apes. (The novel explains that the monolith was planted by aliens in order to guide mankind’s evolution through the centuries.)
In an eerily dramatic scene, the lone survivor, Dave Bowman, disconnects HAL’s higher processing modules, despite HAL’s psychiatric advice to “take a stress pill, relax, and think it over.” HAL then sings a song learned in “childhood” as his voice processor slows down to nothingness.
Bowman is directly transported through an alien gateway to a distant world. Back in the day people used to talk about the “fantastic” special FX of this segment, which nowadays seem unspectacular.
The next segment, perhaps the most interesting and odd, sees Dave in a strange kind of Renaissance room, where he ages rapidly.³ Dying in front of another monolith, he is reborn a Star Child.
In the novel the Star Child orbits the Earth and safely detonates a low-orbiting hydrogen bomb to prevent it from being used for violence. Unsure what to do next, the Star Child will “think of something.” The film, however, leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We see the Star Child in orbit. And that’s it. Close curtain.
On the whole, the screenplay is far more open-ended than the novel. But both portray astronaut Dave Bowman’s metamorphosis in a way consistent with world myths illustrating the mythic cycle of death/rebirth and transformation. So 2001 could be taken as another myth situated in a longstanding tradition of death/rebirth and transformation myths.
Subsequent novels like 2010 (also a film, not nearly as respected by critics), 2064 and 3001 use the literary device of retroactive continuity. Retroactive continuity means that some plot and setting details are modified (or elaborated on) for a greater, holistic sense of coherence. For instance, in the sequel film 2010 we learn that the HAL 9000 was told to lie by Washington, which was incompatible with HAL’s programming. So the computer’s somewhat sinister ‘malfunction’ in 2001 becomes something of an unavoidable, forgivable psychosis ultimately caused by human error, as HAL ironically suggested in the original film.
To me, this kind of retroactive continuity detracts from the magic of the original film. Not to mention charm. Perhaps that’s the difference between Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick. One a very talented but essentially pragmatic writer who likes to tie up all the loose ends. The other, a cinematic genius who realizes the value of mystery.
Having said that, Clarke’s novel 3001 explores an idea where human consciousness (Dave Bowman) eventually merges with a computer program (HAL) to create a new kind of hybrid named Halman. And this is an intriguing idea, considering our potentially endless future.
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¹ Desmond Morris published the massive bestseller, The Naked Ape in 1967 and the popular imagination was very much attuned to our roots in Africa along with the mind-boggling achievements of NASA. Oval pottery and anything remotely “tribal” was equally as trendy as rounded plastic chairs. So this film came along at the right time, to put it mildly.
² This constant updating of marginalized types arguably reflects and reinforces the bigotry and xenophobia of a given era.
³ The renaissance room is explained in the book (which itself is based on Clarke’s earlier short story, “The Sentinel”). The aliens have been monitoring Earth. But due to the time it takes for light to travel to their home world, their information about a “normal” living space is dated by a few centuries. Today, we think about wormholes, bending the space-time continuum and the instantaneous transfer of information across space and time. So this explanation seems not only pedantic but also dated. In this regard, the TV show Star Trek (1966-69) was light years ahead with its warp drive and several episodes about time travel.