It is sometimes as important to be in touch with the truths of your own time as it is to be in touch with its metaphors. 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most influential films ever made, constructed a haunting metaphor for the modern era, dealing with the metamorphosis of man into a higher form of existence. Like any powerful metaphor, 2001 works on many levels simultaneously, and it has influenced not only films but also our collective imaginations through special effects, sound and music, a technorganic character named HAL, and the creation of some of the most evocative images of our times.
One of the most enigmatic great films ever made, 2001 brought together two of the most fertile and original minds ever to have collaborated on a work of fiction, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Not long after World War II, Clarke came up with an idea that revolutionized modern communications: geo-synchronous satellites that could be used to send signals from one place on earth to another. Clarke started his prolific science fiction career in 1938 with “Man’s Empire of Tomorrow” and continues to the present, including two sequels to 2001, 2010: Odyssey Two, and 2063: Odyssey Three.
Kubrick, widely regarded as one of the greatest of post-World War II American filmmakers, started his career as a still photographer. He came to 2001 fresh from two controversial successes, an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which dealt with a serious subject—the threat of nuclear war—as a black comedy. In contrast to Clarke’s large body of work, Kubrick’s limited output results from painstaking perfectionism, of which 2001 is perhaps the most imaginative and poetic expression.
The essence of poetry is metaphor. If you want to build an effective metaphor, ground it on the bedrock of reality. Whereas Star Wars, the other pillar upon which contemporary science fiction films are based, is anti-science in its pretense that there is sound, air, and normal gravity in the immense vacuum of outer space, 2001 scrupulously adheres to the scientific realities of space travel.
Since metaphors can seldom be reduced to other words, it is not surprising that 2001 contains fewer words than probably any other commercial sound film of its length in history. As Kubrick explained, “The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize it. I tried to create a visual experience.” The film runs 30 minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken, and the last line, which tells us that the purpose of the monolith is still “a total mystery,” occurs almost a half hour before the end of the film.
There are, in all, only about 40 minutes of dialogue in this 149-minute film. The structure of 2001 is musical rather than dramatic—a fact that may help explain some of the widespread critical hostility the film received when it was released. There are three movements to 2001, but they are not the conventional three acts that critics and audiences expect to find in big-budget Hollywood movies. The connection of the three movements of 2001 is not immediately apparent, but it is nonetheless logical. The first movement concerns itself with the black monolith, that enigmatic geometric shape placed on both the earth and the moon some four million years ago. The “Dawn of Man” sequence, in which, according to Arthur C. Clarke, incredibly advanced extraterrestrial beings give our anthropoid ancestors the concept of tools, ends with one of the most brilliant matched cuts in film history.
The character Clarke called “Moonwatcher” tosses the bone he has used to kill other forms of life into the air, and its slow motion rotation gives way to one of the most advanced tools in existence in the year 2001, a nuclear warhead in orbit around the earth. The second movement, at one hour the longest in the film, deals with the central conflict between HAL, the Discovery’s supercomputer, and Dave Bowman, captain of the exploration team. Not surprisingly, many viewers find HAL the most interesting character in the film. That which has the power to save also has the power to destroy, and since both of these are HAL’s powers, he will inevitably be more memorable. But if HAL is the more interesting character, the fact remains that it is Dave Bowman who is the hero of 2001. He proves himself superior to HAL by doing something quintessentially human—he innovates, blowing himself through Discovery’s hatch even though he’s without a space suit.
By creating a unique response that HAL could not foresee and therefore cannot cope with, Dave proves himself worthy of transcending his present state of existence into the next stage of human evolution. In the third movement of the film, Dave moves on to the next stage of human development with the help of the unseen extraterrestrials. Those humanoid vocalizations we hear as Dave wanders around his “Cosmic Bedroom,” Clarke tells us in other writings, are the extraterrestrials observing their specimen and commenting on his behavior. These beings set up the black monoliths millions of years ago, yet they are still around; we don’t see them because they have evolved to such a high state of purity and existence that they no longer need material form. By transcending the physical, these beings move the film out of the realm of the scientific, into that of the spiritual.
The paradox of 2001 is that this work, whose story and whose actual making were so dependent upon human technology, itself a concrete manifestation of human logic, should ask us to move beyond logic, beyond concrete realities altogether, that it should take us into the domain hitherto reserved for theology: speculation on human destiny. Like all great films, 2001 takes hold, not merely of the eye and ear, but also of the mind. It is concerned not with the evolution of man’s body, but with the evolution of man’s mind and spirit. It is remarkable not only for its awesome visual effects, which have never been surpassed, but also for the fact that it is, at its core and its conclusion, a sacred drama for a secular society.