2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably The Greatest Science Fiction Film Ever Made. I don’t know whether or not this is strictly true, but one could make a pretty compelling case for it. As far as I can tell, those who praise the film praise Kubrick’s enormous vision and grand special effects (for the time), and the film’s detractors criticize the film’s lack of conventional plot, pacing, dialogue, and relatable characters. I can see both sides to the argument. Though I did have the problems mentioned above, by biggest was with the ending. I don’t know what it is with me and ambiguous endings lately, but for some reason they have not been treating me well when I normally love them.
2001: A Space Odyssey, as I see it, is comprised of three main “plots.” The first is an alien encounter type thing, the second is the one where the computer tries to take over the spaceship, and the third is all of the waltzing around in space with weird inexplicable stuff happening. The first I think I mostly got, the second is relatively easy to grasp, and the third part I’m still struggling with. I think I’ve come up with something that fits with the information that Kubrick gives us, but I’m not even to go to try to claim that it’s what the film is actually saying. The film doesn’t seem to be saying something as much as presenting an epic view of space, humanity, and intelligence. I don’t think Kubrick offers us anything to definitively tie them together, and that was my main problem with the film.
The film starts off with Kubrick’s famous use of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Straus. Even if you think you don’t know the piece, I can promise you with a very high level of certainty that you actually do. We see the sun and the moon from Earth, setting up a majestic view for a majestic story. Then we go into “The Dawn of Man,” in which we see apes learn to use tools for the first time, taking an important step in evolution towards humanity. This only happens when an giant stone slab (later dubbed the monolith) appears out of nowhere, which, being so regular in shape, can only be made by intelligent life. Given the state of the apes and the pigs here, intelligent life clearly means aliens. The film opens with the first plot point.
Kubrick’s scene transition here is really cool. An ape tosses his bone turned club into the air, and it turns into a spaceship on the way down. Humanity has evolved a lot since that action started! Now we have more of “plot” point number three, waltzing around in space to the “Blue Danube Waltz,” of course. This is clearly supposed to have me in awe of the majesty of space again, but it didn’t hit me as hard as it did the first time because it went on for so long. Nevertheless, the song is always fun to listen to. Next we continue with plot point number two, with rumors of a moon colony in the grips of an epidemic. This turns out to be false; what has really happened is that another one of those monoliths has been dug up on the moon. The aliens strike again! Once the expedition team gets to the moon, the monolith gives off a terrible piercing sound, which is later revealed to be a beam of radiation aimed at Jupiter. It’s hard to remember exactly where all the space waltzing interludes are, but I’m pretty sure there’s another one here.
Now we get to the most accessible part of the movie, where characters actually talk to each other and have motivations. Just as the monolith inspired the ape to use the bone as a tool, the signal the monolith sends inspires humanity to send the Discovery Mission to Jupiter. It is here that we meet the infamous computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) and Dave (Kier Dullea). Dave and Frank (Gary Lockwood) are nondescript astronauts aboard the ship, and there are three more that are supposed to explore Jupiter once they get there, but are currently in hibernation. Fun fact, one of them has them same name as my grandfather which I found a bit creepy but also pretty cool. We meet the astronauts and HAL through a tv interview, in which HAL describes how he has never made a mistake.
I’m not a computer programming expert by any means, but I know some comp sci majors and have done a bit of programming myself. One of the first things I learned was that the computer will only do exactly what you tell it to do: no more, no less. So when HAL defends himself from accusations of error in predicting a failure of some piece of equipment on the ship by saying: “I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error.” he is perfectly right. There really is no such thing as computer error, because humans are the ones that program them in the first place. This part is so creepy because he puts down humans so easily, and he’s completely right.
So HAL predicts a failure of some piece of equipment on this ship, but the same model of computer on the ground says the equipment is fine. Frank and Dave conspire to shut down HAL, which is sort of a bone headed move from my point of view, since he’s basically running the whole ship. How are they supposed to fly it, or keep the three hibernating astronauts alive? Can they really just unplug HAL or flip the switch off, and have the ship still function? I don’t really know, but it’s sort of a moot point anyway because HAL doesn’t want to be turned off. He finds out what Frank and Dave are planning to do, and starts amassing control. First he stops regulating the three hibernating astronauts, and they die. Then he lets Frank drift off into space, sending Dave to go out there and get him. In another bone headed move, the guy forgets his space helmet! What a genius. However, it turns out not to matter once again because he ends up getting back on the ship and succeed in turning off HAL, in the most tragic and frightening scene in the film.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.” HAL doesn’t seem like he’s getting turned off, he seems like he’s dying. He’s sad, and he pleads for his life. Of course, this is just the product of programming, but to humans it doesn’t sound like it. Despite the fact that he tried to take over the ship and kill everyone, he seemed like a human. It’s frightening how normal and yet sinister he seems, and this comes to a culmination when he gets turned off. I’m not exaggerating when I say I almost cried.
Now we get into the really weird part of the movie. It’s around this time when I was thinking “Kubrick has introduced all this stuff, he better have one hell of an ending to tie it all together.” Well, he did have one hell of ending, but I’m not sure he tied it all together that well. We’re pretty much done with plot point number two now since HAL’s turned off, so we go back to number three: waltzing through space. I don’t know if this is supposed to be Dave going through a wormhole or something, but there are a bunch of neon lights that he’s going through so that’s my best guess. If that’s indeed what happens, or even if it isn’t, I have no clue where he ends up. Kubrick shows what looks like the surface of a planet, but I don’t know what planet it is. Then, Dave magically shows up in this room, where he either hallucinates himself living out his life, or actually lives out the rest of his life. He then turns back into a fetus and becomes the size of Earth, leaving me going “what just happened….?”
What is interesting though, and I think an attempt to tie it all together, was that there is another monolith in Dave’s room. I suppose this is to suggest that the aliens transported Dave to their planet through the wormhole to observe him, but I have no idea why, or why he ends up as a giant fetus the size of Earth. I was trying to think of a way to ties this in with the HAL story, and reading some articles about the movie and thinking about it a bit, I came up with something that I think works. Interpretation time! HAL is a computer, and therefore does everything his programmers tell him to do. I feel like this is a smaller example of what the aliens do to humanity. The monolith appears, we evolve. It’s like we’re the computers of the monolith! They can just appear and sends beams of radiation and we do what they want. I don’t know if that’s actually what the film’s getting at, but at least it explains why Kubrick would put all of those plot points in the same movie. We don’t know what’s out in space. For all we know it could be something so intelligent that it regards humanity as a computer that it can program to do it’s will. That still doesn’t explain why the aliens would do what they are doing, but clearly they are too intelligent for us to understand. I was also thinking the monolith might represent some god-like figure that Dave meets once he is dead, but I’m not sure about that. That doesn’t really relate back to the HAL story, so I like my first idea better.
So the ending is very ambiguous. Kubrick throws a lot of stuff at you and then just sort of does some weird stuff at the end. When I was watching it I was not a big fan, but it really helps to write it out and I’m a much bigger fan of this movie than when I started this post. I was originally thinking it was kind of lazy for him to just introduce three separate things in the film and then leave us hanging in the end, and to just not give us the things we expect in a movie, but now I’m not so sure. I was thinking he maybe just got carried away with all the effects he was doing, and came out with a very confusing movie that everyone praised simply because it was so different. But I do think it’s a good movie, once you get a chance to think about it for awhile. I will definitely be seeing this again, and on the big screen no less. My local theater is showing it at the end of July, and I’m sure it will blow me away in it’s full glory, and I’ll be able to appreciate all of that space waltzing a lot more.
“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars