By 1968, Stanley Kubrick had already taken conventional cinematic language to its limits. “Dr. Strangelove” perfected the black comedy; “Lolita” told an impossible story to film; and “Spartacus” redefined the action epic. Finally, Kubrick wanted to change cinematic language.
The first 20 minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” are still revolutionary. There’s no dialog, human or real plot. Kubrick introduces the broad concepts of science, nature and evolution through a variety of opening images. A sunrise, a barren desert and prehistoric apes lounging around. While this may seem unnecessary, the vague ending can be partially understood by these opening concepts. It’s a simple and brutal life till the apes find the “Monolith” in the middle of their territory. The Monolith is a large black object almost like blank domino that towers over everything. This Monolith somehow helps the apes evolve: they learn how to use tools and weapons.
That was the first step of a long journey that is segued by the now legendary quick cut from a flying bone to a spaceship. The patient viewer is now treated with a montage of Beethoven’s music and flying spacecraft, whose models still look impressive. Eventually, the main characters are introduced: astronauts Dave (Keir Dullea), Frank (Gary Lockwood) and their supercomputer mission leader, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Interestingly, Kubrick gives more character depth and motivation to HAL throughout the film than any human shows. HAL has an obvious sense of self-actualization and arrogance computers shouldn’t have. HAL asks probing questions about the astronauts, lies about mission details and seems to have jealousy streak. When the the ship begins malfunctioning and the astronauts realize HAL isn’t wholly honest, it’s a life and death race for control over the ship.
But that’s only the surface story. The real substance lies in the themes of man’s reliance on technology, human evolution and what really makes a human. I pondered a variety of weighty subjects during my recent viewing: Is a murderous computer made by man “evil,” “human” or both? How can humankind evolve further? Was the Monolith sent by aliens, God or is it just a metaphor with no explanation?
Without spoiling anything, part of the ending contains what could be called an “acid trip.” A vivid display of colors, random images and mind bending concepts. Even after seeing the sequence numerous times and reading theories about it, I’m still perplexed by some parts. Some viewers grow frustrated and view the sequence as dribble disguising as art. I think its the final hurdle viewers must complete, and appreciate, to evolve with the film.
In fact, if “2001: A Space Odyssey” had to summed up in one word, it would “evolution.” Its about man’s biological evolution, technological evolution and cinematic evolution. What other film in history can come close to reaching such complexity?