50 years on: An ode to the enduring legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Culture | Jun 27, 2018 / by Sapan Taneja
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“2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be easily judged if only because of its dazzling technical perfection. To be able to see beyond that may take a few years. When we have grown used to beautiful strange machines and the wonder of Kubrick's special effects wears off by duplication in other Hollywood films, then we can probe confidently beyond 2001's initial fascination and decide what kind of film it really is.”  - Hunter, Kaplan, & Jaszi, 1970.

It’s been 50 years since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released in cinemas. We have grown accustomed to “beautiful strange machines” and have embraced them as a part of our lives. Hollywood films have shown us the many wonders of special effects that sometimes ape or take inspiration from 2001. But 50 years on, the film continues to stand as an exemplary and unique feat in filmmaking.

The film itself is divided into four parts that are drastically different from each other in time and space. It starts with a sequence depicting the dawn of man, jumps forward to a group of astronauts investigating the appearance of a monolith on Jupiter and ends with what is perhaps a depiction of the next possible stage in human evolution. There is no apparent relation between these different timelines with Kubrick leaving it to the audience to discern the implicit connection between each different sequence (Williams, 2009). Traditional narrative structure is completely shunned as Kubrick exploits the visual and aural language of cinema to create an experience unlike any other (Banerjee, 2008).

The fact that the visuals and symbols still hold up today is even more commendable due to the fact that a number of science fiction films that have come since have borrowed from 2001. Many modern directors have acknowledged the influence of the film on their filmography. More recent examples of obvious influences include Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Denis Villueneuve’s Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Annihilation and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Murthi, 2018).  But perhaps the greatest legacy of 2001 on modern cinema is the fact that it legitimised the very genre of science fiction. When Kubrick spoke to science fiction author (and co-writer of 2001) Arthur C. Clarke, he stated that he simply wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie because no one’s ever done that” (Clarke, 1972).  Despite this claim, there were plenty of good science fiction films that existed before 2001. But a lot of films in the genre were considered too pulpy, too cheap and lacking the prestige of great dramatic films.  Kubrick overcomes these notions by treating the film and its subject matter with significance. 2001 takes a more cerebral approach to the genre and underlined the fact that science fiction can be a prism to explore grand philosophical ideas. As a science fiction fan, the influence of 2001 on so many modern films is obvious to see. The heady themes of the film our littered throughout the genre but none of those films quite achieve what Kubrick does. This is because Kubrick does not hold your hand and try to explain what he’s trying to convey with expository dialogue, he simply relies on the visual language of his work to express and lets the audience connect the pieces.

Immense effort was put into designing the sets and sequences in the film to lend it credibility. Kubrick’s visual effect supervisor, Douglas Trumbull consulted NASA advisors to depict happenings in space in an accurate manner (Bizony, 2014). For the first time, space was silent. The portrayal of being weightless on a spacecraft was close to accurate. The set design of the space probe was futuristic and also felt real. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London (McKie, 2018). Even on recent viewing, the impact of Kubrick’s practical sets are still felt today and it makes one feel that these structures can exist in the modern world.

Thematically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the most ambitious film ever made; only matched in ambition by its achievement. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert saw the film as a philosophical musing on humanities place in the universe. He achieves this by using images that make us contemplate and reflect on what we see rather than simply experiencing it as entertainment (Ebert, 2003).

The film can feel cold and unemotive, but this feeling is a reflection of the dehumanisation of our human characters. The dialogue between the humans is mundane and meaningless. In fact, it is the malevolent A.I. HAL who portrays the most anthromorphic qualities. “Humanity is enslaved by their machines until Dave Bowman is forced to improvise his own escape from the murderous plot of HAL. In committing the murder of HAL, Bowman loses his dehumanization and becomes eligible for the transcending experience into new dimensions” (Hunter et al., 2007). Our relationship with technology has evolved quite similarly to the future depicted in 2001.  It has weaved into every aspect of our lives.

The transfer of humanity from creator to creation is another idea that makes 2001 relevant even today. The AI HAL 9000 is supposed to be incapable of fault as he states in the film. But the computer exhibits signs of imperfection reminiscent of its creators, as it becomes increasingly paranoid that the astronauts on board will shut it down. In a remarkable creative call, Kubrick allows to see and feel from the perspective of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) as it stalks the humans on board. With its death impending, the AI pleads for its “life” in a despairing soliloquy as he is shutdown with surgical precision by astronaut Dave Bowman. This scene is unnerving as we lay witness to a showdown between a cold and unfeeling man against a machine desperately trying to survive.

With AI technology growing every day and becoming an increasingly contemporary issue, do we look at 2001 as a warning for things to come or are these? Is it a folly for us to try to humanize AI? Do we have to overcome our overreliance on technology to become the Nietzchean Übermensch like Bowman at the end of the film?  "What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be to the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” (Nietzsche, 1883). Do these words by Nietzche summarise what Kubrick and Clark are trying to achieve with 2001? Even on multiple viewing the answers to these questions still remain a mystery. Kubrick of course wasn’t too concerned with viewers and critics solving the many puzzles of his film. He said “You’re free to speculate about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film,” (Barber, 2018) and likened it to piece of music – a work of art to be experienced viscerally.

The questions raised by the film are the staple of science fiction and ones we will continue to ponder over for years to come. While some may complain that the slow and incoherent nature of the film can make it slightly hard to follow. But 2001 is a film that deserves and justifies the effort. It is not about the journey of any one particular character and there is very little dialogue to engage us. It is instead a meditative film that uses visuals and music to absorb its audience. If ever a case needs to be made that the film is a visual medium, 2001:  A Space Odyssey can be singled out as exemplifying that. Beyond this, the questions that the film raises are deep and demands one to introspect. It is a film about who we are and what we could become.

At its finest cinema has the ability to expand our imagination and make us question our nature. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that manages to do achieve both these rare feats. Fifty years on, it is a film that still haunts and inspires.

 

References 

Banerjee, S. (2008). 2001: A Space Odyssey: A Transcendental Trans-locution. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

Barber, N. (2018, April 04). Why 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a mystery. Retrieved From BBC news website: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180404-why-2001-a-space-odyssey-remains-a-mystery

Bizony, P. (2014). The Making of Stanley Kubrick's '2001. a Space Odyssey'. Taschen.

Clarke, A. C. (1972). The Lost Worlds of 2001. Ace.

Ebert, R. (2003). The Great Movies. Three Rivers Press.

Hunter, T., Kaplan, S., & Jaszi, P. (1970). Review of 2001: A space odyssey. In J. Agel, The Making of Kubrick's 2001 (pp. 215-222). New York: The New American Library.

McKie, R. (2018, April 15). Kubrick's 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space. Retrieved From The Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/apr/15/2001-a-space-odyssey-film-haunts-dream-space

Murthi, V. (2018, April 04). How 2001: A Space Odyssey Has Influenced Pop Culture, 50 Years Later. Retrieved from Vulture website : http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/how-2001-a-space-odyssey-has-influenced-pop-culture.html

Nietzsche, F. (1883). Thus Spoke Zarathustra A Book For All And None.

Williams, D. E. (2009). 2001: A space odyssey: A warning before its time. Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Header image courtesy - BBC

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Written By Sapan Taneja

Sapan Taneja is a freelance writer, editor and a filmmaker with an interest in all things Politics, International Relations and Economics.

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