In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick further explored his dark vision of man in a materialistic, mechanistic age depicted in Dr. Strangelove four years earlier. In explaining how the original idea for this landmark science-fiction film came to him, he says, "Most astronomers and other scientists interested in the whole question are strongly convinced that the universe is crawling with life; much of it, since the numbers are so staggering, (is) equal to us in intelligence, or superior, simply because human intelligence has existed for so relatively short a period." He approached Arthur C. Clarke, whose science fiction short story, "The Sentinel," would eventually become the basis for the film. They first expanded the short story into a novel, in order to completely develop the story's potential, and then turned that into a screenplay.
MGM bought their package and financed the film for six million dollars, a budget that after four years of work on the film eventually rose to ten million. Though 2001 opened to indifferent and even hostile reviews, subsequent critical opinion has completely reversed itself. As the film is often revived, it has earned back its original cost several times over.
2001 begins with the dawn of civilization in which an ape-man learns to use a bone as a weapon in order to destroy a rival, ironically taking a step further toward humanity. As the victorious ape-man throws his weapon spiralling into the air, there is a dissolve to a spaceship from the year 2001. "It's simply an observable fact," Kubrick comments, "that all of man's technology grew out of the discovery of the tool-weapon. There's no doubt that there's a deep emotional relationship between man and his machine-weapons, which are his children. The machine is beginning to assert itself in a very profound way, even attracting affection and obsession."
This concept is dramatized in the film when astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole find themselves at the mercy of the computer HAL 9000, which controls their spaceship. (There are repeated juxtapositions of man with his human failings and fallibility immersed in machines: beautiful, functional, but cold and heartless.) When HAL the computer makes a mistake, he refuses to admit the evidence of his own capacity for error, and proceeds to destroy the occupants of the space ship to cover it up. Kubrick indicates here, as in Dr. Strangelove, that human fallibility is less likely to destroy man than the abdication of his moral responsibilities to presumably infallible machines.
Kubrick believes man must also strive to gain mastery over himself and not just over his machines, "Somebody said man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilized human beings. You might say that that is inherent in the story of 2001 too. We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Since the means to obliterate life on earth exists, it will take more than just careful planning and reasonable cooperation to avoid some eventual catastrophic event. The problem exists as long as the potential exists; and the problem is essentially a moral one and a spiritual one."
These sentiments are very close to those which Charlie Chaplin expressed in his closing speech in The Great Dictator: "We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost."
The overall implications of the film suggest a more optimistic aspect to Kubrick's view of life than had been previously detected in his work. Here he presents man's creative encounters with the universe and his unfathomed potential for the future in more hopeful terms than he did, for example, in Dr. Strangelove.
The film ends with Bowman, the only survivor of the mission, being reborn as "an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like," Kubrick explains, "returning to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny."
Kubrick feels that "the God concept is at the heart of the film" since, if any extraterrestrial superior being were to manifest itself to man, the latter would immediately assume it was God or an emissary of God. When an artifact of these beings does appear in the film, it is represented as a black monolithic slab. Kubrick thought it better not to try to be too specific in depicting these beings, "You have to leave something to the audience's imagination," he concludes.
In summary, 2001 by neither showing nor explaining too much, enables the viewer to experience the film as a whole. As Kubrick comments, "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize it. I tried to create a visual experience which directly penetrates the subconscious content of the material." The movie consequently becomes for the viewer an intensely subjective experience which reaches his inner consciousness in the same manner that music does, leaving him free to speculate about thematic content. As one critic put it, 2001 successfully brings the techniques and appeal of the experimental film into the studio feature-length film, "making it the world's most expensive underground movie." It is this phenomenon, in the final analysis, which has made 2001: A Space Odyssey so perennially popular with audiences. It is significant that Kubrick set the film in the year 2001, because Fritz Lang's groundbreaking silent film Metropolis takes place in the year 2000. This reference to Lang's film is a homage to the earlier master's accomplishment in science fiction – an achievement which Kubrick's film has successfully built on and surpassed.
Release Date: 1968
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain, Frank Miller, Penny Brahms, and Alan Gifford
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Source Citation: Phillips, Gene D. "2001: A Space Odyssey." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1247-1250.