In 1968, Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of his most philosophical, perplexing, and unforgettable films. It has been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time for its impressive visuals, outstanding sets, and pure imagination. Kubrick teamed up with Arthur C. Clarke, a British science fiction writer, for a joint movie-novel release. This was not the usual way of doing things, but with 2001: A Space Odyssey, not much is usual.
The film is divided into several sections, each detailing pivotal transitions in human evolution. The first follows a prehistoric tribe of apes who, when confronted by an ominous black monolith, learn that bones can be fashioned into weapons and tools. In what has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of cinema, a bone is then thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle.
We are then introduced to Dr. Heywood Floyd, en route to a space station on the surface of the moon. This section is deliberately sparse on the dialogue—there is no contrived exposition to tell us the purpose of his mission. Instead, we are shown the layout of the cabin, the details of in-flight service, the effects of zero gravity, and all other minutiae of the flight. Kubrick takes us through the film as if we were flies on the wall, observing the events as they would occur in real life.
Skipping over a few spoilers, we arrive at spaceship Discovery One and its mission to Jupiter. Piloted by the onboard supercomputer HAL 9000 and manned by Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, life on Discovery is presented as a long, monotonous routine of exercise, maintenance, and chess games. However, emerging through the otherwise uneventful voyage is a sense of suspense once Bowman and Poole begin to suspect that something about HAL is amiss.
After a series of odd ship malfunctions and unusual behavior from HAL, both men are convinced that the supercomputer should be disconnected to assess the extent of its defect. This disconnection, however, proves to be harder than expected, as HAL was programmed to stop at nothing to complete the mission as he sees it. Bowman and Poole’s efforts lead to one of the best shots in the film: as they attempt to have a private conversation in a space pod, HAL reads their lips and plots his next, lethal course of action against them. The way Kubrick edits this scene, such that we can discover what HAL is doing, is masterful in its restraint: he makes it clear, but doesn’t insist on it, trusting the intelligence of the viewer to piece the parts together.
At the film’s finale comes the famous “star gate” sequence, a fantastic journey of light and sound in which Bowman somehow travels through both space and time. There is never an explanation for the race of aliens that seemingly left the monoliths and provided the star gate. But for me, this was more effective as an unknown invisible presence adds more to the mystery than any actual representation could.
In many regards, 2001: A Space Odyssey holds similarities to silent film. Much of the dialogue, for instance, existed only to show that two people were talking, without regard to the content. For the most part, rather than through dialogue, Kubrick creates impact in the movie through visuals and music. Throughout the film there are stunning long shots of space stations, alien landscapes, and stars paired with famous classical music pieces that work together to provide an almost out-of-body experience. It’s as if Kubrick wanted you to experience the events of the film through the eyes of the unseen aliens, watching their monolithic experiments from afar.
Few films are recognized as truly great, and if they are, it is usually for their complex characters, dramatic dialogue, or poignant plot. However, 2001: A Space Odyssey is remembered for something entirely different: its incredible non-verbal storytelling. Kubrick does not insult the intelligence of his viewers, instead, he provides us with subtle hints and suggestions as to the true meaning of the film. He does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us and expand our imagination. For this reason, 2001: A Space Odyssey is truly transcendent and rightfully remembered as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.