Forty-eight years ago, when the U.S. was on the cusp of putting a man on the moon, the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” hit the theaters. The space age was a big deal. So was science fiction. The coming millennium was envisioned in advanced terms; the future was, well, futuristic. It was a common notion that by the year 2000, people would be zipping all over the solar system in space ships.
Well, that notion didn’t exactly pan out on schedule, but I decided to take another look at this movie anyway. Living in the present that the past viewed as the future offers a perspective too tempting to resist.
I was a little kid when “2001” first hit the scene in 1968. My father took me to see it. Back then, some of the old movie theaters were grand places with polished stone pillars and fancy designs, and we went to one such place.
A grand place was the ideal setting to see “2001,” because it was a movie of grand visuals and music. It was directed by the American Stanley Kubrick and co-written by Kubrick and the Englishman Arthur C. Clarke.
The movie critic Roger Ebert referred to it as a “space ballet,” and that’s a great description. The special effects make the spaceships look real, and they’re often moving, slowly, to a sound track of classical music. It doesn’t have the sort of detailed and linear plot that most movies have, and it doesn’t have much dialog, either.
Most of the movie showcases a space mission. But it starts by looking at pre-human days as apes make the conceptual leap to using tools. It then jumps to spaceships as the tools of modern man. After the space mission stuff, the movie ends on a weird note with the image of a fetus being superimposed on a cosmic background. Don’t ask me what the space fetus is all about, I’ve got no idea. I’m too shallow for deep concepts.
The movie is punctuated by the occasional appearance of a rectangular slab of stone called a monolith. The monolith has obviously been machined into its shape, so it is evidence of an intelligence that is lurking in space.
I don’t recall the monolith being called a “monolith” in the movie. Maybe it was and I just didn’t catch it. Anyway, when I first saw the movie I asked Dad about the thing.
“What’s that big black thing?”
“That’s called the ‘monolith’,” Dad said.
“What’s it for?”
“Have some popcorn,” he answered.
That’s no worse than many explanations I’ve heard, and it’s probably better than most. Anyway, the reason for the one of the movie’s space missions is that a monolith has been discovered on the moon so they want to check it out.
I’m no cinema savant, but I regard “2001” as one of the great movies of all time. However, I don’t think its legacy is very visible in contemporary pop culture and I seldom hear references to it.
The one reference I do catch on occasion is to “HAL,” short for HAL 9000, a computer that is on one of the spaceships. HAL goes rogue and snuffs out all but one of the crew. The surviving member, Dave, manages to pull the plug on HAL.
This leads to the home stretch of the movie, where the spaceship zooms through a time warp and Dave winds up standing inside a bedroom suite seeing himself as an old man. One of the last scenes of the movie is of the old man in bed, and I get the impression that it’s a death bed. Anyway, after that scene, the space fetus makes its cosmic appearance and the movie ends on that mysterious note.
The only shift in perspective I’ve got between when I first saw the movie and when I last saw it comes from Dave seeing himself as an old man. When I was a kid, that seemed morbid and really creepy.
These days, it strikes me as a simple matter of symmetry. When you’re young, you think about all the things you want to do when you’re older, and when you’re old, you think about the things you did when you were younger. Either way, you’re looking at yourself, both past and future. As for Dave, he certainly had his adventures as a spaceman, so old age was probably a graceful proposition for him, and his depiction in the movie is one of a dignified bearing.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth watching. And if you have seen it, but not recently, it’s worth taking another look. The quality and creativity of this movie have set benchmarks that have stood for almost half a century.