May 29, 2020

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This week, we here at Astroguyz are taking a look at a science fiction cinematic oldie but goodie. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey makes the top of nearly every science geek’s short list of movies that bother to get the science right. And like its sequel, 2010, its just plain fun to look back now that those years have come and gone and see how well reality has held up.

In many ways, 2001 is the superior of the two; the scope of the movie is grand, covering no less than the emergence of human intelligence millions of years in the past and laying out our next big evolutionary leap. The movie itself is iconic; many who have never heard of our seen the film know the familiar build-in notes that are signature to the score or know such quotables as “open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

The film itself is an expansion of the late great Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. In the story and the film, an artifact of extraterrestrial origin is discovered on the Moon. The idea is that it would have been deliberately planted there for us to find only after we had developed the technology to do so. This is an intriguing hypothesis that is also echoed in Clarke’s later work Childhoods End and other science fiction films; we develop radio telescopes/space travel/warp drive, and the aliens promptly come calling.

The big difference in 2001 is that the alien intelligence that seeded the monolith in Tycho crater also has greater plans for man. The film opens on the ancient African plains, and visits a tantalizing time in our evolution; our first steps towards technical intelligence. We would highly advise searching out the paper-back version of 2001, as well as the original story and the three subsequent sequels. The film was light years ahead of its time when it was first released in the late 1960’s, and it doesn’t necessarily spoon feed you the plot like movies today. In fact, the scarcity of dialogue and vivid silence add to the stark beauty of the film, as space unfolds before the astronauts and the audience. One can almost sense a Lovecraftian feel, an unknowable “Other” that can’t be conceived of or expressed. During consultation, Sagan suggested wisely to Kubrick that an alien intelligence should be hinted at rather than presented to save the film from descending into B-movie kitsch.

2001 also presents us with the point at which science fiction film came of age, when rocket ships stopped being cigar-shaped and the future started to look reachable. It also bothered to incorporate such things as zero-g and suspended animation for long duration space voyages, concepts that films still disregard today!

Probably the most intriguing comparison is the depiction of computers and artificial intelligence. True, we may not be able to send men to Jupiter (or Saturn’s moon Iapetus in the book) but HAL 9000 provides an interesting foil into an alternate evolution of intelligence. For the first time, we’re able to sympathize with a non-human entity, a feeling George Lucas would later exploit in the Star Wars saga with R2-D2 and C3P0.

Do search out 2001 for grounding in the classics. It’s hard to believe that it was conceived of in an era when probes were just barely beginning to photograph Mars and Venus, and the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft had yet to reconnoiter the outer solar system. And it’s just plain weird to watch 2001 via streaming web on my laptop, with a live feed of astronauts aboard the International Space Station playing on the other monitor! If I ever go into orbit, I know what DVD I’m bringing…





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