The Late Reviewer: 2001 A Space Odyssey

April 5, 2018- by Steven E. Greer, MD

50 years ago this week, the great film “2001 A Space Odyssey” was in theaters across America. Co-written by British Stanley Kubrick and American Arthur C. Clarke, directed by Kubrick, the film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but not for Best Picture or Director. In fact, the film was not even nominated for Best Picture. “Oliver” won that category.

“2001 A Space Odyssey” was simply too far ahead for the time and most viewers became frustrated by the existential ending. 50 years later, the film is still holding up well and is thought to be one of the best films ever made.

Back in 1968 when the film was released, the nation was in turmoil. Vietnam was getting ugly, people were protesting the war, people were protesting for the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not be running for a third term. President Kennedy, assassinated five-years earlier, had launched the space program. Americans were seeing images for the first time of the dark side of the moon and earth from space. Space travel was escapism from the struggles on Earth at the time.

When one watches “2001 A Space Odyssey” now, one can spot the importance of the Kubrick cinematography and special effects. The slow pans over long spaceships, giving the impression of size, were used by George Lucas for his Star Wars a decade later in 1977. The input by Clarke added realism to space travel, with rotating space stations to produce gravity, etc. The opening scenes of the early-man ape-like creatures was pioneering with the use of makeup to create ape faces that moved with emotion (Planet of the Apes was also in theaters at the time).

The use of music as an integral part of the plot was a Kubrick innovation. One could make the case that the Johann Strauss II Blue Danube Waltz, and the Richard Straus tone poem Zarathustra, are constants throughout the film just like the black monolith. None of the scenes would have been remotely as powerful without the music. Again, George Lucas realized this with Star Wars too, as did David Chase with The Sopranos.

What is “2001 A Space Odyssey” about? What is that black monolith, which appears throughout the evolution of man from early Homo species, to space traveling man, to artificial intelligence man, to the ultimate form of man that seems to be a fetus overlooking the Earth from a new concept of heaven? Kubrick never explained it to anybody. He wanted viewers to form their own impression based on emotion, just as any abstract painter does.

When one watches the “2001 A Space Odyssey”, perhaps for a second or third time, the ending makes perfect sense, even if there is no good rational explanation for it. There is a visceral feeling of natural order.

Some may choose to view the film from a religious perspective, with the black monolith being a higher power nudging man along, until the species reaches enlightenment. Scientists might prefer to view the monolith as a tool of aliens who travel the universe helping other less advanced species, as Arthur C. Clarke explained in his novel from which the film was inspired. Transcendental Meditation practitioners will view the film as a circular path of rebirth and infinite energy.

They are all probably correct. It does not matter. Just sit back and enjoy it.

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