2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Spoilers: The film is discussed in depth.

For all the grandeur and awe 2001: A Space Odyssey inspires, it begins humbly. The opening sequence is an extended conflict between two groups of apes over a water hole. These wordless squabbles are over the most basic of needs, a battle of intimidation. The water hole changes ownership out of pure fear, until the initial group returns, this time armed with weapons: bones from dead animals.

This lengthy section works on the most basic and animalistic level, the simple survival of a species. There’s no great drama or deep emotions evoked by the simple squabbles of these apes. It’s a story only concerned with the very tangible and physical components of its players. And while there is a moment of mystery and awe, it serves as the catalyst to the solution of their problems, a means of using violence to regain their waterhole.

The first jump comes when one of the animals victorious casts up his bone in the air and as it soars back to earth, the film cuts to the heavens, a majestic spaceship floating amidst the stars. Here is the progress of man, a future where space flight is as casual as flying in a plane. Man’s mind has crafted such marvels of technology that he has now has joined the celestial dance of the universe amid the vast frontier of space.

The space voyage that follows pits man against his own creation, the most rational of machines, HAL 9000. A battle of wits ensues as the men believe they can outsmart HAL. A game of chess would be a telling bit of foreshadowing, but the astronauts are caught completely off guard by HAL’s sudden shift into the steely cold killer. Only a bit of ingenuity and skill saves Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Duella) from certain death.

Dave goes in into the last and boldest chapter of this tale. Here he slowly watches himself age slowly away, almost completely oblivious to the effects of time, flowing deeper and deeper into the wears of age. And finally, he reaches a bizarre state of being, one that almost defies rational explanation. It must be fully seen for one to even begin to grasp it.

Perhaps the only answer is that he becomes spiritually aware. Physical awareness remains, but in a state separated from space and time. It is no longer the thing that becomes important, but the idea of it, the notion of it, the essence of it. It’s an almost subconscious understanding of physical reality, an awakening into a state where the physical is almost intangible.

The transition from each state to the other is induced by a mysterious monolith. The humans believe it to be an object of alien origin, but these monoliths are captured as almost religious artifacts, something to be worshiped and revered, something divine and mysterious. While it might seem antiquated to spend so much time mulling over what happens in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s such a mystery that it seems the only thing worth reflecting upon.

The majestic visuals, languid pacing and deliberate focus practically demand such attention. It’s a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, which is amazing given that the audience is left grasping what they just witnessed many days after the credits have rolled. Good films will leave the audience satisfied, great films will challenge them to their core. 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the most challenging film ever made.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing