Film Advent Calendar: 2001 a Space Odyssey is an adventure that invites the audience to answer its questions

  • Amazing visuals mean the film mostly escapes looking dated
  • Story told more through visuals than dialogue
  • December 21st on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

Can anyone doubt that Stanley Kubrick was a master of cinema if they have watched 2001?

Not only is it visually sublime, but its composition of different elements that all tie into each other and minimal dialogue to let the visuals tell a story still debated today make it one of the best films ever made.

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
The monolith is discovered on the Moon. Credit: Warner Bros

2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 hard sci-fi space epic directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke and starring Keir Dullea.

The story is told in several parts. In the far flung past, prehistoric ancestors of man begin their journey of evolution after a mysterious monolith appears and apparently teaches them how to use tools. In the near future (although set in our past, we do not yet have the space capabilities of the humans in the film) while investigating a magnetic anomoly on the Moon, scientists excavate another monolith which sends a signal to Jupiter when exposed to sunlight. The rest of the film follows Dave Bowman (Dullea) as he and his crewmates are on a mission to find what received the signal.

The first step towards making this masterpiece was made when Stanley Kubrick approached Arthur C Clarke to help him write the film. Clarke, a renowned hard sci-fi writer, had a good knowledge of what was and was not possible for space travel and how advanced alien races might try to contact us.

The second was to read up on evolution and what possible steps we could take to get to the point of an advanced civilisation, the most important part in realising we are probably somewhere in the middle of evolution rather than being near the end, as most people would assume.

The third was to set out writing an odyssey; an adventure. It has been pointed out that the single red eye of HAL 9000 is highly suggestive of the cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey and the name Dave Bowman could be a reference to Odesius’s skill as an archer, who blinds the cyclops. The last shot we see of HAL is his eye going dark.

The fourth was to assemble a team to create the incredible visuals seen in the film. This film looks like it came out much later than 1968 due to the care and precision the crew took with filming all the sequences. The actors look genuinely weightless in the space scenes. It should also be noted that in 1968, man had not set foot on the Moon and probes were yet to reach Jupiter and take pictures of it, yet the filmmakers absolutely nailed the look.

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea in the pod bay. Credit: Warner Bros

Of course that has led to speculation that Stanley Kubrick directed the faking of the Moon Landing, which of course he didn’t. Do you have any idea how many people it takes to work on a film set? There would be so much more evidence of the fakery if that had happened.

Anyway, back to 2001. The fifth element was to find the right music. Also Spracht Zarathustra, composed by Richard Strauss, has become synonymous with the film. The triumphant yet dissonant, yet ultimately optimistic piece is the perfect choice to accompany the sweeping visuals.

The sixth element was to get the actors to act as emotionless as possible. Because of this we do not need to spend so much time with them, or on dialogue and can focus on what is happening around and to them. We can also understand HAL far more as he/it is portrayed as more human than any of the human characters.

There are many elements and plot points in this film that I could discuss the meanings of, but this article is here to convince to watch 2001 rather than have it spoiled for you, so go do that, then we can discuss what the film has to say about evolution.

2001 is notorious for its ambiguous ending, but Kubrick has stated the ending is largely there to evoke emotion from the viewer and get them to decide what they think it means, therefore saying something about how they view the world and humanity.

If you need a defined answer, however, you can read Arthur C Clarke’s book, which he wrote during the production of the film but more as his own guide rather than a novelisation. The book has several differences from the film (They go to Saturn rather than Jupiter and Dave never ends up outside the spaceship) and gives an explanation as to what is happening at the end. But, that is simply one interpretation, even if it is the writer’s interpretation.

Clarke wrote several sequels as well, which interestingly follow events from the film instead of the book; 2010, 2061 and 3001. 2010 picks up more or less where 2001 left off, but with the scientists on Earth trying to discover what happened to the mission and to Dave. There was a film made of that as well, in which Keir Dullea reprised his role as Bowman. 2061 explores the universe shaped by the events of the previous two books and 3001 explores what steps humanity has taken in its evolution.

The books are all worth reading if you like the predictions of hard sci-fi and how a futuristic world might functionally work or if you are fascinated by the ideas of how evolution worked in the film, but, though interesting, the books do not evoke the same emotion or have as much thematically to say as the film does.

An interesting thing to look out for in the film is the symmetry. The cut from the bone to the spaceship is one of the most famous in cinema, but there are a lot of scenes which mirror each other interestingly, comparing the actions of ‘civilised’ humans to prehistoric apes.

Kubrick truly was a master of cinema and 2001 is probably his most powerful film, as well as being one of the most influential films of all time.

So if you’re in the mood for a sci-fi this Christmas and want to see the film that made people take the genre seriously, then 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film you definitely need to watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
One of the most iconic shots in cinema. Credit: Warner Bros