Throwback Thursday: With No Melodrama or Space Battles, 2001 Is Still a Space Opera

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

After a short overture, we’re brought into this film by the opening strains of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” Then the tile card appears. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll know by those musical strains what I’m talking about: 1968’s Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Theatrical poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Theatrical poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s rare for a classical piece of music to capture the feel of a film so well. It’s a tribute to Kubrick, who picked the main musical pieces of the film, that they fit so perfectly. They are purposefully paced to allow the images to breathe. Rarely does dialogue overlap music in the film or vice versa. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s broken into four main sections: the dawn of man; discovery of an unexplained monolith on the moon; the trip aboard the spaceship Discovery heading towards Jupiter; and the final section, which is generally referred to as beyond the infinite.

The first section showing the dawn of man lasts approximately 20 minutes and shows apes being influenced by a strange monolith. One tribe starts to evolve and learn how to use tools, fighting off another tribe to protect their watering hole. We’re shown two deaths in this opening sequence: one by a cheetah on an unsuspecting ape, which is violent, but it’s the second death when the smarter ape tribe takes bones and uses them to attack the other tribe that stands out more. They’ve learned how to kill, much more efficiently than the other tribe had. Is this what it means to evolve? There has to be more to life than that.

An ape discovering tools.

An ape discovering tools.

In one of the most memorable moments, we have an ape throw a bone up in the air, which is then match cut with a spacecraft. In a brilliant segue, we’re instantly thrust into the future. The spacecraft docks with a space station while “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss plays. The visuals match up perfectly to the rhythm of the waltz, and we see what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to it. Twenty-five minutes into the film we get our first bits of dialogue, but it doesn’t feel like it’s taken that long. We find out what has brought Dr. Heywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester) to the moon. A monolith has been discovered, and it has beamed a signal to Jupiter. After this brief exposition we’re moved forward in time 18 months later, now aboard the Discovery on its way to Jupiter to find out more about the signal. We are then introduced to Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea); Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood); and their ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000. Something isn’t quite right with the mission, though, and as the rest of the film unfolds we learn things about the crew and ourselves.

Dullea and Lockwood do a great job anchoring this portion of the film. Once again, there’s not a lot of dialogue, but we’re firmly committed to hoping these men succeed. Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL does so much to induce paranoia by just being a bright, red eye. So many filmmakers have tried to capture AI gone wrong (Tron, Wall-E, AlienThe Matrix), and all of them owe a huge debt to HAL.


This eye makes you want to look over your shoulder.

The less said about the final segment the better. It’s definitely open to interpretation. I revisit the film about once a year, and it holds me every time. There’s some amazing coloring and negative-image effects. There’s a sequence in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that tries to pay tribute to this section when Spock tries to enter V’ger by himself. It is a little 1960s in some of the feel, and I get the impression that Ken Kesey could have done one of his acid tests while watching this portion.

Still frame of Dave during the beyond the infinite segment.

Dave is inquisitive, and a little scared, as to what he’ll find in the monolith.

Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on the story together, and Clarke ended up writing four novels based on this idea: 2001: a Space Odyssey2010: Odyssey Two2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey. I firmly admit that I’ve tried reading the series a number of times, but Clarke’s writing style wasn’t to my liking. However, there’s a lot of great philosophy and thought that goes into them. More power to you if you enjoy them. I think Kubrick’s way of storytelling works much better for me.

There isn’t a lot of action in 2001; there are no space battles or lasers, but what is shown is riveting and breathtaking. This is space opera of the philosophical kind. Are the monoliths god or alien? What is their intent? You come out of this film either loving or hating it, but you will definitely want to talk about it, whether it be about the cinematography, the music, or even where the 1960s thought we would be in 30 years (surprisingly getting a lot right—from personal computer pads to video calls).

Negative exposure can make any vista look alien.

Beyond the infinite. This is either a futurescape or an inward exploration.

2001 typically falls into a lot of “best of” lists. Did you know there’s a sequel? Filmed 16 years later, 2010: The Year We Make Contact follows a crew of Russian and American explorers as they work together to find out what happened to the original Discovery mission. Shot in 1984, there’s a lot of Cold War paranoia but also a strong message at the end of the film. It did moderately well at the box office but not well enough to film the rest of Arthur C. Clarke’s written sequels, which is a shame. It’s a solid film, starring Roy Scheider (taking over the Heywood Floyd role), John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, and Keir Dullea reprising his role. Any sequel to the original would be considered a letdown due to the groundbreaking nature and almost instantaneous “classic” moniker applied to it, so 2010 had an uphill battle. It’s a much more straightforward film. Where Kubrick wanted people to take away their own interpretations and purposefully limited dialogue, director Peter Hyams relies on more standard plotting. I would urge folks to re-examine it, though. It’s a well-crafted film that has solid script, acting, and special effects.

Screenshot from 2010. 2 spaceships, a planet, and a monolith.

Massive screenshot from 2010. Two spaceships, a planet, and a monolith.

I highly recommend both of these films. They have different moods but explore similar themes. 2001 is more of a chamber piece, whereas 2010 would feel right at home with the morality plays of Star Trek. The visuals in both films are well done, with Kubrick’s effects being groundbreaking and awe-inspiring. We feel the size of these galactic things in 2010, but there is a different sense of gravitas. There is a standard film score in 2010, which belies the plot but doesn’t stand out as much as Kubrick’s picking of classical pieces in 2001.

2001: A Space Odyssey can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. You can find 2010 on Blu-ray and DVD as well. Neither are currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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