AFI film school #12: 2001: A Space Odyssey — A movie and a monolith


I have to admit: doing these film analyses of the AFI top 100 movies is a daunting task. Not only is it a LOT of movies, but they’re all ones that are considered by film people to be the best (well at least the best American ones), movies filled with a ton of nuance, some of them I’m seeing for the first time.

And then we get to Kubrick. Kubrick is one of the best but most enigmatic filmmakkers to ever step behind the camera.

I do love his movies. Part of his magic, though, is that he never lets you totally understand him. He’s like a mysterious lover who lets you in but only so much.

Hell, an entire documentary was made on The Shining, filled with people’s widely-differing interpretations of what Kubrick was trying to say in it, and I can say with a fair amount of confidence that none of them were quite right.

And this particular one is often considered his crown jewel. A case could be made for this being the greatest film ever (cause I;ll have hell to pay if I call it a movie--it’s a film), certainly a case for it being the greatest American art film ever.

I can’t hide behind the excuse of not being very familiar with it either. I frequently have it silently running in the background of my apartment while I work. So here I go with an attempt of boiling this film down to things we can all understand and learn from.

Following along with the epic podcast Unspooled (who’s thankfully taking a break from their top 100 list coverage, and I can catch up to some of the older ones), we’re going with 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by him and Arthur C Clarke.

One giant leap


This is the part where I talk about what each movie is saying (because for writers/ filmmakers it’s can be all kinds of helpful to know this).

This could be daunting as well, and one could easily sound like one of the people in Room 237, talking about how The Shining was all about Kubrick confessing that he faked the moon landing, but fortunately, he’s flat-out said what 2001 is about:

“Mankind must take the next step forward.”

It’s simple, and it makes sense with everything we see in the movie. Sorry, film.

The chimps are the first ones to take this step forward. They discover weapons and teamwork in order to defeat their enemies, taking the pivotal step towards becoming human. Of course, this step towards becoming human is filled with violence, but it’s progress, and that’s the only thing this step is concerned with.

Mankind takes the next step forward with it’s voyage to the moon. The matchcut from the chimps to the humans on the spaceship is millions of years later (the biggest leap in any matchcut ever), but it’s all part of the next step: evolving technology to the point where we can leave the planet.

The next step is only eighteen months later, and it’s not a technological one (since Kubrick optimistically thought that once we we’re able to get to the moon, getting to Jupiter would be easy). It’s a humanistic step. It’s man overcoming the weapons he created in the first step mixed with the technological advancement he created in the second. HAL is a weapon, a technologically advanced weapon, turned against us. A man, alone, without the aid of his humanoid tribe, must overcome the weapon.

And then the last step is a mysterious one. Dave goes through the black hole, ages, dies, and is reborn as a space baby. This is a step into the unknown and probably a suggestion that no matter how advanced we get, we’ll always be evolving.

The monoliths are one of the most interesting piece of this story. They appear with every step that mankind makes (the chimps find one, there’s one in the moon, there’s one near Jupiter, and there’s one on the other side). It’s unclear if these are placed there by aliens, deities, or anything else, but it doesn’t really matter.

They are clearly real, as the chimps react to the one they see, and then the humans are lead towards them. But however they get there, they definitely act as motivators for us to take that next step.

What can be taken away


And now this is the part where I usually mention specific things that each movie does well, and what you can learn from it.

But 2001 is such an aesthetic journey, I think it’s better to instead break it down to things it does auditorily, visually, and narratively to create the experience that is this movie.

Sorry, film.


It’s interesting to note that while 2001: A Space Odyssey is so devoid of dialogue (there are many scenes, and even entire segments that have none), it makes a lot of use of both sound and music.

The sound in the film tells a story. From the primal of the ancient past  to the futuristic sounds of space, we can see the differences our advances. The screeching of the monolith convey something wonderful, mysterious, and  scary at the same time. It breaks through the silence on the moon and makes us feel as though there’s dangers bigger than any leopard ahead.

The music that Kubrick chooses are great examples of human achievement. Purposefully going with some of the strongest classical compositions playing the score to the human achievement of space travel. The choice to have “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (you know, the one that’s played a bunch in this) bookend the film and be the segue music between the hominids and men remind us that this ultra famous music didn’t appear out of nowhere but was created by us.

I have to believe Kubrick was at least partially inspired by one of my favorites: Fantasia. The way the music matches the action  in some sequences makes for such a fun experience to watch, and it sucks us in a way that dialogue could never quite do.

The silence in the film is also purposeful, like when the astronauts go through their daily routines and when Dave is alone. It shows how alienating technology can be, especially compared to the comradery of the chimps at the beginning.

Lastly, regarding sound, is HAL’s voice. He could have been made to sound scary or at least angry. But he doesn’t. He sounds every bit as calm and gentle as a parent talking to a child. He has no malice. He’s just a runaway weapon of human creation, turned against us. His calm demeanor is more disturbing because of that.


Whether you love or hate 2001, I don’t think anyone can argue against its beauty.

Every scene, every shot, every paused frame is gorgeous.

Kubrick is known as a man who’s obsessive about his work, dozens and dozens of takes for some shots just to get them right. But here it really pays off.

He wants the images of the film to be as stunning as the music he chose and the message he’s conveying. I think he succeeds. Every frame looks as though it could be a painting or a famous photograph, and put together it’s moving art.

The beauty of the images is hard to talk about and maybe as futile as trying to describe music, but that kind of unspeakable awe is what makes it so special. It’s a lot of work, but only obsessiveness like that could create something like this.


I already talked a lot about the story and what the film is saying, but one of it’s most interesting aspects is that it’s broken down into four distinct mini movies.

Kubrick is often known for adapting a screenplay by taking what he finds interesting in the original work, and then chucking everything else. The short story, “The Sentinel,” which 2001 was based off of, featured only a snippet from the second part: some astronauts discovering a mysterious artifact on the moon, and the narrator speculating that it was left there by some advanced alien species to communicate with us.

Kubrick took that seed and created a bigger whole from it.

It is interesting to note, though, that Arthur C Clarke later wrote a full novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey which had a story much more similar to the movie; howevs, it was written concurrently with the film and was released after it.

These short stories that make up 2001 are all simple, but they work together to create a huge idea.


On another film podcast, Filmspotting, a question has often been posed: what movie will be the most remembered thousands of years in the future?

While host and guests suggested a lot of interesting options, I  really believe it might be this one.

Not only does Kubrick make an interesting, profound statement, mankind should always be taking the next step forward, but he takes the step himself with the film.

A movie that conveys this message, with the kind of visual and audio achievements that makes, becomes itself both the message and the inspiration. And if the film/ Kubrick wasn’t so mysterious and open to so many different interpretations, then it probably wouldn’t succeed in this way.

It’s as though Kubrick is the alien species (which would explain oh so much) and this film is the monolith.

In this case, hopefully, far into the future, when we’re all giant space babies, we’ll still have this to look back on and remind us to keep going.

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