EMPIRE ESSAY: 2001: A Space Odyssey Review

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In the year 2001, a monolith is discovered on the moon, and is determined to have come from an area near Jupiter. Astronaut David Bowman, along with four companions, sets off for Jupiter on a spaceship controlled by HAL 9000, a revolutionary computer system every bit man's equal...


Of the many questions thrown up by 2001, the most frequently asked is, quite simply, what the hell does it mean? It remains the most frequently asked because no one, least of all Stanley Kubrick, has ever furnished a satisfactory answer. In consequence, the film invites personal interpretation perhaps more readily than any other in the history of cinema.

One widely held theory is that it's about mankind's tenuous alliance with technology and how in freeing himself from enslavement to it, he is reborn to a higher plane of existence. And there is a thematic thread braided into the film's four chapters to support the idea. The film opens with a breathtaking shot of the Earth, viewed from the dark side of the moon with the sun rising in the distance. All three are in perfect alignment. We later learn that when celestial bodies are seen in this configuration, it augers a momentous event, and that is certainly the case here.

The first sequence, The Dawn Of Man, features the notorious man-apes, who are coaxed over a crucial evolutionary boundary by a mysterious alien monolith. At the monolith's bidding one of the apes, who are on the brink of extinction, hefts an animal bone above his head like a club, heralding the birth of Man's long and troubled relationship with technology. The club, almost immediately employed as a weapon of murder, is not only the means of man's salvation, but also of his potential destruction.

In the most celebrated match cutin cinema history, the man-ape throws his primitive club into the air where it transforms into a satellite orbiting the moon. Time has jumped forward four million years to 200IAD. The opening sequence of TMA-1, where the shuttle carrying NASA scientist Dr Heywood Floyd docks with the space station, is probably the most famous in the film. It is a beautiful, languorous ballet of spacecraft wheeling against the stars, meticulously choreographed to the strains of The Blue Danube.

Floyd has been sent to investigate an alien artefact recently unearthed on the moon's surface — a four-million-year-old monolith, emitting an enormously powerful magnetic field. In another startling scene, Floyd and his team approach the monolith which suddenly lets out a piercing, siren shriek. It is announcing Man's arrival at a second key stage in his development: he is about to leave the safety of his own environment and reach out into the deep unknown.

The star of the third chapter, Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later is, of course HAL, the hyper-intelligent computer who controls the expedition ship Discovery and in whose hands rests the fate of all on board. Although HAL is believed to be infallible, he makes an elementary technical error and, in an effort to cover his tracks, attempts to kill the two-man crew of the Discovery and their human cargo of scientists held in suspended animation.

Exactly why HAL screws up will be debated till Doomsday (the 1984 sequel 2010 proposed a fundamentally flawed solution) but the fact that he does and then retaliates with murderous intent is the turning point of the film. When HAL fails to kill astronaut Dave Bowman — who he knows has plotted against him — and Bowman methodically shuts down HAL's scheming data banks, Man has finally, after four million years, released himself from bondage to his tools. HAL's death is an oddly moving scene, and loaded with significance. But it is not purely symbolic, as the extraordinary final chapter makes clear. As Bowman leaves the crippled Discovery in an escape pod, the film goes into hyperdrive. Jupiter and its moons are seen in alignment and the monolith reappears — a sure-fire tip that something big is about to happen. And, indeed, this is the moment chemically inclined members of 2001's original audience were waiting for. Underground magazines published guidelines on when to drop tabs of acid so they would kick in at precisely this point — Bowman's mind-blowing journey across the universe and the awesome light show that accompanies it. Here, the slow-burning narrative fuse touches off a powder keg of abstraction and colour-saturated psychedelia. It's a mesmerising ride.

At its end Bowman arrives in a weirdly stylised, luxuriously furnished room. In this room he encounters himself, first as an elderly man and then as a frail, wizened figure clearly close to death. Supine in bed, Bowman stretches out his hand — just as the man-ape and Dr Floyd have done before him — to touch the monolith, which has appeared in the room. As he does so, the film's astonishing denouement is reached and the foetus of a Star Child manifests itself at his feet. Bowman — or his physical being at least — is gone, and as the monolith fills the screen we're back where we started with the Earth, the sun and the moon. But this time they're seen from the perspective of the Star Child, the symbol of Man's rebirth and his ultimate destiny.

Well, that's one theory. Some people think it's all about food. Either way there's a lot that is never explained — chiefly why an alien lifeforce should have decided to prod man's evolutionary urges in the first place. Is it a religious allegory? Is it a massive in-joke perpetrated by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke on messianic sci-fi fans? We'll never know, and that is all part of the fun. Even without the acid.

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Whatever secret — if any — lies at the heart of 2001, certain things are beyond question: it is a work of considerable genius and an unerringly satisfying, utterly unique cinematic experience.