ODYSSEY OF 2001: A LONG,
Some FAQ about Kubrick’s perplexing masterpiece
by Michael Jacobson
A Space Odyssey may just be the perfect film for inviting the
audience to let their reaction to it become a centrifugal part of their
experience with it. I can think of
no other movie in memory that allowed so much personal interpretation—and so
many different ones, for that matter. And
true to their purpose, neither director/producer/screenwriter Stanley Kubrick
nor screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke ever confirmed or denied any of these
With the passing of Kubrick, I’ve noticed much attention
has been paid to this film, the crowning achievement in his brilliant career.
And many of the same questions still come up about the film that were
first being asked some 30 plus years ago when the movie debuted.
(Remarkable, when you think about it!)
Now, I must confess, I don’t claim to have any hidden answers as to
what this or that means in the film. But
this is my favorite movie, and I have watched it literally hundreds of times
(including again on the morning that I began compiling this).
Having said that, please bear in mind that some of what follows are just
the thoughts and opinions I have gathered on this film over the years as I have
watched it, and watched it, and watched it again. Hopefully, I will say nothing too off base.
So here we go…
What is the point of the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence?
Well, it’s very hard to see a point in it if you’re
watching the film for the first time. It
even requires some thought after a few viewings.
Why does Kubrick start his science fiction epic by showing us an ape like
predecessor to man, only to jump millions of years ahead to a space age that’s
still in our future?
The simple reason is, the timeline of the film is meant to encompass the
entirety of human evolution. At the
beginning, we glimpse what man was at his most primitive.
At the end of the movie, we see, though don’t fully understand, what
man will eventually become. And of
course, it’s only right that we don’t understand.
After all, could the ape like creatures at the beginning possibly
understand you and I sitting at our desks sharing thoughts via computer?
Who, or what, is behind the black monoliths, and what is their purpose?
That’s completely open to interpretation.
Obviously a higher intelligence with an interest in our species.
Some say an advanced alien race, some say God.
Kubrick himself has suggested that in a way, it was God, but not the way
we traditionally picture a supreme being.
The world that Kubrick shows us at the beginning suggests
that man has no future. He is weak,
unable to protect himself from other creatures, barely able to find food and
water in the barren lands. When the
monolith appears, it seems to make some kind of “suggestion” to the ape men,
and lo and behold, they learn how to use a tool—specifically, a bone for
hunting. Now they have meat to eat,
now they can defend themselves, and by the end of the sequence, those ape men
who have adopted the tool are even walking upright, whereas the others are still
stooped and crouching. Man now has
a chance to make it in this world.
But the intelligence, whatever it is, had the foresight to
know that eventually man would be coming off his blue orb and out into the space
where they travel. Our nearest
celestial neighbor being the moon, this intelligence buried another of these
black monoliths on the lunar surface. When
we see it being discovered by the astronauts, it emits a piercing signal, which
we later learned is a radio transmission aimed at the planet Jupiter.
It is, in a sense, serving as a cosmic burglar alarm.
It’s letting the intelligence know that man is finally coming.
What does the black monolith mean?
In and of itself, it doesn’t mean anything, it is
something. The black monolith is
simply a means of communication.
Why a simple geometric shape?
The main reason I think is to show how advanced it is.
The more technology advances, the more streamlined it tends to become.
Think of the way the first telephones looked, compared to the cellular
phones of today. They easily fit into a purse or pocket, and don’t even need
wires. Or the first computer, which
took up an entire room, and did no more than today’s pocket or wristwatch
That being said, there is one interesting bit of symbolism
involved. In both cases where man
meets monolith, the first part of it they touch is the corner.
Why the corner? It suggests that it was made by an intelligent hand.
Nowhere in the natural world does a perfect 90 degree angle occur.
This is what sets the object apart as something that was built by an
Why the jump from the ape man throwing the bone to the space travel world
of the future?
Good question. Could
Kubrick be commenting that no matter how advanced we grow as a race, or how
intelligent we think we are, that we’re still just apes playing with our toys?
Is the name HAL really derived by going one letter backwards from IBM?
An amazing coincidence, but apparently not, according to
the adamant insistence of both Kubrick and Clarke.
Why does HAL make an error and then become homicidal?
The question is not really answered in this movie alone.
I learned later by reading Clarke’s sequel novel 2010
what the problem was. The HAL
9000 computer was specifically designed to be perfect; to never make a mistake
or distort information. It turns
out by programming HAL with the truth about the Jupiter mission that no one else
on board fully knew, and forbidding him to reveal it, it disrupted his
programming. Seems that Kubrick had
a clear vision of the computer virus of the future.
Where does Dave Bowman travel to, and how, and what does he become?
Your guess is as good as mine. Something obviously propels him to an alternate world.
Whether it’s just a faraway world or in another dimension altogether is
not answered, but it is clear from the benign though strange setting that awaits
Bowman that somebody or something has been expecting him.
What happens next, not everyone can agree on.
It seems that Bowman progresses from one stage of his life to the next
quickly, briefly glancing each stage before becoming it.
He grows old, infirm, and then reaches the next stage, what movie fans
have dubbed “the star child”. Does
he grow old rapidly, or is this merely a technique Kubrick uses to show the
passing of the rest of his life?
Some interesting theories developed from this.
If Bowman did in fact reach light speed travel, according to Einstein’s
theory, his personal time line would have been affected.
Then again, this may be a new world where time doesn’t flow the way we
perceive it. Or it actually could just be a cinematic device to show the
passing of Bowman’s life. We may
Interesting that when we last see the star child, it seems
to be watching over us. Whatever
he is now, or whatever his new purpose might be, he has clearly reached the next
level of evolving, and we have no way of comprehending what that might be
The final questions are all related to the technical
specifications and effects shots in the movie.
Most of them still have audiences gaping in wonder today.
Are those apes or men at the beginning?
as they look and act, they’re all human.
The costuming and make up was incredible, though, and Kubrick and his
team devised a way to make the protruding faces work with a triggering mechanism
that opened and closed the jaws when the actors moved their mouths.
As well as it worked, I’ve read that Kubrick actually accomplished this
What makes the space travel shots look so real?
Patience, patience, and more patience.
Kubrick designed and photographed these special effects himself (they won
him his only Academy Award). Prior
to this movie, no sci-fi picture ever dared get so close to their spacecraft for
fear of giving away they were only models!
Kubrick’s were models as well, but they were painstakingly detailed.
The shot of the rotating space station where the camera goes in between
the two rings is as convincing as any computer generated effect today.
Kubrick’s ships, like those in other sci-fi films that
followed like Star Wars, presented his
spaceship models against a space background by use of a simple matting
technique. The reason his looked so
much like they were really flying through space was the removal of the matte
lines. When you see other such
films of that time period, even through the 80’s. you can see the lines that
appear around the outline of the ships as they fly.
Matting causes this extra effect, and there’s nothing that can be done
about it. Not good enough for
Kubrick, the consummate perfectionist, he had artists paint out the matte lines.
One frame at a time. It’s
no wonder this film took five years to make!
The results, however, were extraordinary.
No space travel movie prior to the age of computer animation looked as
real as this.
How did Kubrick create the floating pen shot—the pen the stewardess
plucked in mid air and put back in the pocket of Heywood Floyd?
Simpler than you think...the pen was taped with double-sided tape to a large clear piece of plastic that was rotated by hands off camera to create the floating effect. The stewardess just plucked it off the plastic.
How was the effect of Frank Poole’s run around the circumference of
Kubrick designed a set for the main room of Discovery that
resembled a gigantic Ferris wheel. This
wheel could completely rotate, with a cameraman in a harness at the top of the
wheel turning with it. Thus, actor
Gary Lockwood simply ran pretty much in place at the bottom of the set, like a
hamster in its wheel.
Why did Kubrick end up going with the classical music soundtrack rather
than the score he commissioned from composer Alex North?
A maverick director has the right to change his mind,
doesn’t he? ;-)
Actually, Kubrick had a great affinity for classical music, as evidenced
by his use of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange and many of the great composers for the adapted Barry
Lyndon score. He was listening
to classical pieces as a temporary score during the editing process, and found
that the older music simply worked better in creating his overall effect. It’s been said, in fact, that 2001 has the most
famous temporary score in film history! Curious
fans can find the Alex North score on CD for their listening pleasure, and to
imagine how different the movie might have been.
Speaking of alternate music, if you want to see something
really cool, try this: load Pink
Floyd’s Meddle CD, and pause it.
Send it to the last track on the disc, “Echoes”.
Then with the sound on your TV down, go to the final segment of 2001.
As soon as the title
“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” appears on screen, un-pause the CD.
Turn down the lights and enjoy. It’s
uncanny how well the music matches up with this segment.
They even end at precisely the same second!
What is the song HAL sings as he is being disconnected?
HAL calls the song “Daisy”, but it was more commonly
known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”. It’s
hard to decipher because HAL is slowing down rapidly, but the words are as
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!
Did I miss Dave Bowman’s famous last line?
Although this has caused confusion over the years, the fact
is, we do not hear Bowman speak the now legendary line, “My God, it’s full
of stars!” in 2001.
The sequel novel and movie 2010
is where we actually learn about the enigmatic message that was Bowman’s
last recorded transmission. I’m
pretty sure this was the later brainchild of Arthur C. Clarke, and not Stanley
Why did the Oscar for Best Picture that year go to Oliver!
rather than 2001?