Fifty years on, 2001: A Space Odyssey still feels like the future

With anniversary screenings featuring the film's star man planned for Belfast and Derry, we reflect on the cosmic vision of Stanley Kubrick in 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey has an epic scope as yet unmatched in the history of cinema. It is a film about space exploration and the discovery of how extraterrestial intelligence has influenced the evolution of mankind. The film is a technical marvel with the stunning visual effects created by hand in a pre-digital age. Released the year before Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, 2001 features spectacular images of space travel and a world without gravity, that opened a window into the experience of the astronauts on the Apollo missions.

From the cosmic alignment of the planets that opens the film to the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman through the Star Gate and his transfiguration into a star child at the climax, 2001 is filled with moments of awe and wonder. Perhaps the film’s most enduring legacy has been its depiction of artificial intelligence through the iconic figure of the supercomputer HAL. Director Stanley Kubrick and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke correctly predicted that such issues would shape the world of the 21st century and define our future.

Some critics described 2001 as a profoundly religious experience and Kubrick agreed with this description. He told interviewer Joseph Gelmis: 'The God concept is at the heart of this film. It’s unavoidable that it would be, once you believe that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life.'

The film reveals the origins of humanity to lie in a mysterious black monolith, left by an alien civilisation, which four million years ago triggered an evolutionary leap in human consciousness enabling the transformation from ape to homo sapien. There are three separate appearances of the monolith in 2001, but the alien entities shaping human destiny always remain unseen, like the invisible hand of God, as Kubrick explained:      

'…the religious implications are inevitable, because all the essential attributes of such extraterrestial intelligences are the attributes we give to God. What we’re really dealing with here is, in fact, a scientific definition of God. And if these beings of pure intelligence ever did intervene in the affairs of man, we could only understand it in terms of God or magic, so far removed would their powers be from our understanding.'

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Apes discover how to use bones as weapons in the film's opening act

Although in the early planning stages for the film, Kubrick and Clarke did discuss visualising the alien intelligences in some shape or form, the daring decision never to reveal them at all, gives the film an ambiguous and enigmatic tone. As viewers, we are forced to bring our own emotions and perceptions to the interpretation of the meaning of the mysterious, hallucinatory images and the strange silences of deep space.

This was exactly what Kubrick intended. He described 2001 as 'basically a visual, non-verbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.'

Kubrick believed that audience reaction demonstrated that '2001 succeeds in stimulating thoughts about man’s destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives could never have considered such matters.'

The final scene of 2001 is the most cryptic and mesmeric of all. In an elegant 18th century bedroom, astronaut Dave Bowman watches himself aging, before he is transformed into a Star Child. In his childhood memoir, the Australian novelist Tim Winton has described the intense emotions he experienced watching this scene for the first time.

'…the knowing eyes (of the Star Child) look our way, titled earthward. It’s an extra-human gaze. Startling. And a little chilling. Yet so compelling that even as an eight year old I felt something in myself rise to meet it. A greater intelligence, a sense of cosmic promise, an evolutionary turning point? I can never decide. But in this final moment, Kubrick achieves a kind of apotheosis, a wordless mythic suspension that’s integral to the film’s status as a great work of art.'

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'As a novelist resisting the false shape of ‘closure’ I find this ending endlessly inspiring and intriguing…The poet Robinson Jeffers speaks of the necessity to "unhumanise" ourselves in order to experience what lies before us, but Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke go much further. They seem to suggest that the next stage of evolution is to leave our embodied humanity behind us altogether.'

As part of its Spirit of '68 programme, the Nerve Centre and Foyle Film Festival celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey in September with two special screenings followed by Q&A's with actor Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman). To book for Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry~Londonderry on Wednesday September 26 click here. To book for Odyssey Cinemas, Belfast on Thursday, September 27 click here.