In the 50 years since “2001: A Space Odyssey” was first released, on April 2, 1968, no movie has matched its solemnly jaw-dropping techno-poetic majesty. It’s still the grandest of all science-fiction movies, one that inspired countless adventures set in the inky vastness of deep space (notably “Star Wars”), remaking the DNA of cinema as we know it. It completed the transformation of Stanley Kubrick into “Stanley Kubrick,” and was greeted by critics with a mixture of ecstasy and derision (Pauline Kael: “a monumentally unimaginative movie”). But after its shaky original release, which resulted in Kubrick trimming 19 minutes out of it after opening weekend, “2001” was re-marketed as a psychedelic youth-generation cult film (“The Ultimate Trip”), and that’s how it finally caught on.
It remains such a staggering experience, so mind-bending and one-of-a-kind, that you’d be hard-pressed to think of a moment in the film that isn’t iconic. The awesome opening solar alignment, scored to the sweeping fanfare of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which somehow comes to sound … extraterrestrial. The ape that picks up a bone and smashes down a weapon. The mystery of the monolith. The balletic spaceships twirling around Earth to “The Blue Danube.” The yellow eye — and softly perturbed voice — of HAL, the supercomputer that rivals human intelligence, and human ego too. HAL’s showdown with astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), and the computer’s death scene, in which he sings “Bicycle Built for Two,” one of the most haunting moments in film history. The climactic light show that envelops the audience like a hurtling discotheque on acid, leading Dave through a wormhole of space-time, until he sees his ancient self reborn as a star child: a celestial infant baptized in technology.
In the last half century, “2001” has cast its shadow over more films and filmmakers than you can count. You can feel its influence not just in the kinetic grandeur of “Star Wars” — the famous opening shot is pure homage — but in the grit and dread of “Alien,” the transcendental thrust of “Blade Runner,” the floating-in-air playfulness of “Gravity.” You can feel it, as well, in the stoned camera stare of David Lynch, the mystic sprawl of Terrence Malick and the spatial-temporal virtuosity of Steven Spielberg. These are all, in their way, films and filmmakers that reach for the stars. (You could swear, as well, that Michael Jackson styled himself after the star child.)
And by the way: What did it all mean?
“2001” always forced you to ask that question. And it still does. Yet it’s a question that may now be a bit less confounding to answer, since Kubrick’s film, when you see it today, can be experienced as the prophecy of a world that’s only now just coming into existence.
By that, I don’t mean that the film’s vision of everyday space travel, a military moon colony or a future that looks like “The Jetsons” designed by Crate & Barrel turned out to be literally true. No, what’s shockingly prophetic about “2001” is that the film seems to be taking the pulse of the human race just as it’s getting ready to make the evolutionary leap that we, in the digital age, are now swimming in.
The movie isn’t really about space. Its grand theme is that technology can now mimic the intricacies of human feeling, because we humans now mediate — and experience — every aspect of our lives through technology. Transformed, like the apes, by the power of the monolith, we become, in the movie, vessels of intelligence searching for our humanity. Kubrick’s view of all this is both sinister and wide-eyed, ominous and, by the end, weirdly romantic. It’s as if the film were saying: “Relax, let the technology wash over you! Let it … remake you.” The U.S. space program is not what it once was, but in the Internet Age, the power of Kubrick’s vision thrives anew. That monolith now looks like a device designed by Apple. It’s the soul of a new machine.
“2001” wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, but it was the first in which he gave himself over to a kind of trance state, achieving suspense by literally suspending the expectations of the audience. The astonishingly tactile and authentic visual effects have aged a bit, but they can still make your eyes pop. And the miracle of “2001” is that the movie, after half a century, still plays like a bulletin leaked from the future, a message to those of us on Earth from somewhere Out There.
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