The Legacy Of '2001:' How Stanley Kubrick's Masterpiece Changed Sci-Fi And Film

Entertainment | December 14, 2017

Actors Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood in publicity still from motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Photo by Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The powerful science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, was a collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and leading science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick had already established himself as a gifted director with the war film Paths of Glory, the swords-and-sandals epic Spartacus, the cold-war black comedy Dr. Strangelove, and the adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. But science fiction was surprising and risky territory for a serious director -- to date, the genre had been about clunky robots, flimsy sets and unconvincing aliens. Kubrick's film changed all that, although science fiction movies didn't catch up to his innovations for many years after.

2001: A Space Odyssey was a groundbreaking and mind-bending film that introduced us to space and time travel. It was like nothing we’d seen before. Not only was there extraterrestrial life -- hinted at, but never seen -- but the film was a tense competition and showdown between man and computer. It was a real nail-biter.

The film addressed human evolution, extraterrestrial life, space travel, science and technology all in one. It was really deep. Producers responsibly went above and beyond to be scientifically accurate. Additionally, some of the special effects in the film were groundbreaking. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a pioneer science fiction film.

The criteria for a film to be chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry is that it must be deemed culturally, historically and/or aesthetically significant by the United States Library of Congress. 2001: A Space Odyssey has checked all of the boxes and is included in the registry. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential films ever made.

Our Ancestors

2001: A Space Odyssey begins in prehistoric times, with a group of man-apes who lose their watering hole to a rival tribe. Without access to this necessity, the group could die out -- but one of them has a revolutionary idea. He takes up a bone that is lying on the ground and begins swinging it, and notices its power. This is the first weapon. Wielding the bone as a club, this inventor leads his group in an attack on their rivals, and they reclaim their turf. This breakthrough, involving the previously unconsidered ability to kill each other, launches the man-apes on their trajectory of strife and violence, through to the present day, and into the future. The movie cuts straight to this future, and mankind's efforts to explore and dominate outer space.

A Visit To The Moon

In the future (presumably the year 2001), humans are investigating a strange find buried beneath the surface of the moon. It's a large black monolith, matching one that appeared in the opening scenes, without explanation. While the film is visually stunning and its action is entertaining and intriguing (particularly by 1968 standards), much is open to interpretation. The monolith seems important to the plot, though how it works and what it means are open to debate. Excavators on the moon's surface discover that it originated from Jupiter, and was intentionally buried on the moon, by some sort of aliens, four million years ago.

The film then jumps ahead 18 months, to a mission to Jupiter.

The Problem With HAL

Discovery One, a space-faring vessel containing three men in suspended animation, two men who are awake to pilot it, and the computer HAL-9000, is voyaging to Jupiter. Through a sequence of events, and communication with the home base, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole realize that HAL has begun to malfunction, and strategize about what to do next. HAL is aware of the true purpose of the mission, and senses that the pilots' actions might jeopardize it. A struggle between HAL, which controls all functions of the ship, and the humans ensues. HAL terminates the three hibernating passengers, and kills Poole as well. Bowman is left to deal with HAL, which he is able to disable.

What Is The 'Star-Child?'

The final sequences of the movie are the most confusing, and have been debated for decades. Bowman goes on a bizarre journey, possibly through time and dimensions; the audience is left just as uncertain as Bowman is as to what, exactly is happening. He ends up in a small room that is futuristic in structure but the decor is neoclassical. Bowman seems to age rapidly. Kubrick. In an interview that was not published until after Kubrick's death, he described this setting as a kind of human zoo, in which Bowman was being observed, as his life played out, by some kind of alien beings who essentially function as gods. Bowman, old and frail, is eventually transformed into a fetus that we see floating in space, the "star child" that will restart or resume human life on earth.

The Film's Legacy In Film History And The Culture

To quote film critic, Roger Ebert:

2001: A Space Odyssey is a stand-along monument, a great visionary leap, unsurpassed in its vision of man and the universe. It was a statement that came at a time which now looks something like the peak of humanity’s technological optimism.

Tags: 1968 | 2001: A Space Odyssey | Arthur C. Clarke | Movies In The 1960s | Science Fiction | Special Effects | Stanley Kubrick

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.