"2001: A Space Odyssey"
In the 1968 film, humanity attempts to find the origins of a mysterious lunar object using an advanced super computer (Image via Letterboxd)

The Lessons and Legacy of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Stanley Kubrick’s transcendent film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, turns 50 this year and is still providing thought-provoking and relevant life lessons.

Culture x
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
In the 1968 film, humanity attempts to find the origins of a mysterious lunar object using an advanced super computer (Image via Letterboxd)

Stanley Kubrick’s transcendent film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, turns 50 this year and is still providing thought-provoking and relevant life lessons.

Directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is generally considered one of greatest films ever made. In 1969, the film won the Academy Award for special visual effects and was also nominated for directing, art direction and writing. Kubrick’s film modernized science fiction in movies, revolutionized the art of cinema and transformed the way we think about film with its special effects, narrative style, philosophical importance and unusual musical choices.

A part philosophical poem, part space adventure tale; the film casts a long shadow over the sci-fi genre precisely because it embraces such a grand universe and envisions our place in it.

Kubrick depicts past and future in which humans have evolved from apes to astronauts via science and technology alongside humans is a mysterious black monolith that’s primed to propel an enlightened species into a massive and majestic universe in which we are not alone.

We are abducted into a journey that follows the evolution of man; starting with ancient man, progressing to the near-future man and ending with what may be man’s evolutionary next-step to becoming an almost god-like being.

Influence on film

Even 17 years after the titular date, “2001” remains a stunning presence in film history. Its technical achievements are still a cause of wonder and awe, even by today’s standards. “2001: A Space Odyssey” introduces deep-rooted questions about the nature of humanity and our place in the universe that maintain an enigmatic pull on the audience.

The massive set pieces, detailed props and brilliantly conceived special effects and camera techniques are a testament to the original spirit and mystery of the novels the film was inspired by. It’s no question that this film has inspired wonderous sci-fi blockbusters, such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Interstellar.”

"2001: A Space Odyssey"
A look behind the scenes on the ‘2001’ movie set (Image via Google)

The fact that the special effects were made without the help of computer technology is almost unbelievable. Kubrick’s visionary mind is on full display with the costumes, shuttle designs and set pieces that were dreamt up with the NASA designs having not yet been released for another year or so. The scenes featuring Earth and the moon look as real as the footage released of the actual moon landing.

The role of music is not to be lost in all the grand effects. Complementing the film’s sublime visual display are classical pieces that play behind the images. The music in “2001: A Space Odyssey “ doesn’t exist to heighten the action or emotions; instead, it meshes with the images, uplifts them and elevates them to a different dimension. With no dialogue or action for it to underscore, Kubrick uses the classical pieces to evoke feelings rather than our reason or intellect; it encourages us to participate, to question and evaluate all our senses to actively perceive.

As the film recalls the silent era in many respects, from the non-verbal storytelling to showing the literal silence of space, the presence of music is given more weight, and it’s allowed to work alongside the images as an equal. This leaves the viewer to often wonder whether it is the music which flows from the visuals, or whether it’s the visuals that flow from the music. The only thing that is for certain is that the two are inseparable; they enhance each other creating a pure and absorbing audio-visual experience.

Influence on philosophy

Though it was only for a fragment of cosmic and human time, NASA basically did the impossible. They inspired people to momentarily set aside their daily narcissism, exhibitionism, consumerism and tribal warfare to look up at the stars in awe, wonder and reflect upon their past origins and future destiny.

It’s 2018, and we peer into an expanding universe stretching across 100 billion light years looking for ancient aliens, superheroes and space religions to give us a sense of hope, meaning and destiny.

In the wake of Apollo, we found ourselves facing two potential paths into the future. First, we could develop a new cosmic cultural narrative that overcame the nihilism by coming together as one planet, species and civilization into the cosmology of the expanding universe.

Or, we could deny the cosmic nihilism and continue to seek meaning in our pre-scientific narratives (Gods, tribes, careers, corporations, nations, wars, social media, etc.) while maintaining the illusion that we are the end-all and be-all along with tribalism, consumerism and social media tech. Unfortunately, most of society has selected some combination of the latter.

While science has continued to accelerate into the future and deeper into space, most of our cultural ideologies have reversed inward toward pre-science cosmic centrality; symbolized by the narcissistic fixation on Gods, consumption and selfies. So, in some ways, we are going forward, but in many ways, we are going backward.

I love cool space technology as much as the next geek, and I am convinced that there’s fun to be had and money to be made in space, but to me, the importance of space goes much beyond that. I believe spreading to the stars is our manifest destiny, cosmic duty and sacred quest. “2001: A Space Odyssey” showed the need for a 21st-century space philosophy, an entirely new cosmic worldview for the universe given to us by science and technology.

Kubrick said it himself in a 1968 interview with Playboy:

“I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe.

“Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high.

“Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia — less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe — can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken?”

“2001: A Space Odyssey” remains an immortal film, while so many others have already escaped our minds before we walk out of the theater because it occupies our imaginations calling on those real-life experiences where we look up into the sky and wonder what’s beyond.

The film’s many questions: What is the monolith? Why is it there? Who put it there? What really happened to Dave? Are left unanswered, to the benefit of Kubrick’s film.

Do we need to know? Some audiences will think we do — the audiences who have been trained to passively consume films, to take them at face value and listen for the director to spell out for them what to think and what to feel.

Rather than provide an answer to every question it introduces, “2001: A Space Odyssey” shows us that not everything needs to stand for something and that maybe it’s the mystery that makes it worth pondering. If anything, the monolith simply stands for a question without an answer.

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who will look with wonderment and curiosity at the unknown and dare to reach out, touch it, and, hopefully, understand it, and those who react to it with fear, irritation, anger and resentment.

There are only so many people who are brave enough to reach out and touch the monolith, in our case, it’s the movie screen, and allow themselves to let go of preconceptions about what films or any art should be. “2001: A Space Odyssey” may be the film that summarizes these two types of people, not just within the film itself, but in the reaction of its viewers.

What holds true in this film holds true in life; our future is out there among the stars where we’ll find transcendence beyond our wildest dreams.

Writer Profile

Jake Deven

University of Texas at El Paso
Multimedia Journalism

Leave a Reply