Film Reviews

2001: A Space Odyssey (Explained: Kubrick's Impossible Odyssey)

A NOTE FROM DYLAN - I ran across this film review of 2001 in The Shattered Mirror and Other Papers on History and Film by J.W. Maxcey. J.W. also wrote a paper in this same volume about the film Head Office called Judge Reinhold Fights Fascism which I borrowed heavily from (with his permission) to record Episode 2 of my Super 70 Podcast. Here J.W. breaks down 2001 in the shortest amount of space I have ever seen. I'd like to share this with you (again, with his permission) because I found it very interesting. You can find his book, The Shattered Mirror, on

This is a reverse film review. If you have not seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, I recommend you stop reading. If you have started the novel, forget it. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke adapted the short story 'the Sentinel' for the film, and the book was released only after the movie. This upset Clarke because it made it look like the book was only a novelized story for the film (which it was). For all the others, let us continue.

If you know me, you know that I am a Kubrick fan. He died on my birthday, 1999, ironically at the time I was having a conversation on the phone with D to the K to the Motherfucking A to the Third Power about Blade Runner. What a betrayal.

2001 was a popular film at its release, though the positive reaction was more for the special effects than for what it meant and the negative reaction was fueled by paying for something so hyped and not understood. Well, I am going to explain it to you, in as short a space as possible, and the first two things you have to realize is that Kubrick was 1) such a detailed oriented person he drove others crazy: buttons on fictional control panels had to press 'down' and this obsession leads to long, patient takes in his films to make points that others - when others use hammers, Kubrick uses a feather.  2) he uses distantiation in films. Distantiation is a film element that drives the audience away because it is uncomfortable and doesn't fit onscreen. This is why a lot of people don't like Kubrick films, but film critics LOVE them. At the end of Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon of soldiers, fresh from murdering a woman in cold blood, march across the wasteland of Hue City singing the theme to Mickey Mouse – that's distantiation. The three minutes spacewalk sequence outside the Discovery in 2001 with nothing but breathing – that's distantiation. Kurbrick's very strange and robotic dialogue in ALL his films (Barry Lyndon is the most guilty here) - that's distantiation. If you hate it, you'll hate Kubrick.

The next thing you have to know is that Kubrick seemingly divided his film not just into halves, which is quite obvious, but into four parts. The first part is the space sequence leading up to the introduction of the monolith on earth. The second starts there with the apes to the changeover to 2001. The third ends when Bowman leaves the Discovery for the last time, and the last quarter is in la-la land. All of these have a point, all these points are simple, and after you've read this you'll wonder why you didn't see it and you'll love the movie. If not, email me and we'll debate.

Now the overriding fundamental thing you must understand about this film is that there is always a witness, always a judge, to each of these four parts. As the audience, you are placed in the each of these points of view to discover something major in each sequence. Let's begin.

The First Sequence:

Space is vast, space is infinite. It is so large and so big, it has to be observed by instruments, essentially tools,  from afar. This instrument is the monolith. Get it?

The Second Sequence:

Obviously an extraterrestrial life has placed the monolith on earth to observe, why else would it be surrounded by apes? Now, you are the monolith. What do you see? Apes. Does anything stand out at you? Hmm. They are curious. They have courage. They have fear. Anything else. Ah-ha!! They have created – I'm not making this up, folks – a tool. Yes, the bone smashing scene is early man's discovery of his first tool. Are you impressed? You should be, it took a few million years to get here! After all, a tool is man's invention to advance. If you were an extraterrestrial placing monoliths all over the universe to observe things, this is the kind of thing you would be interested in. And where does this tool lead?

The Third Sequence:

You guessed it, the tool leads to space. This is where man has taken his ability to advance with tools. And lo and behold, man has used his tools to travel through space and he found – you guessed it – a monolith on the moon.

Now remember what I said about being the witness. If you were the monolith, observing the humans, say, checking up on them after the last time you saw them, what would you see? What have humans accomplished with their tools?

Oh. He takes a picture. How underwhelming. Man might as well brought his Hawaiian shirt to the moon.

Fast forward to the Discovery, which is sent out with its crew (most of them hibernating) to discover the only other monolith in the solar system near Jupiter. How does man know its' there? The one on the moon spoke to it, of course. Remember that high-pitched whine?

So, on the Discovery, who is now the witness? You guessed it, the HAL 9000 computer, the all seeing, all knowing, neuro-network system that keeps the crew alive and enables them to travel in space. Now. You're HAL. What do you notice about humans? They're boring. They can't play chess. They need an artificial sun. Last, but not least, they cannot survive without you. What is it like knowing that man absolutely can not survive without his finest tool? Can you say, 'God complex?'

But then, just when you've figured out you're a God, you make a mistake (remember, there was nothing wrong with the satellite dish). Man, in his primordial state of fear, finds that he is not in control of his tool (like the floating pen from the flight to the moon). A standoff ensues and the tool wins the first round. Bowman is trapped outside the Discovery.

BUT – man has something computers do not. He has courage (you learned that from the ape, remember). Bowman gets back onto discovery and disables HAL with, of all things, the SIMPLIST of all current tools…the screwdriver. Man wins the second round.

But this fait accompli still leaves man where he does not belong. He is a fish out of water, and he is faced with certain death…unless…

The Fourth Sequence:

With no way home and with nothing better to do, Bowman decides to risk all to make contact with the monolith. Forget the really cool graphics and the kooky bedroom; just say the monolith is observing man again. What is it observing? Well, man's death, of course – remember he can't survive in space.

So for his last supper, courtesy of the monolith, Bowman drops a glass of wine. He studies it because he notices something – and the monolith notices it, too. Container, wine. The container is broken, but the wine is still there. Like the human body grows old, it is discarded. But what happens to the soul? Man has yet to figure it out. But now, thanks to Kubrick, man has figured it out – and is about to make the next evolutionary step…and without tools.

Man can't go on relying on tools. They hold him back. They replace him. Hell, they even try to destroy him. And if it weren't for man being so unpredictable, he would have disappeared ages ago.

So where is man going without tools? Without a container for his soul? Kubrick has always left his films open to conjecture, and 2001 he really leaves open at the end, but when you see the starchild, the fetus born of the universe, I think you get it. Even Einstein said once we figured out how to use all of our brain, we wouldn't need it or our body any more. Whatever existence man makes after that, that is the starchild.

Get it?

Posted with Permission from J.W. Maxcey