2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Often described as ”having no plot”, this enigmatic masterpiece actually has two and a half plots. The evolution of tools in the dawn of men is a fully fledged plot with a beginning, middle and end, and so is the third story of the Discovery One, while the middle story seems to be only the beginning of a plot. I think that what confuses writers subscribing to no plot theory is that in all of these cases very little in the ending of the two complete plots illuminate or conclude upon what is present in the beginning and the middle in terms of traditional narrative plot elements. Rather, the film is constructed around themes, and I will concentrate here on what I perceive to be the central one: the relationship of human beings to their surroundings through tools.

Signified by the choice of music – Also Sprach Zarathustra, Strauss' wonderful piece that was once a celebration of the philosophy of Nietzsche, before it became a piece primarily about giving cups to winning sports teams and revealing things in movie scenes – humanity uses tools to dominate its surroundings. It is seen in the way Moon-Watcher – the main ape character – uses a weapon to dominate the other members of the tribe. It is seen in how humanity transverses the cosmos and breaks free of the planet that made them. It is seen in how Hal is used by the unseen masterminds of the Discovery One mission to dominate and control Dave and Frank, the astronauts onboard the spaceship, even from afar. It is even seen in the typical Kubrick device of the zero gravity toilet – how does one defecate, where no one has defecated before? Through a tool, of course.

In keeping with the choice of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the movie can be seen as an ultimately celebratory statement about one of the positive traits of Nietzsche's philosophy, namely that human beings must free themselves of objectification and the tyranny of tools to become active enforcers of their will. During the horrifyingly brutal murder of the computer Hal, Dave essentially uses the famous Hammer of Nietzsche to break down the cultural mainstay of human society – the dependence on tools – so he can build himself and by extension all of humanity up as a creature of will and mind instead of a creature ruled by the tools that promised rulership to their owners.

How does a tool-less human function? No-one knows, but the final sequence seems to be Kubrick's musings on this very question.

Kubrick's will to look squarely at the implications and battles of two differing versions of what makes humanity unique and strong is his strongest suit, and his technical mastery of the disciplines of the science fiction film – from worldbuilding to special effects work – is simply the price he had to pay to take this look. Kubrick seems to make technical innovations and marvels mostly as an afterthought, while he is focused clearly on what he finds interesting in his source material. Endlessly open to discussion, we will probably never be done watching, imitating and talking crap about this wonderful picture.


This review is part of a project to review the top 10 films of the 2013 They Shoot Pictures Don't They list. Click here for a handy list of my other reviews in this series.

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