It is a sin to write this. Mr. Stanley Kubrick told me so:
2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.1
Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly bypasses verbalized pigeonholing, but that doesn’t mean the film defies explanation and discussion. The present piece will analyze how Kubrick succeeds at the rather lofty goal of creating this “visual experience” by looking at three key cinematic components that Kubrick uses to tell this story. First, we’ll look at aural components like dialogue, music, and soundtrack. Then, we’ll delve into the visual components like special effects and cinematography. Finally, we’ll deal with thematic components, focusing on Kubrick’s use of archetypes. Together, these components produce a rare beauty: a pure expression of cinema and the power that it has to inspire the imagination.
One defining feature of 2001: A Space Odyssey is its scant dialogue. Earlier cuts of the film contained more, but Kubrick chose to remove a lot in editing. What’s left is precisely what Kubrick intended: a film that goes out of its way to explain things non-verbally. The film leaves the interpretation up to the spectator, and communicates its thematic and philosophical ideas almost wholly through the cinematic components of sound and picture.
When there is dialogue in 2001, it is rote, mundane, and practically inconsequential. Most of the dialogue during the trip to Clavius base is useless small-talk. Dr. Heywood Floyd checks in at the information desk, chats with his colleague, and refuses to discuss the “outbreak” at Clavius base with the Russian scientists. On his trip to the monolith site on the moon, his conversation is similarly basic, and is even completely drowns out by the musical score! Without a doubt, dialogue is the least important element of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is evident most clearly during the very beginning and end of the film, each of which stretch for over 20 min without any words at all. The film is bookended by a purposeful omission of dialogue, as if Kubrick is saying to us: “Watch!”. Both of these sequences depict the most important narrative beat in the film: the mysterious Monolith somehow launches the evolution of humanity forward dramatically, first from Ape to Man, and then from Man to Star Child. This evolution is stunningly bereft of words, as Kubrick inspires us through other means.
The music for 2001 A Space Odyssey is all orchestral, chosen specifically for the film, and repeated often. Kubrick mines each of them for cinematic meaning, and even leans on them for thematic power. The major pieces are Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II, and three polyphonic pieces from modern composer György Ligeti.
Also Sprach Zarathustra, often translated as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” or “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, has become synonymous with inspiration, eureka moments, and other discoveries. The portion used by Kubrick is the opening fanfare of the tone poem, and is pointedly called “Sunrise”. Thematically, Strauss’s piece alludes to Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise of the same name, dealing with ideas like man’s ascension to a greater being (die Ubermensch, or “Superman”) and grand metaphysical questions as well (die Welträtsel,or “The World Riddle”). Both ideas are right at home in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where both HAL and The Star Child can be interpreted as an Ubermensch, and the theme of the film focuses around World Riddle type questions of the meaning of life, the direction of humanity, and the nature of the universe. Kubrick’s use of this piece therefore conveys many of the ideas of the film.
Similarly, Kubrick uses The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss II to convey a separate idea, this one more literal: in space, you can’t go anywhere without going in circles. “Waltz” comes from the German verb “waltzen”, which is derived from the Latin “volvere”, which translates as “to roll around, tumble, or revolve”. Of course, space travel is all about revolving around large heavenly bodies, and 2001 demonstrates this fact repeatedly. The Blue Danube is heard in its entirety in 2001: the first two-thirds play from the introduction of the weapons satellite through Dr. Floyd’s arrival at the space station, and the final third plays as he approaches the moon. The use of such a rarefied piece of music also casts space travel as elegant, whimsical, and dance-like, despite the blasé attitude shown by the characters who treat it as routine.
Finally, there are the pieces from György Ligeti: Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra; Lux Aeterna; and Atmosphères. These pieces all share similar qualities, and appear in 2001 as a musical motif to accompany the Monolith and the Stargate sequence. Featuring dense layers of sound textures in lieu of more traditional melody, these pieces defy conventional interpretation and convey the unknowable mystery of the Monolith, its powers, its origins, and the nature of the beings that created it.
Kubrick employed these pieces of music because each one conveys a separate aspect of the film’s theme without reference to words. Zarathustra introduces the metaphysical questions of the film, The Blue Danube translates space travel into an elegant dance, and Ligeti suggests at the existence of an unknowable mystery without revealing a single clue. Truly, Kubrick’s use of music in 2001: A Space Odyssey is masterful.
Another aural component of 2001 lay in the simplicity of the soundtrack. Throughout the film, Kubrick eschews complex mixes and dissonance in favor of very basic ideas. Early on, it is the primal sounds of the apes, tapirs, and jaguars, whereas later it is single pings and beeps of space travel. The track is also often dominated by a single sound, most notably the heaving breaths of an astronaut during a spacewalk. Kubrick’s use of sound is so complete that he even employs absolute silence at times. Though simple, these choices have a profound effect on the spectator.
In the Dawn of Man sequence, the soundtrack is dominated by the sounds of nature: growls, grunts, and snorts. Nothing is emphasized, as though all of the creatures are equal in this survival of the fittest. We see one of the apes succumb to a jaguar, but also see many escape. The simple brutality is presented without comment, at least until the aforementioned musical cues kick in, first when the monolith appears, and later when the ape Moonwatcher innovates the first tool – a club.
Such simplicity isn’t reserved for only the primordial sequences. Later in the film, astronauts are isolated sonically by placing their heaving breaths alone on the soundtrack. This occurs first during the spacewalks to fix the “malfunctioning” equipment, and then later when David Bowman first comes aboard and makes a beeline to shut down HAL. Of course, HAL joins the soundtrack in the latter instance, but Bowman refrains from addressing him until HAL’s pleas become eerily human. Again, Kubrick’s decision to keep the soundtrack simple lets him emphasize specific aspects of the plight of the astronauts, in this case their isolation.
Kubrick even completely omits sounds when the situation warrants it. As David Bowman prepares to blast into the airlock, there is a palpable build-up of sound effects and dramatic score. Then, as the alarm blares, he hits the button and all is silent. In the vacuum of space there is no sound, so Kubrick wisely allows the film to go completely silent until Bowman closes the airlock and an atmosphere can be restored. Thus, the silence is a tool to establish realism. As Bowman blasts into the airlock in seeming weightlessness and without sound, the viewer easily suspends their disbelief.
Kubrick’s acoustic choices, whether they be dialogue, score, or even silence, all lead to a singular conclusion: words and trite explanations are not important for 2001. This film communicates in more subtle ways.
If the aural components of 2001: A Space Odyssey lean towards the subtle, then the visual components go beyond subtle and approach subliminal. We’ll look at two broad categories of visuals: special effects, and cinematography. Throughout the film, groundbreaking special effects infiltrate the spectator’s mind and convince them that the reality of 2001 is scientifically accurate. All of the effects are practical and in-camera, and still hold up nearly 50 years after release of the film. The actual cinematography of the film is no less impressive, as Kubrick uses sophisticated composition choices and camera movements to add additional meaning to the film.
The most obvious special effect in 2001 is probably the use of models for the spacecraft. These ranged in size from about two feet for the smaller shuttles and satellites to a 55-foot “miniature” for the Discovery One. These models were constructed not by special effects artists, but by engineers with an eye towards realism. The ships are then shot with a dizzying array of techniques that include animation and matting, rotoscoping, directly shooting the models with mechanical cameras on tracks, and exposing the film multiple times to show people inside the models. Like much of the rest of the film, very little about the spacecrafts or their operation is stated explicitly. Instead, random instruments placed on the hull of the spacecraft suggest possible functions to the spectator’s mind. In the end, we completely buy that these craft are actual machines that could fly in space.
While in the spacecraft, we’re also treated to an amazing sight that had audiences convinced that Kubrick actually shot in space somehow: weightlessness and a zero-G environment. We’re first exposed to this on the shuttle where Dr. Floyd’s pen floats and the stewardess retrieves it. This shot is brilliant in its simplicity: the pen is just taped to a pane of glass that is rotated in front of the camera. We also experience zero-G when she walks up the side of a hallway and leaves the screen upside-down, without any cut or movement of the camera. We see a more sophisticated version of this shot in the Discovery One, where David Bowman runs along the centrifugal wheel, but both are done with the same basic technique. Kubrick actually built gigantic centrifuge sets that would rotate, like a Ferris wheel. Hence, he could keep the camera stationary while the actual set rotated around his actors. This creates the illusion that the person is moving, when in reality they are running in place. An extra wrinkle can be seen in the Discovery One where Dr. Poole is strapped upside-down in his seat while Dr. Bowman “runs” to meet him. Other instances of weightlessness, such as when Bowman blast into the airlock, are achieved using vertical sets with the camera pointing directly upwards and the actors placed in harnesses. Again, this is all in service of verisimilitude.
Kubrick also convinces the audience of another key element of space travel: the lunar surface. Here, Kubrick employed an in-camera effect called “Front Projection”. This technique projects an image on a highly-reflective background material by means of a mirror placed at a 45° angle to the camera. This allows the camera to capture the subject in the foreground, where the front-projection is too faint to appear, and the projected image in the background. This technique is in contrast to rear-projection, where the background image is projected on a screen from directly behind the subject. Front projection was cutting edge at the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was in use until the invention of green screen CGI effects. Kubrick’s use of front projection transports the audience to strange locations like the African savannah from 4 million years ago and the surface of the moon. Kubrick’s technical prowess is so exact that these sequences look flawless even today.
Finally, it would be foolish not to remark on the astounding visuals used to dramatize the Stargate sequence, created using an animation technique called Slit-scan photography. This entails shooting an image through a slit with long exposure and a moving camera, and is very expensive and labor-intensive. The result is the kind of psychedelic distortion and flow of colors that is on display during the Stargate sequence. Many different images were photographed with the technique to build the sequence, and the result is a mind-bending trip that is incomprehensible from the perspective of Dave Bowman (and, by extension, the audience). Nowadays, this technique is usually generated in a computer, but slit-scan photography is completely mechanical and in-camera.
Kubrick uses cutting-edge techniques and develops groundbreaking special effects throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey. Regardless of the specific technique, each adds to the same brilliant cinematic vision: a scientifically realistic world that encourages the viewer to contemplate the mysteries of the unknown.
Cinematography and Editing
When Kubrick isn’t crafting novel special effects for his camera to capture, his cinematography (by way of Geoffrey Unsworth) infuses each frame with cinematic meaning, again augmenting Kubrick’s professed purpose to communicate with his audience in subtle ways.
We’ll begin with the framing and composition of various shots. Generally speaking, in 2001 humans are small and their environment is large. For instance, when Dr. Floyd is speaking with the Russian scientists about Clavius base, the scene is framed so as to draw attention to the vast expanse behind the actors. Similarly, when Floyd is giving his speech on the Moon, though he is obviously the focal point of the scene, he is shown in the deep midground. In this same scene, he walks out of frame and then comes back into it, with the camera only adjusting very slightly. Later, there are many scenes where the astronauts are shown moving away from camera and becoming very small, or even tumbling off into space like a ragdoll. The camera is very stoic and objective, perhaps showing humanity as small, weak, and incomplete and hinting at the presence of an advanced intelligence observing us – thereby foreshadowing the transformation into the Star Child by means of that civilization’s technology.
Kubrick’s use of color is also pointed. Deep reds are used throughout the film, and is easily the most prominent color in the film. It shows up in furniture and dressings around the space stations, as well as the iconic red eye of HAL. It’s a very passionate color, but also a dangerous one that inspires primal fears like injury and death. The entirety of the HAL murder scene is doused in red light, a particularly grisly hue. Then, of course, the Stargate sequence explodes with dichromatic weirdness and extreme colorplay, expanding the palette of the film beyond the relative doldrums of the previous two hours. By beginning with a naturalistic and sterile use of color and then challenging the spectator with a panoply of dazzling visions, Kubrick again dramatizes the transformation from a lower state of existence into the infinite possibilities of a higher level of being.
Kubrick doesn’t just exploit what is on the screen, but the way the camera moves and how the shots are cut and edited together. The Dawn of Man section liberally fades-to-black to transition between scenes, giving the sequences a kind of punctuate rhythm as though each day in the life of these apes is just as brutal, unforgiving, and dark. Later in the film, as humanity has evolved, such fade-to-black transitions are absent, but Kubrick has other tricks. The most famous match-cut in cinematic history, joining the inception of mankind’s earliest weapon and his latest one, is a sheer stroke of brilliance, transporting the viewer through 4 million years of history at break-neck speed.
When Dr. Floyd first sits down with the Russian scientists, Kubrick blatantly breaks the 180° rule, a subtle suggestion that Floyd’s cover story is meant to confuse and obfuscate what’s really going on at Clavius base. In the same scene, a blue sweater appears and disappears between the shot-countershot of the conversation. We might think this is simply a mistake, except earlier in the scene when Floyd was walking down the hall, a woman on the PA system reports a blue cardigan available at the lost and found. Perhaps this is Kubrick again suggesting that nothing involving Dr. Floyd is quite as it seems.
Most of the film is shot objectively, meaning that the camera observes the action without participating. However, in the crucial sequence as the scientists walk towards the Monolith on the moon, Kubrick employs hand-held cameras. This places the spectator in the scene, among the scientists. The aforementioned centrifugal tracking shots in the Discovery One accomplishes a similar effect, allowing the viewer to feel as though they are another member of the crew.
Kubrick was always a visual director, obsessed with composition since his early days of working as a still photographer. But the way he used cutting-edge special effects and classical cinematography techniques to suggest complex ideas in 2001: A Space Odyssey may be his greatest achievement.
Mythological / Archetypal Components
2001: A Space Odyssey is pregnant with complex philosophical ideas, and a specific roadmap to those ideas and their interpretation was anathema to Kubrick:
You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.1
So, suffice to say that there are a lot of ideas in 2001, almost certainly more than will be discussed here. But, the crucial insight is that Kubrick specifically chooses to address archetypal questions, those that get to the very root of what it means to be human, what it means to be intelligent, and the nature of the universe. Questions like these are understood on a fundamental level, so once again Kubrick is able to communicate with the audience non-verbally; in this case, through shared fears, myths, and archetypes.
This intellectual “discourse” begins with primordial fears known to all humans: fear of violence, death, and the unknown. Most of these ideas are depicted visually during the Dawn of Man section, and left up to the interpretation of the audience. Though we are only gazing upon a group of ancient apes, it hurts us palpably when a jaguar focuses its glaring eyes on one and picks it off. Though we understand that prehistory was brutal, we still balk at the violence of the fight between the apes, especially since one side is unarmed and woefully outmatched. Here, Kubrick also introduces the fear of the unknown, when the apes first discover the Monolith and are immediately fearful. Four million years later, though Dr. Floyd is much more evolved and sophisticated, it is easy to see that he shares an eerily similar fear with his ancient ancestor.
Fear is certainly a part of being human, but nothing defines humanity quite as completely as our particular brand of intelligence. 2001 directly ponders the nature of that intelligence, its ultimate source, and our attempts to imitate it through facsimiles like HAL. Furthermore, there is also a definite hint at alien intelligences, and how they may differ from ours. In the film, all of these concepts are unified in the Monolith – a piece of alien technology meant to foster the ascension of primitive beings into higher states of being. This is first dramatized after Moonwatcher discovers the Monolith and begins handling a bone. As he tosses it back and forth, Kubrick intercuts the flat scene with animals succumbing to blows. This is Moonwatcher’s first idea – his imagination unleashed upon reality! As Thus Spake Zarathustra rings over the soundtrack, Kubrick fuses it all: image, sound, music, editing, and intellectual archetype into a cinematic expression of a singular truth: humankind thinks.
Human intelligence is not shown to be fundamentally different later in the film. Instead, Kubrick’s sights turn to HAL and the concept of artificial intelligence. HAL is shown to be a superior being in terms of pure intelligence, having never made a single mistake and besting his human companions at chess with ease. However, Kubrick may be suggesting that HAL competes on an unfair playing field: the chess game shown on screen is over the moment we see it, it is mate in nine moves for HAL, regardless of what Dr. Poole does. Additionally, this is a chess position from a famous game in history: Roesch, A. vs. Schlage, Willi in Hamburg, Germany (1910). Kubrick was a strong chess player, so he certainly quoted this game for a reason. Perhaps he wanted to show that HAL’s perfection and specific type of intelligence allowed him to completely recall and recreate a winning position, one that Dr. Pool probably didn’t know about. This suggests a brute-force kind of intellect, not necessarily a creative one.
Finally, the climax of the film inspires the spectator to consider the nature of alien intelligences, of something on a fundamentally different level than us. The Stargate sequence and the resulting time/age-shifting of David Bowman, as well as his eventual transformation into the Star Child, all hint at a creature or being that exists and thinks on a different axis than we do. Perhaps this intelligence perceives time differently, or has a different conception of identity, and that is why Bowman is actually observes himself aging in the third person before his final encounter with the Monolith, his enlightenment, and his transformation.
Beyond the Infinite
The final inspiration resounds: what is out there, what is our purpose in the grandiosity of the universe, where have we been and where are we going, and are any of these mysteries knowable? With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick implores us to consider these questions, but he also offers a staunch position: there is truth, and it can be understood. Throughout the film, the auditory, the visual, and the archetypal are used as tools for Kubrick to tell a purely cinematic story, one impossible in any other medium, one only available through the movie screen and one that inspires intellectually.
Thus, the monolith turns horizontal as Bowman enters the Stargate, mimicking the screen on which you are viewing Kubrick’s masterpiece. Like Bowman, your mind expands as a result of the experience, cementing 2001: A Space Odyssey as that rare piece of art that both champions and exemplifies what it means to be “cinematic”.
For other essays on the films of Kubrick, check out the calendar here.