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Encyclopedia > 2001: A Space Odyssey
A movie poster from the original release of 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is an immensely popular and influential science fiction film and book; the film directed by Stanley Kubrick and the book written by Arthur C. Clarke. The story is based in part on various short stories by Clarke, most notably "The Sentinel" (1951). Kubrick and Clarke collaborated on the screenplay, from which Kubrick created the movie and Clarke wrote the novel. For an elaboration of their collaborative work on this project, see The Lost Worlds of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, Signet., 1972.

The film is notable for combining episodes contrasting high levels of scientific and technical realism with transcendental mysticism. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1972, "Quite early in the game I went around saying, not very loudly, 'M-G-M doesn't know this yet, but they're paying for the first $10,000,000 religious movie.'" This film won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in 1968.



NOTE: Due to the fact that the film conveys almost all ideas visually and ambiguously, it can be interpreted in many ways. The following synopsis is merely one interpretation.

The alien monolith excavated on the Moon

In the background to the story in the book, an ancient and unseen alien race uses a mechanism with the appearance of a large black monolith to investigate worlds all across the galaxy and, if possible, to encourage the development of intelligent life (the monoliths are perhaps Von Neumann probes, although the segment explaining this was cut from the film). The film shows one such monolith appearing briefly in ancient Africa, three million B.C., where it influences a group of our hominid ancestors, causing them to learn how to use weapons.

The film then leaps millennia (via one of the most startling jump cuts ever conceived) to the year 2001, showing humans travelling to Clavius base on the Moon and investigating a magnetic anomaly in the Tycho crater, dubbed TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly #1). When excavations there uncover a second monolith and expose it to sunlight, it emits a powerful signal toward the outer solar system. As Kubrick told interviewer Joseph Gelmis, "you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man's first baby steps into the universe -- a kind of cosmic burglar alarm." The movie then focuses on a subsequent manned mission to the Lagrange point between Jupiter and its moon Io to investigate the signal's receiver.

Living space in Discovery. The "hamster's cage" design of the living space provides artificial gravitation.

(The book version instead details a trip to Iapetus—a moon of Saturn—by way of Jupiter, using an interplanetary navigation technique known as a gravitational slingshot). According to Clarke, in the foreword to the 30th anniversary edition of 2001, this destination was removed from the movie version because Kubrick felt the special effects created to depict Saturn and its rings were not realistic enough. Special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull eventually re-used much of his early designs for Saturn in his 1972 film Silent Running.

The ship is manned by a crew of astronauts and an on-board computer called HAL 9000, designed to function as an artificial intelligence, which sees through several distinctive wide-angle cameras located around the spacecraft and speaks with a human-like voice. The scientists sent to investigate the signal's receiver have been placed in suspended animation, and the live crew—unlike Mission Control, HAL, and the sleeping scientists—are unaware of the discovery of the Tycho monolith or the nature of their mission.

Discovery pod bay and astronaut David Bowman in space suit

On the outbound trip, after discussing apparent anomalies in the ship's mission with the ship's captain, David Bowman, HAL reports an unverifiable error in the ship's antenna control system. Two of the members discuss the possibility that HAL might be malfunctioning and should therefore have his higher brain functions disabled. HAL discovers their plans, and because of contradictions in his mission plans and directives, decides to eliminate all the humans on board. Kubrick explained, "In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility... Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown -- as HAL did in the film."

To do this, he attempts to work around several safety measures in the ship, but Bowman manages to outwit him. These events gave rise to the catch phrase "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that", when HAL refuses to allow Bowman back into the ship.

A video recording then informs Bowman of the truth about the mission, whereupon he proceeds to complete it in one of the most memorable film conclusions ever. In a special-effects-laden sequence he travels through a stargate to meet the creators of the monoliths. Kubrick explained, "When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he's placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death." The creators are never seen directly: Bowman arrives into a hotel room, which has since become a science fiction cliche for situations where a vastly powerful being must construct a benign environment for a human. He undergoes a transcendence, ending the story as a "star child" with some of the godlike powers of the monolith creators. According to Kubrick, "He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny." However, many choose to interpret the imagery towards the end of the film as ambiguous and metaphoric, ignoring the literal account in Clarke's novelization.

Historical background

While the film's supposed estimate for our technical progress was, with the benefit of hindsight, overly optimistic (though in many cases through lack of political will rather than any technical reason), Kubrick's intense desire for technological accuracy was unprecedented for a science fiction film, especially since the Moon based scenes were filmed before the 1969 Moon landing of Apollo 11.

The film is legendary for the depth and scale of its pre-production research and Kubrick even devised a customised filing system to deal with the vast amounts of information collected. He consulted widely with NASA, with aircraft companies, computer companies and many other research and development groups. Moreover, the film's profound themes about the past, present and potential future of humanity still resonate powerfully today.

A view of HAL 9000's Brain Room in Discovery

The film and Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name share an interesting developmental history, with the book being modified by Clarke based on some of the film's daily rushes, with feedback in both directions.

Music and dialogue


Music plays a crucial part in 2001, and not only because of the relatively sparse dialogue. From very early on in production, Kubrick decided that he wanted the film to be a primarily non-verbal experience, one that did not rely on the traditional techniques of narrative cinema, and in which music would play a vital role in evoking particular moods. In many respects, 2001 harks back to the central power that music had in the era of silent film.

The film is remarkable for its innovative use of classical music taken from existing commercial records. Up to that time, major feature films were typically accompanied by elaborate film scores and/or songs written especially for them by professional composers. But although Kubrick started out by commissioning an original orchestral score, he later abandoned this, opting instead for pre-recorded tracks sourced from existing recordings, becoming one of the first major movie directors to do so, and beginning a trend that has now become commonplace.

In an interview with Michel Ciment Kubrick explained:

"However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you are editing a film, it's very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene...Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score."

2001 uses works by three classical composers. It features music by Aram Khachaturian (from the Gayaneh ballet suite) and famously used Johann Strauss II's best known waltz, "On The Beautiful Blue Danube", during the spectacular space-station rendezvous and lunar landing sequences. 2001 is especially remembered for its use of the opening from Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra ("Thus spoke Zarathustra"), which has become inextricably associated with the film and its imagery and themes. The film's soundtrack also did much to introduce the modern classical composer György Ligeti to a wider public, using extracts from his Requiem, Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna and (in an altered form) Aventures.

In the early stages of production, Kubrick had actually commissioned a score from noted Hollywood composer Alex North, who had written the stirring score for Spartacus and also worked on Dr Strangelove. But on 2001 Kubrick did much of the filming and editing, using as his guides the classical recordings which eventually became the music track. At some point during the editing process, Kubrick decided to use these 'guide pieces' as the final musical soundtrack, and he abandoned North's score. Unfortunately Kubrick failed to inform North that his music had not been used, and to his great dismay, North did not discover this until he saw the movie at the premiere. North's soundtrack has since been recorded commercially and was released shortly before his death. Similarly, Ligeti was unaware that his music was in the film until alerted by friends. He was at first unhappy about some of the music used, and threatened legal action over Kubrick's use of an electronically 'treated' recording of Aventures in the 'interstellar hotel' scene near the end of the film.


Alongside its use of music, the dialogue in 2001 is another notable feature, although the relative lack of dialogue and conventional narrative cues has baffled many viewers. One of the film's most striking features is that there is no dialogue whatsoever for the first twenty minutes of the film -- the entire narrative of this section is carried by images, actions, sound effects, and two title cards.

Only when the film moves into the postulated 'present' of 2001 do we encounter characters who speak. By the time shooting began, Kubrick had deliberately jettisoned much of the intended dialogue and narration, and what remains is notable for its apparently banal nature -- an announcement about the lost cashmere sweater, the awkwardly polite chit-chat between Floyd and the Russian scientists, or his comments about the sandwiches en route to the monolith site. The exchanges between Poole and Bowman on board the "Discovery" are similarly flat, unemotional and generally lack any major narrative content. Kubrick clearly intended that the subtext of these exchanges -- what is not said, what lies behind them -- should be the real, meaningful content.

Narrative through sound

Kubrick's unique treatment of narrative in 2001 is perhaps best exemplified by the scene in which the HAL-9000 computer murders the three hibernating astronauts while Bowman is outside the ship trying to rescue Poole (who is already dead). The inhuman nature of the murders is conveyed with chilling simpiclity, in a scene that contains only three elements.

When HAL disconnects the life support systems, we see a flashing warning sign, COMPUTER MALFUNCTION, shown full-screen and accompanied only by the sound of a shrill alarm beep; this is intercut with static shots of the hibernating astronauts, encased in their sarcophagus-like pods, and close-up full-screen shots of the life-signs monitor of each astronaut. As the astronauts begin to die, the warning changes to LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL and we see the vital signs on the monitors beginning to level out. Finally, when the three men are dead, there is only silence and the ominously banal flashing sign, LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED. Other than the alarm sound and the constant background hiss of the ship's environmental system, the entire scene is enacted with no dialogue, no music, no physical movement of any kind.

Scientific accuracy

In general, the film is extremely realistic: it was one of the few science fiction films to accurately portray space (a vacuum) as having no sound and to have spaceships producing no sound while traveling through space. Its vision of the 'future' is also frequently accurate: space travel (although incorrectly postulated as being commonplace by 2001) is presented as boring; telephone numbers have a greater number of digits than they had in the 1960s; and computers are ubiquitous.

The film's failures of scientic accuracy include the following:

  • The height of lunar mountains was overestimated, as the film was made before the lunar expeditions of the Apollo program, and because meteoric erosion was underestimated.
  • The thermal radiators on Discovery, originally intended to be included, were eventually removed from the design because Kubrick felt they looked too much like wings.
  • An unavoidable technical error is that the dust blown up by the exhaust of the lunar shuttle is seen to billow up from the landing pad, rather than radiate out in straight lines, as would happen in the near-vacuum of the lunar surface.
  • A further inaccuracy seemingly ignored by many commentators is the varying phases of the Earth as seen from the Moon during the landing manoevers of the Aries 1B moonship (an error of continuity as well as science).
  • In the sequence in which David Bowman blows the hatch on his space pod to regain entry to Discovery's airlock there is a shot with Dave rebounding to and fro in the airlock chamber, while his space pod is still sitting just outside the airlock door. Since the pod is not fixed to Discovery, the blowing of the hatch would have caused the pod to move away on the thrust of its escaping atmosphere -- though rather slowly, given a rough estimation of the mass and speed of ejected air, and mass of the pod. This being said, it is not impossible that the ejection procedure involves automatic compensation by the thruster of the pod.
  • Much has been made of the reality of 2001 with regard to its treatment of weightlessness on board the Discovery. The film itself draws attention to this with its impressive tracking shots inside the rotating 'wheel' which provides artificial gravity, and contrasts it with the weightlessness outside the wheel such as during the repair or the HAL disconnection scenes. The scenes in the pod bay where the astronauts are walking are explained by the velcro coating of the floor, which explains the oddly slow pace of the walk.

Among the failures to predict future technology are the ship's computer interfaces, with numerous small screens displaying FORTRAN code, instead of screens with multiple 'windows' and graphical user interfaces. In addition, cameras still require 'film' which needs to be processed rather than being digital. On the other hand, HAL's speech, understanding and self-determining abilities exceed the 2001 state of the art by orders of magnitude.


A sequel to the film, titled 2010: The Year We Make Contact was based on Clarke's book 2010: Odyssey Two and was released in 1984. (The book was published in 1982.) However, Kubrick was not involved in the production of this film, which did not have the impact of the original. (Nonetheless, Kubrick makes a cameo appearance in the film, after a fashion; a photograph of the director is used to represent a Russian premier, seen on a magazine cover.) Clarke went on to write two more sequel novels: 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). To date there has yet to be any serious discussion of filmmakers adapting either for the screen.

The title screen of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001: A Space Odyssey is consistently on the Internet Movie Database's list of top 250 films, was #22 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies and #40 on its 100 Years, 100 Thrills, and been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Spaceship USSS Discovery launching an EVA pod. Note the deliberately non-aerodynamic design of both crafts.
  • Kubrick and his team tried several variants of the alien artefacts. One of the early favoured designs was an octahedron, but Kubrick later rejected this, although a group of octahedral shapes is shown floating in space during the Stargate sequence. A transparent version of the familiar rectangular monolith was also constructed out of perspex, but it proved too difficult to light and shoot effectively and Kubrick then had the prop remade in its final form, which was cast in black lucite. (The book features a black monolith on the moon, the better to absorb solar radiation, but depicts the other monolith(s) as transparent.)
  • It has been claimed that the psychedelic "stargate sequence" that concludes the film, entitled "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite", matches perfectly with the Pink Floyd song, "Echoes", just as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is believed to sychronise well with the movie The Wizard of Oz. [1] (http://www.synchronicityarkive.com/display.php?view=2)
  • The first portion of the psychedelic "stargate sequence" was made using Slit-Scan photography, a camera technique in which bands of color from a thin slit are projected onto photographic film. [2] (http://www.underview.com/2001/how/slitscan.html) The images used for this sequence can be viewed in their original form using Slit-Scan unraveling techniques. [3] (http://seriss.com/people/erco/2001/) Some of the revealed images appear to be photographs from nature (flowers, coral, etc.) and geometric light shapes.
  • It has been frequently noted that "HAL" is "IBM," shifted one letter back. Clarke insists that this is a coincidence; see HAL 9000#HAL wordplay.
  • The book's description of the moon Iapetus curiously closely describes another Saturnian moon, Mimas; this was a coincidence, as images of the moons of Saturn did not become available until 1980.
  • 2001 was filmed at the same time and in the same studios as the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Arthur C. Clarke is believed to have made a brief non-speaking cameo appearance in one scene of the latter film.
  • On January 1st, 2001, at sunrise, a black monolith appeared on a hillside in Magnuson Park in Seattle; it was measured and found to be 1' x 4' x 9'. The monolith disappeared after a few days, presumed stolen.
  • Almost all of the American actors featured were expatriates who happened to be living in London making it cheaper for them to hire.
  • Comedian Ronnie Corbett was employed for the make up tests for the Ape Men but it reported that the results were too disturbing and a much revised approach is seen in the film. Corbett did not act in the film.
  • The 'Dawn of Man' scenes were all filmed in the studio using a system of front projection for the backgrounds as this would not show up on the Ape costumes. There is a give away during the scene with the Leopard as when it turns its head towards the camera its eyes light up.
  • Many different techniques were tried to achieve the effect of the pen floating in zero gravity on the flight to the space station. In the end a sheet of clear perspex was placed infront of the camera to which the pen was attached with glue and the actress playing the crew attendant simply pulls the pen off the plastic.
  • The line of dialogue "See you next Wednesday" that is one of the first spoken in the film has become a famous in joke in the films of John Landis.
  • To create the living quarters for the 'Discovery' a 20 meter diameter rotating barrel set was built. It was possible for a camera to operate through a slot in the centre of the set while Kubrick directed the action from outside using a close circuit tv system. The set consumed nearly 10% of the whole budget but due to cuts made by Kubrick is only used to its full effect in a small number of scenes.
  • The English actor Nigel Davenport was hired to read the dialogue for HAL but Kubrick dismissed him as the accent was too distracting. Sometime during post-production Douglas Rain was hired to voice HAL. It is believed that Keir Dullea who played Bowman and Rain have never actually met in person.
  • The original scripted ending has the Star Child set off the orbiting nuclear devices seen in the 'Blue Danube' sequence. Kubrick concluded this was too similar to the ending of 'Dr. Strangelove' and so opted for the more ambiguous and optimistic ending scene.

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey | 2010: Odyssey Two | 2061: Odyssey Three | 3001: The Final Odyssey

  Results from FactBites:
Bravenet - audio_clips / Audio Clips (352 words)
2001: A Space Odyssey - HAL 9000 - "Everything is running smoothly" Type: wav Filesize: 78.0kb Category: Movies / TV
2001: A Space Odyssey - Hal 9000 - "It could only be human error" Type: wav Filesize: 61.0kb Category: Movies / TV
2001: A Space Odyssey - HAL 9000 - "May I ask a personal question?" Type: wav Filesize: 31.0kb Category: Movies / TV
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (509 words)
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It is not just an odyssey of a person; it is an odyssey of our species.
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