So pretty much everyone knows the film’s main theme song, even if they can’t necessarily name where it came from. And sci-fi buffs nearly always name it either the top or second-top science fiction film of all time. Why? Because even today, even with an outdated title, and even with films like Avatar setting the standard for special effects, it’s still a really good movie. In fact, it’s one of my favorite films.
So why has it been considered a masterpiece since 1968? What’s so great about it? Well, for one thing, it attempts to explain the evolution of man, attempts to show the creation of the universe (via the single most trippy sequence in the history of movies) as well as attempting to show a scientifically accurate depiction of the future, which is an endeavor in itself. And, I would argue, it does all of those things successfully, except for the last part–alas, it’s 2012 and we still don’t have true Artificial Intelligence. (Though for those who agree with Fodor’s Robot Argument, we’ve still got a chance there.)
I admit, it’s a film you’ve got to have patience for. There are long sequences of spacecraft drifting through space to classical music, and other sequences involving some of the characters which are just as lengthy, with the only sounds being the soft beeping of the control panels and the character’s breath. While some would argue that these scenes could have had entire minutes trimmed with the resulting movie unchanged, I disagree. These sequences help us to understand the total silence of space (sorry, fellow fans of Trek or Wars–there really isn’t sound in space) and its utter solitude. They help to put viewers right in there with characters; it makes it so realistic you really start to understand what it’s like out in space, and the attention to detail–the scene where one of the characters is watching a video recording of his family comes to mind–is incredible.
The film also contains one of my favorite characters, HAL 9000. The sentient onboard computer of the ship is absolutely fascinating. For those somehow unfamiliar with HAL, he is one of an advanced kind of intelligent computer, and he maintains the ship and all its functions. He begins to act erratically, however, and it eventually comes down to just Dave versus HAL. The nature of the character brings up an interesting analogy–if a sentient computer malfunctions, the result is similar to a human brain malfunctioning, in other words, mental illness. I found HAL’s “death” scene to be incredibly eerie and sad. HAL, in his ever-calm monotone, the only voice form he has, pleads with Dave to stop as Dave pulls out his memory modules one-by-one, culminating in the ever-famous “Daisy Bell” song (random fact–“Daisy Bell” was chosen as the song HAL sings because it was the first song ever “sung” by a computer–an IBM machine back in the 60s, if I remember right.) HAL’s calm voice only makes the scene more haunting, because one imagines the pleading tone HAL would be using if he were capable. And I, at least, feel bad for him by the end.
The film is definitely a cerebral one, with the main theme being the curiosity of humans. It’s kind of a tribute to all that we are capable of, while simultaneously being a tribute to all that we don’t (and may never) understand. And that’s what makes it still relevant today. That, and its bold attempt to capture the future, with the interesting aspects of spaceflight and general technology.
So for anyone who has never seen it, my advice is to find a copy (DVDs are cheap these days, with the advent of Blu-Ray) and watch it. You’ll either be bored and poking fun at everything in the movie that we didn’t have by 2001.
Or, if you have any imagination at all, you’ll see why it really is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.