The most influential movie of modern times was probably
2001:A Space Odyssey. This is not meant as aesthetic film
criticism, There have been no doubt films of “greater” artistic
merit, acting ability, text, music, sets and direction.
2001: A Space Odyssey goes beyond these and other categories.
It first appeared in 1968. It was a science fiction film about
traveling to outer space and what we might encounter there.
Science fiction films are almost as old as the cinema; they
have been made for more than hundred years, beginning with
Georges Melies famed but crude silent classic A Trip To The
Moon (1902) and continuing to the spectacular high-tech
futuristic films of today such as Star Wars and Close
Encounters of the Third Kind.
2001: A Space Odyssey was not just a sci-fi movie, however. It
was something much more complicated. It might be described
as a kind of poem, or a philosophical vision, or an epiphany
about human history. It was also a prophecy in film form, and
it appeared at a time of great national political turmoil and
Now almost fifty years later, it amazingly holds up in its visual
credibility. Although we landed men on the moon only one
year after the film was released, and although we have since
sent unmanned vehicles further into space, and although we
have miniaturized computers through chips, and expanded
their capacities greatly, much of what the film portrays and
presents has not yet happened. And no one has solved its
celebrated enigmatic (if melodramatic) ending.
Some of the film remains controversial. For example, it posits
that there are other, more advanced, life forms living
elsewhere. Further, it suggests that a computer could develop
an identity of its own that would not be subservient to its
human masters. We still do not have any evidence of
extraterrestrial life, and although we are on the brink of
creating artificial intelligence, we have no cases yet of
computers taking over.
What this film did do was change our consciousness. And how
it did it is the real purpose of my writing this article.
There was much advance publicity for this movie that was the
creation of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, Stanley
Kubrick, and one of the world’s greatest science fiction
authors, Arthur C. Clark. Months of promotion, preceded the
premiere of the film. Yet when it opened, it immediately began
to appear as a box office flop. Audiences were small, many film
critics and in the cinema establishment did not like it. Its studio,
MGM, made preparations to pull the film and accept failure.
Then something unexpected happened. As word spread in the
industry that the film was failing, movie theater owners around
the country began to contact MGM with reports of an unusual
phenomenon. Audiences had been disappointing, but some time
after the premiere, theaters noticed that some young filmgoers
had begun to show up. First just a few came to see the film at a
theater, and the next day, a few more came, and in the next several
days, the crowds of young audiences grew exponentially. Soon, it
was an enormous hit, with these young film audiences not only
packing the theaters, but some individuals coming back again and
again. It became the highest grossing film of the year, and now
years later, it is almost always listed among the top ten films of
I first saw the film not long after it had opened. I was then a
young poet studying at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City.
At that time, I was seeing a lot of experimental films then being
made, and rarely saw a “commercial” or “Hollywood” film. But
word was out that 2001: A Space Odyssey was something special.
So I went to see it, with another poet in the Workshop program, at
the local movie house, sat down, and the lights went dark.
The film opened with some gorilla-like pre-humans on the screen
subtitled as “the dawn of man.” After depicting a day of these
primitive humans, a mysterious dark monolith appears in their
midst. Soon, one of them is playing with an animal bone, and
he suddenly turns it into a weapon against others in a hostile
confrontation. After killing one, he tosses the bone in the air.
Before it lands lands, it segues suddenly (by film technique) into
a futuristic space craft traveling in space, with the Blue Danube
Waltz playing in the background. Earlier, at the film's beginning,
the now iconic music of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach
Zarathustra was played acting as a fanfare trumpet taking us
into this tale of evolution and a 2001 expedition to the moon to
investigate a mysterious monolith that was millions of years old,
transmitting an unexplained signal. The film was subtitled an
“odyssey.” Like ancient Homer’s legendary quest on land, so was
this a quest in space.
What followed was a revelation about the future that took my 1960s
breath away, juxtaposing with visions of space travel, computers
and curious philosophical mysteries that were so dazzling that
when the film ended, I and my friend remained in our seats, and
we saw it over again.
That’s how change happens. It usually begins unexpectedly, but
dramatically, and only a few notice it. Then they tell others, and
soon there is a crowd. It often begins with young persons or
frustrated persons who, without realizing it, were ready for the
A room is dark, The TV is turned on. It’s 2016 and a presidential
debate is on. One of the candidates attacks another. Harsh words
fly back and forth. Suddenly, Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare For the
Common Man is played.
What occurs next is astonishing. But will it be just another typical
occurrence, or is it momentous change?
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.