At The Dawn of Man, the earliest examples of humanity's evolution lived on the plains, with one tribe foraging for food and regularly holding stand-offs with another tribe, although there really wasn't much difference between them. Or at least there was not until one morning they awoke to find a mysterious object standing amongst them that had not been there before. They were mistrustful of this foreign monolith, approaching it gingerly but feeling the strange influence it had over them which drove them to create tools, giving them the upper hand over their rivals. It would be millions of years before another monolith would be discovered, and not on Planet Earth...
The debate still rages (or simmers, at any rate): is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the most pretentious movie of all time or an endlessly stimulating parable of evolution from one end of the human spectrum to the other? It began life as a short story called The Sentinel by science fiction great Arthur C. Clarke, and this was adapted into a screenplay by him and director Kubrick with the intention to wrest control of the genre from the space opera for kids and into a more serious, contemplative realm,, but even in the end result it's clear there was a tension between what Clarke saw as an exciting new universe opening up thanks to space travel, and Kubrick's more cynical worldview of humanity outclassed by its own technology.
For that first twenty minutes, there is no dialogue save for the grunts and whoops of the apemen, and even after that, once we set off for the Moon in the company of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), the dialogue feels less than essential. If ever there was a sound film that would work just as well as a silent movie, it would be this one, as everything said is merely functional, from Floyd videophoning his daughter to wish her a happy birthday to his briefing of the conference room which sounds like it's telling us something important but doesn't clear anything much up. We get the gist right away and can therefore sit back and enjoy the meticulously fashioned special effects, the almost finished space station revolving in orbit, the shuttle craft moving over the face of the Moon.
The reason they're on the Moon is that there has been another monolith found there, which nobody recognises but they can grasp its significance: an alien intelligence must have planted it there. Kubrick casts a steely eye over humankind while Clarke takes a view that if alien technology were to make it into the sphere of Earth's ken then it would be indistinguishable from proof of a deity's presence. Kubrick then casts a steely eye over the the deity. A signal is broadcast from the Moon monolith to Jupiter, where there is something that mankind cannot resist the pull of, but to get there will take almost two years and the crew of a new mission: this takes us to the next stage, at the dawn of a new millennium, which the year 2001 would be (or was, from our perspective).
The monoliths can be seen as stepping stones to a higher state of existence, but up to the point of meeting astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) the film has progressed at stately pace that many have regarded as akin to tedium, though if you are attuned to it, a meditative mood will have settled over you, almost hypnotic in its effects. However, Bowman and his fellows are joined on their trip by computer HAL 9000 (brilliantly, calmly, reasonably, voiced by Douglas Rain), created to take care of the passengers and interact with them in a human manner. But just as the apemen's tools were turned to killing, so does HAL opt for extermination to preserve the secret mission, leading to sequences both blackly comedic and stiflingly claustrophobic.
There's more personality in HAL than in the whole of the rest of the cast, and it's weirdly poignant to see him beaten, thereby proving to whatever is out there that Bowman can move beyond with their assistance, though the computer's reasons for its malfunction remain a mystery, as does most of the movie - was HAL triggered by the aliens, or did he feel this mission was too important to rely on mere mortals? 2001's faith in not only space travel but the power of evolution, where we can progress into an infinite consciousness, is very much of its time and you can see why it's still considered the greatest head movie of them all, the stargate sequence a completely absorbing representation of passing from the corporeal world to something other, barely grasped by normal intelligence. 2001's sly humour, ideas almost too big for the silver screen and visual spectacle would have marked it out as classic, singular science fiction anyway.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.