In this science fiction masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick tracks the odyssey of mankind, from the dawn of man four million years ago to the exploration of deep space. The film begins with a desolate time when our ape-like predecessors led frightened and brutal lives, scrounging for food and huddling against the cold night while wild animals howled in the distance. In a few short minutes, Kubrick has spanned the epochs, depicting the origins of tribes and the miraculous morning when apes awoke and learned how to use tools. With this ability, mankind was launched on its journey to the stars. On Kubrick’s timeline, it is just a small next step to the exploration of the moon. And from the moon, mankind heads off to Jupiter. But what is triggering these immense changes? Why are humans evolving and what is their destiny? At transforming moments along this odyssey, a mysterious black monolith appears, drawing humans ever forward. But toward what? The surprise ending to this film is legendary, and has probably inspired more late night discussions in college dorms than any other movie.
For children 12 or older, 2001 can be a mind-boggling experience. In a series of dramatic vignettes, it introduces children to cosmic mysteries, and gives them an opportunity and an incentive to grapple with issues that span the millenia, rather than dwelling on their last argument over a toy. Younger children may be impressed by the drama, the special effects and the beautiful music, but may have a hard time following the plot. In addition, they will lose patience with some of the longer segments dealing with space exploration. (The special effects used by Kubrick were revolutionary in their day, but will seem commonplace to children raised on Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even twelve year olds may not appreciate the subtle references to political rivalries and intrigue on earth, the cover-up of mysterious developments on the moon, or the more ironic aspects of the clash between man and machine (HAL the computer plaintively crying that he is afraid and that he can feel his mind going is a poignant example). In fact, the cryptic ending of the movie was famous for stumping even adults when the movie first came out.
Most teenagers cannot help but be swept up in this film, which stretches their minds and gives them mysteries and uncertainty instead of endings where everything is neatly tied up with a bow. As children strive to deal with the uncertainty of the ending, and fill in its gaps and illuminate its gray areas by drawing upon their own personality and sense of the world, they are on their way to appreciating greater and more mature forms of art.
Questions for Kids:
Why is the moment the apes use tools a turning point?
What does the monolith represent?
HAL says he was made in 1992 — now that we have passed that date, how many of the film’s ideas about the future seem to be accurate?
HAL says he can “feel” — what does “he” mean?
What happens to Dave at the end? Why?
Connections: A sequel, “2010,” was made in 1984, with author Arthur Clarke appearing briefly on a park bench. It answers many of the questions raised in “2001,” at least in a literal sense, but is not as satisfying as the more open-ended original. Kids who like this movie should read some of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction books, especially Childhood’s End, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.
Activities: Teens may want to use the internet to learn more about artificial intelligence and space travel.