A herd of hairy simians chatters and skirmishes beside a water hole. It is, says the screen, "The Dawn of Man." But is it? From somewhere, a strange rectangular slab appears, gleaming in the primeval sunlight. Its appearance stimulates one of the simians to think for the first time of a bone as a weapon. Now he is man, the killer; the naked ape has arisen, and civilization is on its way. With a burst of animal spirits, the bone is flung into the air, dissolves into an elongated spacecraft, and aeons of evolution fall away. It is 2001, the epoch of A Space Odyssey.
Like many sequences of this contradictory movie, the primate prologue is overlong and repetitious. Still, it serves to introduce the film's key character: the shining oblong, a mass of extraterrestrial intelligence that supposedly has been overseeing mankind since the Pliocene age. Now, in the 21st century, the mass has been identified by scientists, who have traced its radio signal back to Jupiter. A spaceship, Discovery I, is dispatched to that remote planet. Aboard are two conscious astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and three hibernating scientists sealed like mummies in sarcophagi. Also on board is Hal, a computer-pilot programmed to be proud of his job and possessed of a wistful, androgynous voice.
Scientist Benumber. For what seems like a century the journey goes well. Then, abruptly, Hal begins to act in an indefinably sinister manner, and the astronauts prepare to perform a lobotomy on their cybernetic buddy by removing his memory banks. But Hal discovers the plan.
Intermission. By this time, almost 1 hr. and 40 min. have passed, and the non-sci-fi fanatic may feel as benumbed as the scientists in their "hibernacu-lums." In depicting interplanetary flight 33 years from now, Director Stanley Kubrick and his co-scenarist, Arthur C. Clarke, England's widely respected science and science-fiction writer, dwell endlessly on the qualities of space travel; unfortunately they ignore such old-fashioned elements as character and conflict. As the ship arcs through the planetary void it is an object of remarkable beautybut in an effort to convey the idea of careening motion, the sound track accompanying the trek plays The Blue Danube until the banality undoes the stunning photography. The film's best effects do not occur until the second part, but when they arrive, they provide the screen with some of the most dazzling visual happenings and technical achievements in the history of the motion picture.
Mind Bender. After a wrenching struggle, Dullea manages to disarm the mutinous Hal just as Discovery I enters the orbit of Jupiter. There he sees the object of his tripthe omnipotent slab. He heads for it, and suddenly conventional dimensions vanish. An avalanche of eerie, kinetic effects attacks the eye and bends the mind. Kubrick turns the screen into a planetarium gone mad and provides the viewer with the closest equivalent to psychedelic experience this side of hallucinogens. At the end, beyond time and space, Dullea apparently learns the secret of the universeonly to find that, as Churchill said about Russia, it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.