2001: A musical mix of the sublime and the horrifying

Three years ago on Halloween, I decided that I wanted to make my house “scary” for the neighborhood kids. This, of course, was before I learned how to use arduinos, build circuits, or write code in any language other than HTML. So I decided to do the best thing I could think of at the time: put a couple big speakers in the window and blast a sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey on repeat. Specifically, it was the music behind the scene in which the monkeys discover the monolith. The music comes between 2:00 and 4:30.

The “song” is titled “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra,” and it sounds more like a trip into the pits of hell than any sort of traditional music. (It didn’t have much of a frightening effect, unfortunately, but it did cause some moderate annoyance in the neighborhood. It also messed up my most played playlist on iTunes. Bah.) The track feels like one of the tracks from the The Shining, using its brooding buzzing to raise tension to the point that you expect the screen to erupt in flames.

Conversely, two of the film’s other most famous scenes are the opening credits and the montage of the graceful, floating spacecrafts.

There’s a lot going on here sonically, and it begs the following question: how does this unorthodox combination work so well? It takes a fair amount of dissecting to come anywhere close to an answer. The film begins on a particularly interesting note, with blackness and a sinister assortment of strings, playing what is analogous to deep, hanging chord on a piano. This song, titled “Overture: Atmospheres,” progresses into mystical midsection, perfectly indicative of the unknown universe above. Perhaps more than anything, the sequence can be described as uncanny, as it robs us of our visual senses, leaving us wondering if something is lurking behind the empty screen. We’re instantly put on the edge of our seats by this, which then gives way to the opening credits. As Michael Chion writes in Film: A Sound Art,

“music provides the sound film a respite from the infernal rule of successivity [sic]; it allows a flexible temporality, an elasticity, the capacity to condense a year, to draw out a second, to linger over a fleeting summer before replanting us on the terra firma of real time” (264).

Within 2001, the sound is often at odds with the film’s pacing, and this is arguably what gives the film much of its punch. After the three-minute black opening, we’re on the edges of our seats, but there’s still another 150 minutes to go. The audio makes us anxious, drawing us without cathartic payoff through the extremely slow pacing. The monolith is always accompanied by this menacing music (including on the moon), making us feel in awe of its power, yet it never directly demonstrates its power. (We see the monkey learn to use tools, but we don’t directly see the transfer of knowledge.) This may be a gamble, as Chion writes about films that progress slowly, but it certainly pays off, as after 40 minutes we may want to claw off our own skin out of anxiety. Would the film be as powerful if it were a more pleasurable viewing experience? To be honest, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat through it from start to finish without taking a break. It’s psychologically taxing to be put through its process.

Other beautiful sequences are those in which Frank and Dave venture outside the ship. These sequences — often playing in what appears to be real time — is accompanied only by the sound of breathing within a space suit. This process is incredibly unnerving, as it strings us through a long, tense sequence, emphasizing just how lonely life is in outer space, especially when you’re millions of miles from home. It all comes to a head when HAL takes control of the pod Frank uses to venture outside the ship and uses it to fling Frank into the darkness. This functions in a completely opposite way to the sequences featuring the monolith, as the action-heavy sequence is devoid of any sound. The sequence is startling in its silence, yet also true in that it accurately represents the nature of outer space. We first see Frank from Dave’s perspective inside the ship, darting through a monitor, and struggling to reattach his oxygen tube. Of course, within seconds, his life has slipped away.

When it comes to HAL, we’re faced with an entirely new set of circumstances. He lacks any sort of human resemblance, yet his voice is portrayed by a human actor. His demeanor remains so cold and calculated that his unwinding becomes all the more sinister and uncanny; it’s happening behind the scenes, and you don’t have anything more than the subtle indications to cue you in to process. His lobotomizing near the end of the film is also curious, as his voice deepens as his knowledge base is removed. HAL also pleads with Dave to stop, telling him he’s afraid, which is incredibly difficult to watch, especially given that a human actor plays the role of his voice. Should the viewer grant HAL any agency and feel bad for HAL as he is lobotomized? Also, should we refer to HAL as a he, given that he is merely portrayed by a male actor and bears a male name? What would Ian Bogost say? HAL certainly has no physical form to suggest that he is of a male gender, or any gender at all. When I watch this film, I do feel bad for HAL because he is so human-like, yet I know that he must be done away with. Am I right to feel this way?

As we finally arrive at the film’s conclusion, I slip into total confusion, as the plot gets incredibly strange incredibly fast. For nearly 10 minutes, we watch as Dave goes a light trip-out and presumably begins cruising over the surface of Jupiter (despite the fact that Jupiter doesn’t have a solid surface). The colors are manipulated and solarized, and the accompanying music returns us to previous sequences featuring the monolith. Thus, the suggestion is that Dave has found the monolith (at least in some form), and he is unraveling the secrets of humanity and of life itself. The lights seem to be an abstraction of the knowledge shooting into his head, blowing his mind. The shots that take us over the landscapes don’t neatly fit into this interpretation, however. The ending, in which Dave finds himself in a white, luxurious apartment, reverts to silence. He watches his life flash before his eyes, and the end of the film boasts the main, triumphant theme as the embryo floats in space. What is the significance of this embryo, and what implications does the music have for this being, given that the main theme essentially bookends the film?


2001 is like an onion; the more you dig in, the more layers there are that await you. However, I would consider it one of the greatest films of all time, and certainly the greatest science fiction film ever made. It’s thematic elements lay the groundwork for all of modern science fiction.


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