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Vintage Sunday Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

James Hudson reviews Stanley Kubrick's timeless classic

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Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Length: 2 hrs 41 mins

It has been 50 years since the initial release of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey; and a masterpiece it remains. Included in most 'greatest films of all time' lists, if you haven't seen 2001 it's worth your time, especially if you can catch it on the big screen.

2001 stands alone in cinematic history as the only blend of Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster and art-house cinema. The result of this combination is a 2-hour 41-minute ballad featuring, waltzing spaceships, a humanlike computer, the dawn of man, psychedelic landscapes, and a speculation on intelligent alien life. All of this is packed in together with almost zero exposition; the audience is left drifting in the vastness of its space-both literally and in the length of shots-which provokes the question of how the film manages to work so magnificently?

What makes 2001 successful is that it forces audiences to contemplate. Kubrick and Arthur C Clark-who wrote the film-broke conventional narratives to deliver a challenge to audiences. Branded as the 'Ultimate trip' following popularity with students, 2001's deliberate ambiguity was initially misread as a stunning visual experience, but a film that did not penetrate the surface-it was nice-looking, nothing more. Yes, 2001 is a stunning visually, but it is much more. Perhaps this is only possible in hindsight, as 50 years of technological development has put HAL, the neurotic A.I. on the spaceship heading for Jupiter, in our pockets and homes with iPads and Alexas, and SpaceX's talk of colonizing Mars, much of the imaginings, and concerns, of 2001 have become reality. The eerily calm voice of HAL 9000 reminds us our home computer helpers, and it's as haunting as ever. The meticulous research of Kubrick and Clark in developing the imagined technology has paid off, 2001 was ahead of its time.

2001 is a hallmark of cinematic innovation. With special effects by Douglas Trumbul, 2001 is immersive from the offset; with realistic ape costumes in the dawn of man sequences, the psychedelic Jupiter sequence which was the first use of the 'slit-screen' technique in cinema. Spaceship interiors look plausible, brimming with detail and design, the meticulousness of the production is second-to-none. Special effects include immaculate zero-gravity stunts, rotating spaceships, planets which still capture the imagination. Even 50 years on, there is no moment were the illusion is broken, the sets are convincing. Space looks like space.

Though, some of the technologies feel gimmicky, with the pan-am grip shoes, or the juiced vegetable boxes. The film begins to look like a commercial from the future as we are bombarded with product placements. Kubrick was meticulous in creating a realistic vision of space travel and used the branding of companies to create this. 2001 features arguably some of the best use of music in film history with Strauss's 'The Blue Danube' transforming a spaceship docking sequence into an elegant waltz, and the use of Gygory Ligeti's, 'Atmospheres' when we encounter the monoliths which creates a sense of timelessness and the unknown.

There is a certain amount of notoriety surrounding 2001 over its ambiguity, especially in the final sequence, Jupiter and the infinite beyond, were we follow the astronaut Dave Bowman in a hypnotic, dream like sequence in which space, landscapes, and colour are warped into what is essentially a silent film exploring the "next step" for mankind. What is fascinating about this chapter is the complete abandonment of the audience in terms of guiding narrative; we are left to make sense of what we are seeing. For some, this ambiguity will be frustrating; you are forced to interpret and engage, which was Kubrick's intention. 2001 is an entertaining film, but what makes it special is that you can disagree with it, not understand it, or simply be hypnotized by it. Everyone experiences 2001 differently; some adore it, some hate it, most are perplexed. On repeated viewings of 2001 you see something new every time. 2001: A Space Odyssey has stood the test of time and continues to fascinate new audiences.

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6 Comment

Lolita Posted on Monday 6 Apr 2020

I remember watching this! This has been a big part of my childhood. I often wonder how it feels like being on the outer space and what it looks like. So, my aunt bought me a VCD and then we watched it. After that, I have never been more interested knowing more and more about space!
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