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Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Lawrence Mason discusses the legacy of Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

From film’s early beginnings in the early 20th century to the juggernaut industry it is today, a canon has developed. Within this pantheon of seminal films there is a handful that repeatedly dominate the top spots on polls and rankings. The usual suspects include the likes of Citizen Kane and Vertigo, Classical Hollywood favourites. It’s true that the majority were produced before the American cinema industry reinvented itself in the late 60s and 70s with the New Hollywood movement, and as such many are straight-faced and rely heavily on narrative to pack their biggest punch.

In the latest BFI Sight and Sound critic’s poll for the best film of all time, eight out of the top ten were released before the sixties. The outliers were Fellini’s 8 ½, which very much aligns with the narrative-central approach, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter is the black sheep of this list, a step out of the black and white realm of narrative supremacy, an experimental thought piece rather than a stage play on screen. Imagine being a teenager in the 60s and sneaking out to see the new space movie, only to spend the first twenty minutes watching primal apes gradually evolve into humans. It’s certainly not what contemporary audiences are used to.

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert writes that 2001 was made in a way “that invited us to contemplate it - not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.” In placing the viewer in this outside perspective, the film stands alone in this pantheon of influential cinema. Whereas the previous decades proved how film can be an excellent medium for direct narrative storytelling – with the use of characters and continuous, related plot threads – Kubrick does something entirely different.

Despite coinciding with the New Hollywood movement, it would be a disservice to credit the bold filmmaking on display in Kubrick’s space epic to this alone; his disinterest in conventionality can be observed in his previous work Dr Strangelove Or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. From the title alone it seems to be in a different league from an industry populated by musicals and westerns; a highly satirical film that focuses on the very real threat of nuclear war, a shadow that was looming over the world at the time.

Dr Strangelove does this on a global scale, utilizing both subtle and slapstick humour, begging us to laugh at the destruction of humanity as we know it. The beating heart of this film is its satirical instinct. Writer and collaborator Arthur C. Clarke stated that for 2001, Kubrick “was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe - even, if appropriate, terror.” It’s this elicitation of primal human emotions that strike a chord on the most basic level of the human psyche that composes the beating heart of 2001.

Speaking at Cannes in 2018, director Christopher Nolan stated that he has carried his experience of seeing a 70mm print of 2001 with him since childhood, and that he wants a new generation to experience the ‘awe’ that he did. If there was one word to sum up the space epic, ‘awe’ would be my pick, especially for the grand climax of the film’s first section – ‘The Dawn of Man’ – which sees a monkey pick up a bone and use it as a tool, putting humanity on its path towards evolution accompanied by Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Critics have lauded the film’s use of classical music - which originated as temporary tracks before Kubrick decided he preferred them to the film’s original soundtrack - pointing to the space docking’s accompaniment Blue Danube, or the film’s culmination in the birth of the star child, when Also Sprach Zarathustra makes a reappearance. The re-use of Strauss’ orchestral piece creates a parallel between the scenes, both sections showing humanity progressing into its next step of evolution, with the music giving these events all the required grandeur. The film helped cement classical music as a staple of sci-fi cinema, with John Williams drawing inspiration for his iconic Star Wars music.

The similarities to Lucas’s film don’t end there; the director stated that 2001 was “hugely influencing” and many of Kubrick’s modelists were brought aboard to work on Star Wars. Indeed, the opening shot of the film’s ‘Jupiter Mission’ segment is reminiscent of the Star Destroyer prowling through space in Star Wars’ opening. While these effects may be commonplace and even exceeded today with the use of CGI, at the time they were truly groundbreaking. It was the director’s goal to create effects that had “never been accomplished in a motion picture” and by all accounts, he achieved this goal. Writing in 1968, Ebert states that “there is not a single moment, in this long film, when the audience can see through the props. The stars look like stars and outer space is bold and bleak.” The use of practical effects, out of necessity rather than choice, gives the film a tactile appeal, a relic from the analogue age that truly pushed the boundaries of what was possible. The same awe that Nolan felt upon watching 2001 is perhaps also a core inspiration behind Nolan’s incessant devotion to shooting on film and the use of practical effects.

In the 60s’, humanity was arguably at the peak of its technological optimism, and so when casting their minds forward, Kubrick and Clarke pictured a time dominated by technology. It’s this technology that facilitates a great deal of 2001’s core. We must remember that this was made before the moon landings, so to see such a fully realized depiction of space travel would certainly leave an impact on contemporary audiences. Under the surface of this visceral reaction, technology is also the topic of many philosophical musings; while there are many interpretations of the film, and endless ‘2001: A Space Odyssey Explained’ videos on YouTube, almost all readings relate to the interplay between evolution and technology. The foreboding monolith that unites the sections seems to facilitate, or witness, the next steps in our evolution. In one of cinema’s most famous cuts, from a bone thrown by a chimp to a spaceship drifting through space, Kubrick implies continuity, as if space travel is a natural step along the path of human progress.

The noticeable lack of substantial dialogue throughout has also been a subject for discussion. It’s the now infamous AI HAL 9000 that has the most developed speech, compared to the plain and emotionless human dialogue. American film scholar Carol L Fry writes that “the film repeatedly invites us to see the contrast between the sophistication of technology and the banality of human conversation”. In doing this, Kubrick ensures we don’t get distracted by character drama, allowing contemporary audiences to marvel at what their future could look like. While this future is undeniably one of scientific miracles, HAL’s betrayal of David and Frank, the two human characters onboard the ship, conjures a sense of terror. HAL’s plot acts as a forerunner to Alien, in its outer-space horror elements and the general sci-fi aesthetic founded by this film. It also spawned numerous evil AI stories, HAL was the first onscreen rogue supercomputer. In an age of technological optimism, Kubrick suggested that future technology may not be humanity’s saving grace that many believed it to be. The questions posed by this film are likely a key reason why it extends into the modern consciousness, as history progresses each generation will have their own response to the film’s ambiguity, and the philosophical themes regarding evolution and technology seem to be just as relevant as they were in the 60s.

But underpinning all these achievements is Kubrick’s method of filmmaking. In its abandonment of character and central narrative, Kubrick must rely almost entirely on visual storytelling, utilizing filmmaking on its most basic level. I’ve always found it hard to pin down Kubrick’s style. Of course we have the infamous Kubrick stare that Twitter chewed up and spat straight back out, but I believe this film shows the command he has over every image. These images are strung together, with dialogue and narrative sprinkled in here and there, to create more of a philosophical head scratcher than a gripping story. The emotional impact remains intact, stemming from the wondrous space docking, the unnerving monolith, or the tense game of cat and mouse between HAL and Dave. It’s as if Kubrick has a formula, he plugs in the response he wants out of us, and the most efficient way possible to elicit this response comes out. While other directors typically rely on narrative to make their impact – Kubrick, in the case of 2001 at least, uses his formula to simplify the fraction. If other films are 500 over 1000, 2001 is 1 over 2; the impact it has stems from its (benign) simplicity in structure - this is its main achievement, at least in the eyes of this twenty-year-old film student.

While the film has certainly not been left the public consciousness - its poster remaining a staple in smoke-filled, Pink Floyd playing rooms - it’s often relegated, alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, to a kind of pseudo-mythology within the film world. It is more likely to appear on a best of all-time list than an actual screen, and this is somewhat understandable; the film’s slow pace, distinct structure and lack of narrative coherence is not in line with modern tastes, and you need to be in a certain frame of mind to watch it, it’s not the film to unwind to after a long shift at the box factory. Nevertheless, when you are in the right frame of mind, it remains a powerful, wholly unique film, and when examined in the context of its time period its importance to the cinematic canon is clear.

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