*This review contains some SPOILERS*
Wow, this is a very long review. I just kind of poured out my thoughts, and I think the fact that I have so many after viewing proves that this is a work of art. I don't expect anyone to read all of this, but still wanted to get some of my thoughts out as I sorted through the film.
I originally attempted to watch 2001 at a time when it was streaming on Netflix. I was watching on my 15-inch computer, with headphones, and after a few viewing sessions, never made it to the intermission. I saw the appeal, but didn't care for it myself.
However, as I heard more and more about it, and heard filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron talk about how much it impacted them, I decided that I had to see it again. But this time, I watched it on a 42-inch screen (biggest screen I have access to) with high-quality speakers. I must say, it was an entirely different experience.
I tried to put myself in the mindset of those who were watching it for the first time in 1968. There was no Star Wars, no Apollo 13 - space was still very much a mystery. Color film was still a fairly recent trend as well, so seeing images similar to those we now see on the Discovery Channel all the time was an incredibly new and awe-inspiring experience at the time.
As I said previously, this historical knowledge and upgraded viewing equipment made it a totally different experience than my first attempt to view the film. I loved the visual symbolism, using images instead of dialogue, as well as the heavy use of music to convey danger, peace, and change. The sound design, too, was masterful.
The visuals are gorgeous, and the set design is incredible. The rotating halls and no-gravity effects make this (formerly) futuristic world come to life in a way that is totally believable; it doesn't feel like science fiction, it feels like reality. All of the visually-driven sequences are powerful, and many of the sections with dialogue have an almost fly-on-the-wall quality - as if we're part of the ship, watching as things begin to go down-hill with HAL.
The sequence following Hal's mistake are some of the most tense I've seen. It seems as if that sequence alone could have been expanded into a feature-length horror film about a man's battle against an emotionless, highly intelligent and murderous computer. As Hal methodically kills off the crew, the suspense ratchets up to a highly gripping level.
Unfortunately, the pay-off was a bit of a letdown. I loved the film up through Dave's victory over HAL. But the final 20 minutes or so were some of the more bizarre that I've witnessed. The neon color effects of the extra-terrestrial world added to this, and the ending left me slightly baffled. Which was probably the point, but I was more bewildered than intrigued by what was presented. I love ambiguity - I'm a huge fan of The Tree of Life and happen to believe that Inception has one of the best endings ever. I love being able to have different interpretations of a film. But both of those films gripped me emotionally, even when they were vague, and the ending of 2001 just seemed emotionally flat.
Reading about the film afterward, it appears that, on the surface level, I basically "got it". I understand what happened. It just seemed so bizarre compared to the level of realism up to that point that it was a bit of a jolt. My reaction was exactly as Kubrick described in an interview after giving a basic explanation of the ending:
"I don't believe that anyone is terribly far from understanding it. What people sometimes mean is that they want some confirmation of what they've seen happen, and what they think."
After watching, I immediately went online to read more about the ending, and see if some of my hunches were correct. Turns out that, when described by Kubrick at what he calls "the lowest level of plot", I did, basically, understand it. But I didn't really have a personal interpretation or personal interest in it.
I think people are right when the say this is more of an art piece than a film. It's heavy on visuals and symbolism but light on character development and emotion. I respect it more than I adore it.
I may get slammed for this next part, but oh well. Here goes.
I think that disagreeing with the worldview makes me slightly less inclined to read into the symbolism of the film on a personal level as well. Just as an evolutionist would likely not be as attached to a similarly-made film that took a creationist approach, as a creationist I respect what Kubrick was saying, but because I disagree with his conclusions, I'm less inclined to develop a personal connection with the symbolism and the story, since evolution is essentially the cord that binds this film and its ideas together. That's not a slam on the film, just a reason that I was perhaps not as personally invested in it as others are. I love and connect with The Tree of Life - it has an evolutionary backdrop, but that, to me, is not at its core: its core is about relationships with each other and God, and how our decisions affect the path we take in life. This allowed me to, despite my disagreements, connect with it and see elements of myself in the story and characters, and explore how the different events pertain to my own life. It was a very ethereal experience, whereas 2001 was a bit colder and less relatable. That's not to say that I can't or won't be able to read into it on some sort of personal level as I further explore the film and digest it (I only finished watching it this evening), but I will still disagree with some of the fundamental ideas upon which the story is built and that will certainly have an affect.
I hope to watch 2001 again. It's definitely unconventional, and I probably need to give it time to sink in and then take another look at it to develop a deeper understanding. It is undoubtedly highly artistic and has some sequences that I found to be masterful, but on a whole, I think it's a bit self-indulgent and overly ambiguous, and doesn't have characters that are particularly deep or relatable.