2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★½

I really like Stanley Kubrick's play on genres. He takes a genre hitherto associated with B-movies, and gives it the same treatment as the luxurious historical epics of the time.

In keeping with this aesthetic, this film is meticulously captured on 65mm, and it looks stunning, in spite of some duping. The film juxtaposes some of its most expansive vistas (nearly entirely constructed in a studio) with some fierce closeups, to striking effect. Sound design is terrific, too.

A lot of people think of this film as a non-narrative work, but that's not true. Kubrick, along with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, have a clear story that they're trying to tell: the Odyssey of the Jupiter Mission, which is also the film's most memorable part. HAL, who was inserted by Kubrick and Clarke as an obstacle to the completion of the mission, is an absolutely chilling and surprisingly tragic antagonist.

But Kubrick gets just a bit too bogged down in the Dawn of Man, "Floyd" and Moon landing sequences. These were meant to be but a prologue to the story, but end up taking up nearly half the running-time.

You'd think the drawn-out space vistas would be the main culprit to the length of this section, but most of these are just too exquisite to fault. The music, in particular, is terrific. They don't further the plot, but they do serve the film's theme (more on this later).

I'd sooner had cut some of the scenes which exhibit the futuristic technology on-board the ships, to get the prologue down to the right length. As it is, the length of this section makes the film (which was twenty minutes longer still at the time of its premiere) feel more like an anthology, even though it clearly isn't.

This results in a film which is a bit too nebulous: Its just isn't a standalone experience. Without reading about the (very interesting) making of the film or looking into Sir Arthur's novel, its too hard to understand the film. Specifically, its finale.

If you do your reading, as I have, you learn that some kind of god-like aliens are behind it all: they take Dave on a tour of the galaxy through the Stargate, before putting him in an imaginary room, where he loses sense of time while they inspect him. Finally, he evolves from man into the Star-child.

Its a great concept - I just wish the film had shed more light on it. The script sure does, and one would assume the longer cut of the film did, too.

Part of the issue is the Monoliths, which are meant to be artefacts left behind by the aliens. This concept was one which Clarke pursued in several of his short stories, many of which were cobbled together to create the story of 2001.

As a result, the Monoliths don't serve any one defined function in the film: the ones at the beginning and ending of the film serve as learning machines, helping makind evolve: from ape to man; from man to Übermensch. The other Monoliths which appear in the story, however, serve as mere checkpoints.

Another issue is the special effects. Impressive though they may be, the further into the plot we get, the more they go into overdrive. The Stargate and alien planets don't look convincing by modern standards, and the finale should have had a shot of Dave morphing into the Star-child, rather than a cut; but, alas, the technology wasn't there yet.

Once you do crack the film's plot, however, you realize it really isn't as subjective or philosophical as its often credited to be. I've seen and heard people overanalyze this film to death, positing that its an existential piece, that's its about human violence, even that its a commentary on the film-going experience. People are scrutinizing the smallest details of this film, down to projection malfunctions reported during the film's premiere, as though they were intentional leads to the picture's meaning.

Actually, the theme of this film (which was partially funded by NASA) is very simply a glorification of the space age, which was in its impetus at the time of the film's release. If the monoliths are the way for mankind to evolve, and they're in space, well then - the film states - sending people to space is stepping stone to furthering human evolution: pure and simple.

All of which isn't to say its a bad theme: in fact, it was a good choice for the film, which was made to be shown in one-strip cinerama venues. Cinerama features were as much a celebration of the sharp and immersive format as they were narrative works, and so the theme perfectly complements the way it was meant to be seen. But its too impersonal a theme, for my taste. Its probably why I like the HAL setpiece the best: its more personal and character-driven in nature.

I learned a lot about filmmaking from 2001. But while I appreciate and fully acknowledge its vision, scope, legacy and artistry its style is just a bit too much for me. Its an excellent film, to be sure, but I can't rate it any higher than I did.

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