JJ Gittes’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Ultimate Trip
‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Where to begin. How to begin? What words could I possibly come up with that could encapsulate just how much I adore this film? To summarize my love of it would be to summarize my love of cinema, something that just can’t be done in one review. A film many have called the pinnacle of science fiction cinema, a film that has entranced viewers since its release almost 52 years ago, a film so immaculately coordinated (yet deliciously ambiguous), it has gone on to influence thousands of films in virtually every genre. Out of the thousands of films I’ve seen, none have surpassed the beauty and intelligence of '2001,' few have even come close, though many have tried. How could I possibly relate to you the love and admiration I have for this piece of art? It’s a film that means so much not only to me, but to the entire landscape of cinema as well; there’s almost no real way to actually discuss the mastery of the craft on display. Where do I begin?
It begins with my first film experience. I remember the first film I ever saw, or my first actual movie-watching memory. I am 9 years old, in the family room with my Dad, a known cinema lover. He turns on a favorite of his, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ Terrific feature, a classic. I know not how to describe that first feeling, that feeling of pure joy, I felt as I watched it for the first time. It was like being transported to another time, another place, that, while still very much like our own, was much more flavorful, much more interesting, much more adventurous than the world I knew. Of course Indiana Jones was my favorite movie character for some time after. The effortlessly cool Harrison Ford combined with the old school fedora and satchel made for the perfect protagonist, equal parts likable and ruggish. From that point on, I was captivated by the enthralling experience of a well made film. I had begun my journey to ‘2001.’ I have begun my quest for film perfection.
I am 11 now, still but a lad. Again my Father and I sit together, this time watching another class, ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ I had seen the original ‘Star Wars’ before, and I had loved it, and while I do love that first film more today, the impact that first sequel had on my 11 year old self was tremendous. Again, that transportive illusion completely engulfed me, and I was lost in the incredible world George Lucas had created. It felt like it was made just for me, I was mystified. However this time, I found myself reacting differently than with ‘Raiders.’ The emotional core of ‘Empire’ totally stuck out to me, and I longed for something that would replicate that sense of emotional gravitas while also communicating a grand, science fiction epic. To this day I believe that science fiction cinema with a brain is the best thing to ever happen to the medium of film. The possibilities are endless, the ability to convey all emotions in virtually any way, the ability to introduce the audience to new ideas and worlds, the way that intelligent sci-fi films can persist through the years, engaging and interacting with audiences for years to come, it all fascinated me. I wanted something that could use all these elements, and twist them to form something that was truly...perfect. One step closer to ‘2001.’
I am 13 now, and still have not even heard of ‘2001.’ It is 2014, and I’m going to the movie theater. ‘Interstellar’ has just hit theaters, the latest from Christopher Nolan. The first space movie I saw that felt grounded in reality, while also containing that fantastical, almost otherworldly sort of wonder. I am mesmerized, entirely engulfed by the sheer beauty of what I see. The sights, the sounds, the colors, it all felt so...right. Yet despite being absolutely flawless on a technical level, ‘Interstellar’ had a deeper emotional resonance that makes it one of my all time favorites, up to this day. Space: the final frontier. Infinite possibilities. Infinite potential. There really wasn’t anything like it, or so I thought. ‘Interstellar’ almost feels like a love letter to ‘2001,’ without ever actually reaching those more ambiguous elements that continue to make ‘2001’ the greatest film ever made. It was a film that made me recognize that there are no limits in the medium of cinema. It made me realize that truly, anything that can be thought or written can also be filmed.
2017. I am 16 years old. I’ve heard of a film called ‘2001’ for some time now, but have chosen to stay away from it for fear of overhyping it. Classics are so commonly not as good as anyone makes them out to be, so I used to avoid them for fear of disappointment. Very few films can live up to lofty expectations set decades before. One summer day, I feel up to the task. Turning on ‘2001,’ I am not immediately taken away by its beauty. I see the sights, the sounds, but I don’t quite feel the full extent of its beauty on first watch. It’s undeniably the most beautiful film ever conceived, however the intricacies of the story seem to elude me upon first watch. I haven’t seen enough, I haven’t learned nearly enough to fully comprehend what I’m seeing. I continue on with my life, however something feels different. I have this urge, this gnawing, unshakable urge: Rewatch ‘2001.’ At this point, I think it started to kick in. That realization, that sudden awareness that I had indeed witnessed possibly the greatest piece of cinema ever conceived. Watching it again the second time, I am immediately captivated. From the opening shot, I’m glued to the screen. Every frame, so rich with detail and precision, every shot ranking among the best ever. The sights alone blow me away, not to mention the legitimately groundbreaking audio. Not only the music, which perfectly encapsulates the sheer scope of this film, but the actual sound effects. They add a whole new layer of realism and wonder to a film built entirely around realism and wonder. It’s a film so tightly, so expertly directed. Like a hummingbird at work.
My love for film has awakened. Still not my favorite film, ‘2001’ lingers in the back of my mind at all times. My love for it grows stronger still, but I still haven’t quite realized its total perfection. I’m 16 years old still, and I’m walking in the theater to see the new ‘Blade Runner’ film. The original is a classic, a timeless piece of science fiction cinema that reminds us just how truly limitless film can be under the right director. ‘2049’ had been my most anticipated film since its announcement a few years back. Villeneuve is quickly becoming a favorite director of mine, Ryan Gosling is my favorite actor, Roger Deakins is my favorite cinematographer. The pieces all line up, and it fits perfectly. ‘2049’ is flawless, an actual work of art. A film that connected with me on such a deep level - that feeling of isolation and loneliness, that existential nightmare that unfolded before me, it really did change me as a film viewer as well as a human being. Sitting in the theater, in the dark, transfixed upon that massive screen, an enormous, important, universal sort of story, shown to us purely through the lens of a protagonist who doesn’t even matter. Beautiful stuff. And now I know. The film has ended, life is different.
It’s about a month later now. I am bogged down in schoolwork and personal matters, making movie watching rather difficult. Still, it is time I finally revisit the film that has stayed with me every single day since that initial viewing. The film that just wouldn’t leave me alone, the film that simply couldn’t be left alone. Watching it again, for the third time, I realize something that rings true even today. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is the single greatest piece not just of science fiction ever created, but the single most important, most flawless, most entertaining, soulful piece of art ever conceived. Not even 4 minutes in. Two straight minutes of ambiguous silence, almost foreboding in nature. Preparing the viewer for the mental onslaught of immaculately planned images and sounds. But it’s not enough. Still, after those two minutes are up, the opening credits still completely floor me. Never has there been such a seamless blending of sights and sounds. The unification of music and imagery in this film really is astounding, and I find it hard to believe that movies would exist today as they are without the existence of this film, 50 years ago. Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ plays over the opening images, and never has the opening credits of a film encapsulated what the rest of the film will be like better than this. It’s awe inspiring, truly, a full visionary experience all on its own.
From here on, the film continues to impress. Masterful section after masterful section, perfect scene after perfect scene, insanely complex to the point of being otherworldly, while also being at its core extremely simple, ‘2001’ has what I believe to be the perfect film structure. It’s graceful, elegant, almost melancholic in execution. Kubrick’s attention to detail is on full display for the entirety of this film, while his pension for extremely well paced scenes and interactions is also distinctly noticeable. It’s one of those films that is notably well made, both on the page and on the screen. The landscapes alone in ‘The Dawn of Man’ are enough to warrant a perfect grade, however the care taken to match the sets with the backgrounds (literally seamless, without a doubt the best set designs I’ve ever seen), to make that environment feel so foreign, yet so familiar, so personal, yet so alien, it’s a real life miracle. Everything feels so visceral, so raw, so eerily realistic that ‘2001’ is already the greatest film ever made, not even 30 minutes in. And of course Kubrick tops it all off with the monolith and the evolution of humanity. Any sane man would be awestruck. It surely must be noted that the actors playing the apes in this first segment are incredible, it’s clear that everyone was putting in a lot of work to make these animals look and sound like actual animals. I love seeing the best possible team of people get together and work together to form an end product to this degree of quality. It only happens once in awhile, and this is easily the best example of that happening.
Following up ‘The Dawn of Man’ is already an insane task to place upon a filmmaker - ‘Dawn of Man’ is one of the greatest first acts ever put to film; it’s a flawless film entirely on its own merits. However, Kubrick not only follows up ‘Dawn of Man,’ but he actually improves upon that brilliant first segment with a second act just as wondrous and creative as you can imagine. The melancholy of pitch black deep space, paired with stunning shots of otherworldly planets makes for enticing viewing. Despite its hefty runtime, ‘2001’ never actually feels like a long movie. You’re never bored. Kubrick understands what the audience needs to see, and he shows it to us. He doesn’t fill his film with idle dialogue and inconsequential scenes, for every scene, every moment, every frame has a point. Every little line of dialogue feels essential, necessary. If anything, Kubrick’s film is an exercise in minimalism, removing any and all components of the story that will cause the story to drag or lose focus. It’s poetic, really. The iconic ‘Space Waltz’ sequence is a reminder of the possibilities of space travel, giving us the most beautiful, yet still fully realistic vision of the future ever put to film. Even today, it’s one of the finest examples of science fiction on film. And it’s not even close to the best scene in the film.
‘2001’ has many scenes I would place among the greatest ever: the tension and mystery of the moon landing sequence, the first majestic scene set on the Discovery 1, the intelligent scripting of the HAL 9000 scenes, or maybe the brilliant exercise in anxiety that is the ‘lip reading’ scene. Scene after scene after scene, each one building off the last, each one just as tightly written and directed as the others. However, there does exist one scene so creatively inspiring, so defiantly original in its brilliance and cinematic beauty that it manages to stand out in a film filled with the greatest scenes ever conceived. Of course, the 10 minute long ‘Stargate’ space trip is the most memorable section of the film, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss the film without at least touching upon it. It’s insane. Everything I’ve ever seen on film has all built up to it, there really isn’t a more original collection of sights and sounds than those final 15-ish minutes of ‘2001.’ I could write so much more than I’ve already written entirely about this single scene, what it means to me, how it alone inspired me to delve into the deeper, more fantastical elements of men’s minds, or how genuinely hypnotic it is, how this one beautifully strange and surreal scene managed to spark countless discussions not just about its meaning, but also about the necessary technical prowess needed for such a scene to even exist in the first place. To talk about the ‘Stargate’ sequence is to talk about the essence of ‘2001’ itself - bright, bold, imaginative, and unforgettable.
Beyond the gorgeous scenery, immaculate camerawork, visionary effects, and top tier acting, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ really has the best story put to film yet. Deeply unpredictable, yet undeniably thought provoking, it’s a film that continues to engage and mystify audiences even now, almost 53 years later. Kubrick is an artist, painting on the largest canvas there is - space itself. The universe is the limit, and Kubrick goes all the way to the edge. By diving into the more hallucinogenic side of the universe, Kubrick opens our eyes to the possibilities presented not just by the medium of film, but by the human race as well. I think it’s a film that’s meant to make the viewer feel small, to make you feel in ways you haven’t before. Or at least not in a way any film has made you feel before. Perhaps that is where the greatness of the film lies. It’s a culmination of the best parts of cinema, all put together in the best possible way. There has never been, and there most likely will never be, a piece of art that reaches the heights achieved by ‘2001.’