2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

Happy birthday to 2001, yes, it's been 50 years since it went on general release. Just think on that for a moment, 50 years. Think about how far cinema had come in the half century before Kubrick made this film and how far it's come in that same amount of time since then and you realise, if you hadn't already, what an extraordinary achievement it is.

Now I'm sure there are people out there who like to decry the love of this film as a case of The Emperor's New Clothes, that anyone who thinks of it as a masterpiece has just been taken in by the critics and by general opinion and aren't seeing for themselves that there's nothing to it.

And I'm just as sure that they are wrong, or more likely that they are being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

It is a measure of just how great this film is and how far ahead of it's time that watching you feel as if cinema has barely moved on since 1968 or rather than it was the same sort of leap ahead that humanity's ancestors took when they touched the Monolith.

Of course, you can't deny that in some ways it has dated, the costumes for instance are very definitely of the 60s, but the beauty of that is that, except for perhaps the stewardesses uniforms, they really haven't aged badly, coming as they do from that sweet spot in history where fashion looks timeless.

But other than that what we are presented with here is something which hasn't aged because in the area where it all could have gone spectacularly wrong, the effects, Kubrick got it absolutely right. Because the model work is immaculate, the vehicles on screen are present in the film in a way in which CGI still is unable to achieve. And the way in which he deals with gravity, or rather the lack of it, is quite brilliant, turning his characters upside down and on their sides and somehow managing to achieve a real sense of weightlessness.

And then of course there is the story itself, primitive man, timid and generally peaceful is given a nudge forward, is pushed in the direction of tools which will spur on evolution. But what is the first thing he does with it? To kill and to make war, he becomes a meat eater and the first tool is a weapon with which he can assert his dominion over other animals and others of his kind.

Leap forward to the year 2001 and the first sight we get of this brave new future is of an orbiting weapon. We don't know the exact geopolitical situation on Earth, but it's clear that even though there is no overt animosity between America and Russia the two superpowers are working apart and not together and still keeping secrets from one another.

Kubrick and Clarke's view of the future is an optimistic one even so, the world is clearly a more aggressive one now than the one which is postulated here, and we have little chance of reaching for the stars when we don't have the intelligence to even want to claw the world out of the death spiral into which it is falling, let alone the smarts to achieve it.

It is a film which also nails the problem with artificial intelligence. Computers are in themselves infallible, their weakness lies in the programming, but allow them to have an intelligence, to think for themselves and that is where the problems will begin. Or maybe not, maybe AI might be our saviour, maybe as with HAL's assertion that the mission is too important for a human to be allowed to jeopardise it, is not far from the truth.

Without the influence of the monolith humanity might still be grovelling around in the dirt (and maybe it would be better off for it) but without those nudges it is incapable of bettering itself and so to Star Child and the next leap forward. And perhaps this is the ultimate destiny of humanity, the monolith has pushed mankind out to the stars and now sent Star Child back to the Earth, perhaps to save it.

Regardless of all that, it is a film which is a riveting, effortless watch that really isn't like anything else and that still feels like the rest of cinema has yet to catch up to it.

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