2001: A Space Odyssey
UK (1968) Dir. Stanley Kubrick
When it comes to classic films one has never viewed before, the totem apparently is Star Wars (Episode IV for you pedants out there). However there is a sci-fi film that precedes – and indeed heavily influenced – Star Wars which carries an even greater onus for first time viewers – I refer of course to Stanley Kubrik’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Broken down into four parts, the story isn’t immediately obvious but Kubrik’s intent was to create a visually immersive experience as opposed to straightforward entertainment. The film opens with the Dawn Of Man segment. A group of primates discover a black monolith and shortly after, embrace the concept of weaponry to reclaim their territory from a rival group. The classic throwing the bone into the air morphs into a shot of a space craft heading for a huge space station onboard which a group of scientists discuss their secret plans to a launch as mission to investigate the presence of a strange black monolith on the moon.
Fast forward eighteen months and we are onboard the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One bound for Jupiter, running under the control of sentient computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Of the five man crew, three are still in cryogenic hibernation while Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) remain awake. From here the story turns into a tense and chilling psychological thriller as HAL seems to develop a fault when he wrongly predicts the failure of an important component of the craft. Bowman and Poole conspire to shut HAL down if he makes another mistake, forcing HAL to go into self defence mode.
“Groundbreaking” actually seems too small a word for this film – even “paradigm shifting” feels rather inadequate – but hopefully you get the idea of just how important 2001 is, not just to Sci-fi but filmmaking in general. From the unusual narrative structure, to the unprecedented leap and innovation in special effects, to the now legendary use of classical music and limited dialogue, Kubrik rewrote the movie making playbook – and, as we were to witness, he still wasn’t done!
The other important name we need to discuss here is sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrik and Clarke worked in tandem for four years to create a feature length script from Clarke’s short story The Sentinel while writing a novel concurrently, which ended up being credited to Clarke.
2001 is a prescient work in many ways, not just in how it would shape Sc-fi but society in general. Modern gadgets like the iPad and stringent hi-tech security systems for example are predicted here, as well as regular space travel and of course, the reliance on computers for our every need. This last facet becomes a major plot point yet the irony is that we still haven’t learned our lesson from this even fifty years later!
I am nowhere near clever enough to explore the philosophical meanings behind this film and the symbolism of the key segments, which rings especially true for the bewildering but visually stupendous final act. As baffling as it is ambiguous it is certainly a memorable conclusion – my own interpretation is that the story came full circle but I am sure this is wrong – and stands alongside the many iconic moments this film can boast.
In this respect, Kubrik is either lucky or a genius in that so many of his films are easily identifiable from a simple image, pop culture reference or spoof; from Dr. Strangelove to A Clockwork Orange to The Shining pretty much everyone will immediately make the connection while 2001 is full of them! From the bone throwing to the dancing space craft to the single red lens to represent HAL to the psychedelic star gate trip, Kubrik and Clarke’s incredible vision has become entrenched in our psyche to the point many will forever refer to the classical music pieces as the “2001 music tracks”!
2001 is not a film for everyone it must be said. In striving to eschew the sci-fi blueprint of rockets, alien monsters, testosterone fuelled heroics and skimpily clad damsels in distress, Kubrik delivers a stripped bare experience where silence is a key factor in heightening the terror of the third act. This bold move, along with the moderate pace and time consuming quotidian activities, will put some viewers off, especially if they like their sci-fi action packed and loud.
That said, this film would have suffered greatly if Bowman’s conflict with HAL had been a fast paced, physical showdown with witty quips and a pulsating music soundtrack. The stoic silence for this steady clash of wills even without any excessive heroics makes for a perfectly taut and gripping scenario, buttressed by the invisible omnipotence of HAL, a bona fide scary cinema villain.
For many the visuals will be the film’s crowning achievement for which Kubrik won an Oscar as he created these himself, along with the legendary Douglas Trumbull. Literally light years ahead of every other sci-fi before it, the special effects are outstanding and still look spectacular today. The star gate is ahead of its time as are the space craft and their movements, all captured with the most stunning photography which remains vivid and peerless today – and this was 1968!!
The list of films influenced and inspired by 2001 is endless – from Star Wars to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to Solaris to Silent Running to Gravity to Interstellar – while Kubrik himself is high on every filmmakers list of influences. I can see why it may appeal too much to modern audiences as it is far from a high octane space adventure as you can get, but this film does show that a much maligned genre like sci-fi is capable of being serious and thought provoking.
Simply put 2001: A Space Odyssey is deservedly one of the most important films of 20th century cinema.