In Retrospect – 2001: A Space Odyssey

The year 1968 proved to be a particularly fertile one when it came to science fiction and apes.

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema

Franklin J. Schaffner’s seminal Planet Of The Apes vividly brought Pierre Boule’s novel to the big screen and earned John Chambers a honourary Oscar for his incredible make-up effects.

Released in the US just days later, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey missed out on a similar award, as popular myth would have it, because the Academy judges believed the apes featured in the film were real rather than men in suits.

The Dawn of Man. Apes discover a thirst for violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Dawn of Man. Apes discover a thirst for violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Whether true or not, it serves as a fitting metaphor for the beguiling nature of Kubrick’s remarkable masterpiece, which remains devilishly confounding and awe-inspiring more than four decades on.

It’s the film’s (and by extension Kubrick’s) refusal to kowtow to those who can’t abide a mystery that is a big reason why we keep revisiting 2001 time and again in the hope of cracking the enigma; all the while knowing that it is a fool’s errand.

Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novella The Sentinel, 2001 posits the theory that mankind has been aided in its evolutionary journey by an almost infinitely superior alien intelligence, represented by imposing black monoliths. From imbuing early hominids with the transformative leap to discern that a bone can be used as both a tool and a weapon to claim territory from others and to kill, an identical monolith uncovered on the moon four million years later triggers mankind’s next step when it emanates a piercing radio signal towards Jupiter.

Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) stares into the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) stares into the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Discovery spacecraft is sent to Jupiter to investigate the signal with a crew including Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and the ship’s computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), but as they near the planet the mission comes under jeopardy and the next step in our evolution awaits.

While there had been science fiction films of a serious nature before, 2001 represented a unparalelled leap forward not only for the genre but for cinema itself. Simply put, no-one had seen anything like it before.

Although certain aspects of the film feel dated (Pan Am is no more of course, while Hardy Amies’ costume design for the stewardesses, for example, has that retro-future look which pegs it to the Sixties), it’s incredible just how much stands the test of time.

The unforgettable HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The unforgettable HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Ever a stickler for the smallest detail, Kubrick was insistent the spacecraft seen in the film should be grounded in science rather than fantasy. Life onboard the Discovery is shown to be routine despite characters seemingly bypassing the laws of physics by appearing at different angles in close proximity; a remarkable feat achieved through the use of an ingenious set built around a centrifuge.

Represented by a single red glowing light, the film’s most effective piece of design also happens to be its most brilliantly realised character. Kubrick is able to imply so much in HAL’s demeanor by clever editing and a subtle shift in camerawork, whether it be paranoia, threat or desperation; all intensified by Rain’s delivery. When HAL informs a TV interviewer that “no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error”, it’s akin to a character coughing and saying they’re alright before dropping dead 10 minutes later.

Staaaar-gaaaaate

Staaaar-gaaaaate

Douglas Trumbull’s pioneering special effects still look good today and must have been mind-blowing at the time, which probably explains why Kubrick luxuriantly devotes whole sequences to space planes docking or arriving on the moon. It’s safe to say that no film today would get away with spending so much time on such things, but there’s a hypnotic quality to watching these scenes as Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz washes over you.

The use of classical music is another of 2001‘s timeless qualities. Kubrick decided early on to strip the narrative and exposition back as much as possible (as opposed to modern day sci-fi films; I’m looking at you Interstellar), which puts more weight on the soundtrack’s shoulders. Older compositions sound like they’ve been written especially for the film, while Gyรถrgy Ligeti’s eerily discordant works have a ghostly quality that creeps under the skin and lends its scenes an extra bite.

Little moments stay with you, such as when an ape casts a glance up to the moon the night before the monolith appears, foreshadowing what’s the come – so indelibly realised by the audacious match cut from the bone being tossed into the air to the space craft orbiting the Earth four million years later.

A rebirth of sorts in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A rebirth of sorts in 2001: A Space Odyssey

So, what exactly are the monoliths? Some have said they represent God (the ape touching the monolith is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam). Perhaps it’s best not to think about it too much, though. If in doubt, take a stress pill and read Roger Ebert’s wry analysis.

There is a wonderfully elliptical nature to the film that’s almost as perfectly formed as the monoliths. Just as we start with the Dawn of Man, so too do we finish with another birth in the form of the iconic starchild. Four million years may have passed, but we are just like that early hominid, casting our eyes up to the sky in fear and wonder.

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema.

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17 comments

  1. Cindy Bruchman · December 13, 2014

    Lovely tribute. You’ve captured the beauty of the film and reminded me I should re-watch it again. I always see something new. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Three Rows Back · December 15, 2014

      Thank you Cindy, very kind. That’s high priase which I accept very gratefully!

  2. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · December 13, 2014

    Fantastic and informative review mate. I managed to catch this as well, the first time I’ve seen a Kubrick film at the cinema and it was brilliant. Absolutely mesmerising. I still don’t fully understand it but I don’t think it’s meant to be fully understood to be honest.

    • Three Rows Back · December 15, 2014

      Really chuffed Chris, thanks mate. I’ve seen it on the big screen three times now and it doesn’t ever get stale. It never will.

  3. ruth · December 15, 2014

    Ok I definitely need to put this film on my Blindspot list next year. It’s just one of those films that for some reason managed to elude me. Your review makes me wish I had seen it!

  4. georginaguthrie · December 15, 2014

    Brilliant article!

  5. ckckred · December 15, 2014

    Nice review. Definitely one of my all-time favorite films. That classical score is really something. Kubrick initially had Alex North write up a soundtrack, but used classical pieces really highlight the evocative mood of the picture more than anything else. I don’t think any song could fit the satellite sequence better than the Blue Danube Waltz.

    • Three Rows Back · December 15, 2014

      Yeah, that Alex North score poses a ‘what if?’, one of many that could have changed the movie beyond recognition. As it stands it’s a classic beyond words. Thanks man.

  6. Ted S. · December 16, 2014

    Nice tribute to a masterpiece! I’ve seen this film countless times, I bought the Bluray disc years ago and have watched it several times. I’m hoping I’ll get to see it on a 70mm screen someday.

    I totally agree with your comment about today’s sci-fi films and especially Nolan’s Interstellar, even though I loved it, my biggest beef with the film was that it tried too hard to tell the audience what the heck is going on. Nolan needs to remember that most audience can figure things out on their own.

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      Thank you Ted. I saw it on 70mm a few years ago and it was something else. I mentioned in my review of Interstellar that, for good or bad, it’s a product of 21st Century filmmaking. Nolan’s masterpiece is yet to come.

  7. Tom · December 20, 2014

    “While there had been science fiction films of a serious nature before, 2001 represented a unparalelled leap forward not only for the genre but for cinema itself. Simply put, no-one had seen anything like it before.” Genius man. But I’d like to add to that, “And no one has seen it since.”

    Because Interstellar fell far short of that, not that Nolan particularly had any goals to even try to mimic Kubrick’s impossibly heady science fiction. This is a great review man, really enjoyed reading it. I owe it to myself to go back and watch 2001 at some point here. Surprises me that I haven’t seen it in over ten years! :O

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      Ah Tom my boy, you are too kind with the compliments! I really enjoyed writing this actutally; it’s one of my proudest reviews. It got re-released here in a new digital print because of the BFI’s sci-fi season and I was never going to pass up watching it on the big screen again. You owe it to yourself to check it out again!

  8. Victor De Leon · December 21, 2014

    Oh my. What a fantastic tribute and essay! I just listened to the audio book 2 nights ago and I have the blu ray lined up to re-watch. This was an amazing read. I must share this! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Three Rows Back · December 21, 2014

      Thank you again! I was a bit war of writing about this because of the weight behind it, but I had a blast on this review.

  9. Pingback: Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974) | three rows back

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