2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Review

I finally got around to seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” today, new years eve 2014. I woke up early so that I could watch as much as I could before my family awoke and began to make noise. I could have watched it in my room on my little laptop or even my small TV, though I knew I needed to make the best of efforts to get the best of experiences. I knew I needed silence, for this reason I made sure to leave my phone in another room. I knew the story would be told mostly visually, so I made sure to draw the curtains and isolate myself from the sun. I knew that I needed to concentrate and think for myself, and for this reason I ignored the questions of my sister who had joined in during the last 15 minutes of the film. “This film is stupid”, she said, and no doubt it did look it.

The film at the time was displaying the intense psychedelia that occurs when Dave Bowman encounters the monolith. I was being asked what was happening, why wasn’t anyone saying anything and why the film was so self indulgent. “2001” is fantastic because it is the purest displays of what cinema can do I have ever seen. You cannot hope to enjoy the film unless you allow yourself to be fully indulged in what it offers. The technical achievement of Stanley Kubrick cannot be understated as a huge part of what makes “2001” so special. Due to his full understanding of how to make the space sequences look utterly convincing, he can then play with them as he see’s fit.

From a technical standpoint, the film is flawless. It is an objective fact that “2001” looks spectacular — to the extent that it looks like a film released far more recently than 1968. It was released before “Alien”, “Bladerunner”, even the moon landing. I can’t stress enough the importance of the visual in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and that these technical achievements are on their own incredibly significant in the evolution of film.

It is fitting then, that “2001” is such a fantastic look at the process of evolution itself and where exactly that will take us. Have you ever thought to yourself where humans can go? Darwin’s theory has become known to all and there are few who dismiss it, even many of those who are members of religions that historically have persecuted those who believed in the theory have integrated it into their own religious teachings. So surely many have wondered what the significance of humans really is, though perhaps they haven’t. Roger Ebert wrote in an article of his (“2001” — The Monolith and the Message) that many who were watching the film in the cinema spent the run length asking questions and many even left before the film ended.

Roger suggested that “Perhaps it is the nature of man not to wish to know too much about his own nature.” Certainly, thinking back as I find myself uncontrollably doing, what the film presents to us is actually a very disturbing parable. Not only is the achievement of “2001” as monumental as the messages it conveys, but the messages themselves go some way to suggest that we are only a stage and we have much further to go. Though “we” will not be “us” for the entire journey.

There is very little dialogue and I remember being surprised when I realised long prior that the film opened at the “Dawn of Man”. This is when apes were roaming in what was soon to become their ashes. Though before this there is around 3 minutes of a black screen that plays some distant ambient sound. it is somewhat frightening, and also reminded me that films are made up of many layers of conveyance. Of course there is the visual, something “2001” relishes in most strongly, but there is also sound. Not only did this initial screen have me thinking to myself what exactly I was about to watch was, but it also prepared me for it. The atmosphere generated is never really lost, and it amazes me how Kubrick was able to tear the art of film down to its bare components and show that he had absolute control over each. An ability that is suitably Godlike, and perfectly represented.

After the black screen we are treated to Jonathan Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”. One of the most instantly memorable pieces of music ever heard, and despite being a 19th century piece, it compliments “2001” perfectly. It is played to the backdrop of the sun rising over the earth and shining onto the moon. The music and the pace create a majestic grandeur that is beautiful and just as intense as the balletic space craft later in the film.

The first 20 minutes make up the “Dawn of Man” sequence that essentially prepared you for the lack of spoken word in the film. No, it isn’t a silent film, but it could have been. The apes wake up one morning and discover the straight edged and wholly unnatural looking monolith. Delivered by someone from somewhere, but that we know it wasn’t us is all that is important. The apes crowd around the monolith tentatively, and eventually an entire group reach out for it and admire its perfect physicality. Then, an ape picks up the bone of tapir carcass for the first time and uses it to smash apart the picked-apart remains. This is again played to “Also sprach Zarathustra” which brilliantly gives the scene a comic edge, as we look at how significant the hairy creature seems to believe the act of picking up a tool and breaking things with it seems to be.

Kubrick cuts to the future, when the bone tool in question is thrown into the air and cuts into a space ship. There is a plot here despite what some would say, and it is clear so far what it is. The meanings and significance of the motifs are a little harder to pry open, but claims that “2001” is hard to follow at its base are unfounded. It is only towards the end that one might need some assistance, but the answers are all here.

Many, including I, initially expected the film to be about the tyranny of the HAL 900 computer computer system aboard the Discovery One spaceship. Yes, the system does make an important appearance in the films latter half and is superbly voiced by Douglas Rain, but this isn’t all the film is about. The HAL 9000 is a superb antagonist that seems created to give man some kind of meaning, which ironically creates a system that can out-think man intellectually.

This occurs after another monolith is found on the moon by men in the distant future. It is emitting radio signals towards Jupiter, and 18 months later the 5 crew members of the Discovery One find themselves heading to the distant gas giant without a full briefing of why. 3 of the crew are in hypersleep, and it is only Dr. Dave Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) that are left to attend the ship. The sixth crew member is really HAL, as he runs every aspect of the ship. Eventually, for some reason, HAL begins to “malfunction” and he begins to dispatch the crew. It is at this point that the tools of man have finally outgrown man himself.

The ending is chock full of meanings I won’t discuss. Having viewed the film once, I don’t think it is fair to inflict my opinion upon those who could very easily find a more informed answer. Needless to say, after over 2 hours of marveling at fantastically choreographed — and I do mean choreographed — space flights. After over 2 hours of watching men jog in inexplicable yet convincing circles around the various spaceships throughout the film. After over 2 hours of such artistic vision that I’ve never seen before, which actually made me look at scenes and logically conclude “oh yeah, I guess it would be like that”. After over 2 hours of majesty, the ending pleasantly confused and confounded me. Even so, it was still absolutely wonderous.

The beauty of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is that it will never really end. I’m thinking about it now and I will be thinking about it for a long time to come. After multiple viewings, I will be back again to write some more about it. And then, maybe,  just a little more.

10/10

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