2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Plot: Mankind finds a mysterious, obviously artificial, artifact buried on the moon and, with the intelligent computer HAL, sets off on a quest.
Genre: Mystery / Sci-Fi
Awards: Won 1 Oscar - Best Special Visual Effects. Nom. for 3 Oscars - Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: YES)
Hands down, and without a shadow of a doubt, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science-fiction picture ever made. Even if something similar is attempted today, it will inevitably still be streets behind Stanley Kubrick’s influential masterpiece.
After making a name for himself with classic films such as Paths of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), Kubrick bolstered and cemented his reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers ever to grace our planet with the release of 2001, at a time when space exploration looked real and promising.
2001 is a meditative journey into the nature of our existence. Kubrick explores many themes, most notably that of existentialism, man versus machine, and the cycle of life. At the beginning of the film, the director brings us back into the prehistoric age when humans looked like apes. The quest for survival slowly turns violent, from getting food and avoiding predators to forming “clans” to fight against each other for territorial rights.
This is greatly juxtaposed with colonized space, which forms the bulk of 2001’s remaining two hours. In one of the most stunning jump cuts ever, we see an ape-human throw a bone up into the bright sky and as gravity pulls it down in one swift motion, it suddenly becomes an image of a satellite (shaped like that bone) floating in dark, infinite (and gravity-less) space. In that mind-blowing split moment, Kubrick hurtles us thousands of years into the future.
Colonizing space ironically leads to even deeper isolation. And this is felt by two crewmen onboard a manned flight to Jupiter. Actually, the phrase “manned flight” is misleading because the huge spacecraft they are in is completely controlled by a powerful and error-proof intelligent computer called HAL.
Now, Kubrick plays on the man versus machine theme with devastating consequences for both sides. Reliance on technology could be a boon or a bane, and till this day, there isn’t a film every year that does not ignite the hot debate over this.
A final major theme of 2001 is the concept of the ever-continuing life cycle of human existence. The final sequence in which an astronaut finds himself inside a coldly detached room somewhere in space and sees the physical image of himself – a frail, old man having a meal, and then dying on a bed – not only provokes thought about the transient nature of life, but also asks of the question: is there more to life after death?
Kubrick seems to argue in the positive by presenting to us the blissful image of a star child overlooking the universe. Does it symbolize reincarnation, the continuation of the cycle of life? Or being one with the Creator? Or immortality?
Up until then, and much so to his credit, Kubrick has not explicitly brought in ideas about religion, though one can argue that “the monolith”, a rectangular grey block made of an unknown inert material that appears in four key moments in the film, is simultaneously a symbol of mystery, and the ultimate black box containing all the answers to our existence. In other words, “the monolith” could be God.
2001 features Kubrick’s unique melding of imagery and motion to the sound of classical music. Man-made space objects rotate and float across the length of the screen, as slow as the director would allow them to move so as to imitate the reality of motion in space.
Working together with the famous Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay), Kubrick brings astounding realism to his craft, building models of space objects to their finest details, and winning his only competitive Oscar in his career for Best Special Visual Effects.
Kubrick’s strong eye for visual symmetry (where props are placed and spaced equally) is also apparent and this would later go on to be a hallmark of his visual style in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980), influencing a new generation of filmmakers including Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, 2007) and Duncan Jones (Moon, 2009).
Perhaps the only drawback of 2001 is its very slow pace, which may frustrate on the first viewing (I felt the same way too). However, its snail-like pace will suit subsequent viewings better, especially when appreciation for Kubrick’s craftsmanship, direction, and cinematic vision mature with time.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a towering achievement, a science-fiction masterpiece that will never be equaled. It just might be Kubrick’s greatest contribution to cinema, and remains to be my favourite film, alongside Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
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