When film director Stanley Kubrick began the journey to make “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he told his co-writer on the project, author Arthur C. Clarke, that he was going to make the best science fiction film that had ever been made.
While watching “2001” during its recent 50th anniversary 70MM and IMAX re-release, I came to believe that Kubrick could have justifiably said he was going to make the best science fiction film that would ever be made.
The monumental technical advancements seen in “2001” hold up well, even after five decades of innovation in filmmaking, and the movie remains the genre’s defining achievement in thematically focused storytelling. The word “masterpiece” has perhaps been applied too generously to films over the years, but if “2001” isn’t a masterpiece, no science fiction movie is.
I’ve gotten more than few scoffs when I’ve spoken of the film in these lofty terms. To many people, “2001” is a long, painful bore with an ending that makes no sense.
In the most extreme example of an adverse reaction to the movie, a girlfriend once considered breaking up with me when I showed her the film after we’d been dating only a couple weeks. (We’d both picked a movie to watch, and “2001” didn’t pair well with “Miss Congeniality.”)
But the very things some people say are the film’s glaring weaknesses – the interminable stretches with no dialog, the lifeless performances, the real-time space walks – are its greatest strengths. Each of these characteristics emphasizes the film’s groundbreaking themes and was deliberately employed by Kubrick.
To appreciate “2001,” it helps to put yourself in the mindset of a moviegoer in 1968. At that time, science fiction was largely the domain of aliens, robots and cheesy visual effects. With rare exception (released in 1951, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a uniquely intelligent sci-fi film), genre movies were not meant to be taken seriously.
Then “2001” landed in theaters, and from its first frame, it elevated science fiction films into the exalted realm of art.
Kubrick opens with a shot of a barren desert and the words “The Dawn of Man.” This first image establishes “2001” as a film that mostly uses images, rather than dialog, to tell its story. The Earth was old long before man appeared, Kubrick says. How much older, then, must the entities that placed the monolith on the planet’s surface be?
When Kubrick cuts from a falling bone an unevolved ape has tossed into the air to a spaceship in orbit around Earth, it represents a great leap forward in the evolution of man but a mere blip in the inconceivably long lifespan of the universe. (Making this point scored me no points with my date, who was already complaining about being bored.)
From there, Kubrick tells the story of a journey to Jupiter to investigate why a monolith discovered on the Earth’s moon sent a radio burst toward the Jovian giant.
Kubrick and Clark weaved several progressive themes into the film’s bareboned plot, the most prominent of which seems to be the dangers of relying on technology.
In the film, the crew of the Jupiter-bound Discovery One have turned over all their basic functions to a computer dubbed the HAL 9000. This not only places crewmembers David Bowen and Frank Poole in mortal danger when HAL malfunctions, but the limited use of dialog and the stoic language of the astronauts suggest mankind lost some of its humanity as machines did more and more of the heavy lifting.
Technically, “2001” represented a quantum leap forward in special effects. Its scenically accurate space flights and trippy Star Gate sequence (which were created by special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull) might not impress viewers weaned on CGI, but they were revolutionary at the time (nearly a full decade before “Star Wars”) and still look good.
Watching “2001” on the big screen for the first time since 1976, I imaged how audiences must have responded to the sheer beauty of the famous Pan Am space plane docking sequence, and how Bowman’s tour through the birth and evolution of the universe at the end of the film must have blown their minds – even as it sent them away scratching their heads.
Just as cool – and still inspiring a “How did they do that?” response – are the shots showcasing the zero-gravity environment of space.
“2001” was an excellent choice for a 70MM and IMAX presentation. Although I lament that I was unable to see a 70MM screening, which would have featured a print transferred directly from the original negative, I was at least able to see a digital IMAX showing.
The large screen on which I viewed the film emphasized the beauty and dance-like grace of the space plane docking scene in a way a TV cannot. And the shots of a tiny Discovery One against a vast backdrop of stars accentuate man’s insignificance in the universe.
As I watched “2001” for the umpteenth time (but only the second time on a large screen), I was struck by the number of things I noticed for the first time.
I smiled when I saw how Kubrick establishes HAL as an ever-present, watchful entity in his first shot of the computer’s famous red eye, in which Bowman is reflected.
I felt a palpable loneliness as I listened to the sad strings of the adagio movement of composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite,” which accompanies the Discovery One on its long journey through the void of space. The composition is just one of the several classical music pieces Kubrick used as a temporary soundtrack for the film to help him establish mood but then kept in the final version – even after paying for a modern orchestral score.
And I was surprised by how much I identified with HAL as Bowman dismantles him and the computer regresses into a state of dementia. Ironically, I felt no such emotion for any of the humans in the film.
More than anything, I realized that “2001” exists fundamentally as a visual tone poem. It abandons traditional narrative structure and, like a wordless painting that hangs in a museum, tells its story evocatively, through pictures and the emotions it stirs with us.
You might be thinking, “This is all well and good, but the movie is no longer in theaters, so what am I supposed to do?” A 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version has been announced for home release on Oct. 30. Put it on your holiday wish list.
Although you’ll miss the big-screen experience, the disc will surely be gorgeous, and you’ll be able to watch this unforgettable film whenever you choose, delving deeper into its depths and layers with each viewing.
Just don’t show it on a third date.
P.S. About the ending: Volumes have been written about the meaning of the conclusion of the film, which features the appearance of the Starchild. I believe it’s more literal than ambiguous and gives the film an uplifting denouement.