I recently decided it was time to up the ante when it comes to the sort of films I mostly cover on here. I tend to focus a lot of the more nerdy and mainstream big movies with occasional toe dipping into the more classical realms of cinema. Time to shake that balance up a little bit. I’m still going to be covering the more action focused stuff. Thor 2 review next week! What I want to do though is cover more of the greats. You don’t get much more great than this, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is also the first Stanley Kubrick film I’ll be reviewing on here. So click the link below to open the pod bay doors (to this review).
2001: A Space Odyssey is what happens when no-one tells Stanley Kubrick “no”. Thank God for that. Who else in the Hollywood studio system would have been able to make a film such as this? A film which spans millions of years, features very little dialogue and risks confounding the entire audience with one of the most existential endings in film history. At the same time the film features effects which still hold up well today and were mind blowing at the time. The film has influenced almost the entirety of science fiction for the last 45 years and provided more than a few Simpsons gags. I’m building this up a fair bit aren’t I?
The film is told in 4 distinct acts. It opens with The Dawn of Man as a tribe of primitive man are going about their mostly ape like business when they wake to find a whacking great black monolith in their home. As this is around 65,000,2000 years before the launch of the Playstation 2 this does strike them as a bit unusual. Soon after the ape men learn to use tools, which soon become weapons. Jump forward 65,000,2001 years and the PS2 has just been launched and we’re headed to a space station orbiting the Earth where Dr Heywood R. Floyd is staying briefly before making a trip to the moon to investigate a strange object that has been unearthed. 18 months after that and Twisted Metal Black has just been released, but more importantly a mission is being conducted to send a crew of 3 hibernating scientists, 2 astronauts and a computer named HAL 9000 (Voiced by Douglas Rain) to follow the last known location of the object previously discovered on the moon. The fourth part of the film is set an indeterminable amount of time after this and is seriously weird.
My God, It’s full of stars!
2001 isn’t a film that everyone will enjoy. It’s pace is slower than the decaying of a red giant. There’s no dialogue at all for the first and last 20 minutes. Scenes of dialogue are often placed between lengthy scenes of space travel such as the famous ship docking scene. The film’s tone is kept muted throughout and never giving into melodrama at all. The muted tone allows for the film’s final sequence to be that much more powerful. You really are not prepared for how out there it gets. This film is not made for people that cannot deal with any of the above. Go back to your Captain Supermans and you car driving films you idiots!
To me though, all those elements above is all part of what makes 2001 stand out (space) above and beyond many other films. The film’s slower, unwaveringly so, pacing keeps you locked in exactly the mood Kubrick intended. The fact it makes you wait 15 minutes before you get to see space forces you to accept that this isn’t going to be the sort of sci fiction film you may be used to. Lord knows what it must have been like for audiences at the time when the majority of Sci-fi was pulpy nonsense. The film’s score, which utilises various pieces of classical music, is placed as such to conjure up the image of ballet in your head as a ship rotate to match the spinning of the space station it is docking with.
As usual, for a Kubrick film, every single shot feels as if it had been agonised over and iterated to perfection. The framing is beautiful and often unconventional. Aesthetically the space stations and vessels look entirely practical on the outside whilst having a sparse and very modern design ethic on the inside. The interiors are designed to not only look like they belonged in the future, when the film was made, but to also not fall into the trappings of 60s design culture in order to possibly date them. I’d say the chairs on the space station were a bit 60s but chairs like them are all over the place these days.
It’s clear that Kubrick and Co-Writer, and science fiction legend, Arthur C. Clarke spent a lot of time ensuring that the sets complimented the science they were rigidly devoted to supporting. Many of the sets are curved to mirror the spherical designs of the ships that in turn enable the artificial gravity on the stations. In one scene we see Astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) steps off a ladder stepping off onto what appears to be the ceiling as he walks around the circumference of the set to meet Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as the opposite end. This visual trick is used often to convey the idea that there is no such thing as down when gravity is being controlled. The effect was achieved by building a giant rotatable set for the actors to walk along as to turned. Yes, that means Lockwood started the scene upside down and strapped to a chair. A similar effect was performed most recently in Inception for the hallways fight scene. This massive set was constructed just to create the sort of shots most producers would have just told the director to scrap due to being bat shit insane.
The science behind the vision extends beyond that though. Through windows you’ll see the Moon rotating as if it were attached to a pin and being spun around. Food and drink are shown to be either packaged in cartons, to stop them floating away, or to be basic vitamin compounds for the sake of providing the correct nutrition the scientists need. The Jupiter mission ships computer, HAL, is used for every tiny function on board the ship, including the extremely important task of adjusting the angle of beds. This helps to enforce an over reliance on technology which Arthur C. Clarke clearly saw happening. This in turn helps you to understand how much of a big deal it will be for Poole and Bowman to shut HAL down as the computer begins to show signs of being a little bit mad.
HAL 9000 is the film’s hook as far as characters go. Displaying more emotion than any of the humans in the film helps make the threat he represents feel a lot heavier as the film progresses. HAL’s gradual unravelling, which is down to knowledge of the mission not shared to the two astronauts, helps provide the film with a slightly terrifying reality that’s quite pertinent today. We’re increasing leaving every aspect of our lives up to our computers and iPads and phones. When they don’t work we freak out a little. What happens if the computers we rely on decide to take actions against us when their programming decides that they no better than us? Hopefully we’re some way off that worry, but we’re already seeing computers that use A.I. to make decisions for people. HAL has been copied as a shorthand for rogue computer intelligence ever since. Hell, Eagle Eye pretty much cast HAL 9000 as it’s villain. When I saw the first trailers for Moon the visual referencing to HAL made me think the film was going to be entirely about a computer going mad. Also, if you have an iPhone, ask Siri to open the pod bay doors. Go on, just do it.
What you have in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a genuine moment of cinema history. It’s an art movie that pushes visual effects to the limit. It’s a space epic conducted without a single laser beam being fired. It asks us to think forward about what the evolution of life and technology have in store and for us to both look on in wonder and fear. Because of the advancements in effects this film pioneered Star Wars was possible. Because of the mature tone science fiction became a genre to respect. Because of its visual achievements many young film fans set themselves on the path to being film makers. It inspired technology that exists today such as the iPad and the Playstation 2’s design. Game designers such as David Braben saw the docking sequence and used it as the basis for his masterpiece in Elite. It gets more right about space travel than almost any other film. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that can be held up to the highest regard possible. It may not be a film everyone will enjoy, but those that do will find one of the richest cinematic experiences ever made.