What can one say about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that has not already been said? Not much, as it is one of the most talked about films and there is no real unified interpretation on its meaning. Yet, I guess the more relevant question is: Does it still stand up today? Sitting in the completely full Astor Theatre in St. Kilda last night, I can safely say that it still holds the same special place in the ‘cult following’ niche of film. Never will a film divide film buffs as much as this film and it is not hard to define why.
The majority of the film centres around Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, two astronautical scientists, who are on the spaceship Discovery, on the way to Jupiter on a highly confidential mission, related to a strange alien, rectangular prism found buried under the Moon’s surface. Accompanying them, is the H.A.L 9000 computer, a seemingly perfect machine which controls all parts of the ship. Yet, as suspicions rise between Dave and Frank about H.A.L, their mission may be plunged into jeopardy.
The stand-out feature for all who view this film is the ground-breaking special effects and Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail. The landscapes of the Moon and indeed the initial shots of space are seamlessly presented, transporting the audience to the time and setting perfectly, even jumping from ‘The Dawn of Man’ in one of the most ingenious jump-cuts in film history. However, it is the notorious ‘Stargate’ sequence which exemplifies the evolution of special effects that this film incited. Without 2001, there would not be the green screens of CGI which is ubiquitous in the present mainstream film landscape.
However, a film can not stand alone purely on its special effects. It seems that a film that is itself set in the year of 2001, should be evaluated based on how well it predicted how life would be 12 years ago. This is where one can realise the film as both timeless, yet extremely dated. One only has to see the ‘Picturephone’ and the complex computer screens for landing, as well the film’s obsession with IBM, to see that it is not as accurate as it had hoped, regardless of the several experts on hand during filming to ensure accuracy. Yet, this also provides the film with a certain charm: to see Floyd reading the instructions for the toilet and the liquified and processed food necessary for space travel provides a little chuckle deep in today’s audience.
Now, the first thing that one can notice as soon as the film begins is that it is excruciatingly, painfully, and almost beautifully SLOW. This is probably the point where the film loses a majority of its potential audience. As Kubrick lingers just a moment too long on a shot or a sequence, one can see that 2001 is a film to immerse yourself in. That is not to say that it is impossible to understand. In the first sequence, the various establishing shots, while maybe excessive, do display the desolate landscape. Even, without dialogue, bar the grunts of Moonwatcher and his clan, the audience can piece out exactly what is going on, except for the meaning of the monolith. The consequent sequence, while still remaining one of the film’s most famous sequences, accompanied by the non-synchronised ‘Blue Danube Waltz’, another landmark feature of the film being its use of classical music rather than a score written to suit the visuals, can become grating even on the most enthusiastic of film buffs. While the visual clarity and contrasts remain stunning, the sequence remains, like many others, just a little bit too long, so that people begin to stop paying the attention needed. This opinion could be based upon the fact that I was raised with fast-paced action movies, and the current generation is predetermined to stop caring without sex, drugs and violence. However, in order to view this film properly, one needs to be in a certain state of mind, a rare position where you are neither over-analysing each aspect of each shot, or submitting to the atmosphere, but rather a thin middle-ground between these.
Perhaps 2001 is over-rated in terms of how good of a film it is. Perhaps it is better to think of it as a visual experience than a narrative story. It is definitely and will remain to be the quintessential ‘art film’ and indeed the beginning of one of the most popular generic movements of the 20th century. Without 2001: A Space Odyssey, there would be no Star Wars, Star Trek would not be the massive franchise it is growing to be, there would be no Alien series (albeit all of these being hybridisations of science-fiction). It has shaped popular culture forever (with the H.A.L. 9000 glowing red eye easily recognisable and the popularisation of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra). Therefore, everyone interested in film or in science-fiction should watch this film at least once. While it may not remain as relevant in a scientific standpoint, its thematic foundations of the evolution of man, the dangers of technology and the possibility of extraterrestrial life are as relevant as ever.