“2001: A Space Odyssey” Movie Review

Oh boy. It’s that time, ladies and gentlemen. This moment is one I’ve dreaded ever since starting my Blog on WordPress. The so-called “Sacred Cow” conversation of cinema simply cannot be avoided any further. And what better way to embrace it than in its 50th(!) anniversary? Stanley Kubrick’s epic science-fiction drama was originally released in the United States on April 3rd, 1968. While it turned out to be extremely profitable with a box office take of $190 million against a budget of $10.5 million, critics and audiences were entirely split on what to make of the film. While Roger Ebert hailed it as one of the greatest films of our time, others like Pauline Kael threw words such as “pretentious” and “boring” at it. Today, the consensus has generally fallen over to the positive side of reception. Co-written by the acclaimed sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, the movie was written in tandem with his titular novel. Kubrick was supposedly less interested in the book itself and instead drew from 6 other short stories by Clarke for inspiration. This is a commonality in his oeuvre,  as he really just wanted to explore the concept of extraterrestrial life and our relationship with the stars. The plot is very hard to explain without delving into speculation. On a literal level, the setting is the year 2001 where human beings have mastered both artificial intelligence and space travel. (Note: None of this came to life) After a mysterious black monolith is discovered buried on the Moon, two astronauts, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, are tasked with tracing its origins all the way to Jupiter. They are assisted by HAL 9000, the world’s most advanced computer, and unexpectedly embark on a journey concerning evolution and what it means to be human. I think. As said before, even trying to discuss this film is bound to be controversial. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “Sacred Cow” is an idiom usually referring to a piece of art that is held above criticism, sometimes to a ridiculously unreasonable level. There are many people who will likely murder me if I even dare to say anything negative about the film. In fact, I’m going to put something forth that may anger them even more- I’ve been somewhat lukewarm to most of Kubrick’s features. While I do “get” a lot of things he’s trying to say and absolutely understand his importance to cinema, most of his pictures are ones that I respect and appreciate more than I actually love. There are two exceptions to that rule, and the best one is 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the boldest films ever put on the silver screen. This is not going to be a review in which I try to analyze every frame of this movie trying to search for the hidden meaning. There are already plenty of essays, dissertations, and YouTube videos covering that area. Rather, I just wanted to break down the fact that this movie is so beloved for that exact reason. A whole lot of movies, whether they be effects-heavy blockbusters or ambitious indies, almost always try to relay information to the audience and leave little breathing room. It’s certainly common among today’s cinema but also prevalent in several films from years ago. The beauty about someone like Stanley Kubrick is that while his narratives are well-told and satisfying, it’s the themes that make him a true auteur. There are only a handful of living filmmakers that can reach that level of profundity and ambiguity. One thing a lot of people don’t really talk about when reviewing this film is the acting. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood both do fine work in the roles of human doctors, Bowman and Poole. While the film is famously minimal on dialogue, the two of them are able to deliver the technobabble with a surprising sense of naturalism. But both of them are outdone by Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL 9000. Even with such a monotone voice, this robot is able to convey more emotion than either of his human colleagues during the entirety of their cosmic journey. Late in the plot, when he decides to defend himself against deactivation, he menacingly tells his creator, “I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Aside from them, Daniel Richter is also notable as the chief of the man-apes in a surprisingly haunting prologue. Using nothing but a suit, primate vocal sounds, and a large bone at his disposal, he leaves a lasting impression for the remainder of the film. Meanwhile, on a purely technical scale, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unprecedented achievement even now. Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography does some incredible shots of both the African landscape in the prologue and of space itself. Kubrick’s signature tracking shots and static wides are all present here, and looks especially impressive if you can see it on 70 mm film. What’s really impressive is how scientifically accurate much of the film is, especially the scene set on a lunar base. The director spent months consulting with NASA to ensure that everything would be plausible, including his use of silence and slow movement in space travel. The sets and costume designs are all entirely practical, built with hands and shot with pure celluloid. Compare the effects, spaceships, and costumes with any sci-fi movie going into the early 2000’s- it really holds up. In fact, a lot of CGI fluff we’re getting today pales in comparison. Similar to most of Kubrick’s other works, this is not a film meant for everyone. While several film fans will be completely immersed in the glorious spectacle of it all, just as many will proclaim it to be the most boring motion picture of all time. There are no concrete answers to everything on-screen and moves at an unusually slow pace. Plus, it contains one of the most ambiguous, head-scratching, straight-up WTF endings in the history of cinema- even to this day. I totally get why I lot of people don’t like this movie, and it actually took a rewatch for me to truly appreciate it. But for those with the patience to go on the journey, those who will dare to keep an open mind to all that comes forth, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a peerless cinematic embodiment of sheer visual poetry. Every science-fiction film in the last 50 years has been influenced by it in one way or another. And hopefully, it will do so for at least 50 more.

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