Historical Circuit: 2001: A Space Odyssey (★★★)


2001SpaceOdysseyIn honor of Gravity’s release, I had to go where no man has gone before…and I’m not talking about Star Trek. 2001: A Space Odyssey has appeared on almost every film list imaginable, from the best movies ever made to the greatest science-fiction pieces, and the scariest movies every (that one is a taste dubious in my opinion). With that, I hadn’t watched 2001 till a few months back, and what an experience that was. And make no mistake, 2001 is an experience as opposed to a movie. It isn’t entertainment, it is art. However, does that present an enjoyable movie that will please audiences? Let’s dive in.

2001 is operatic, and as such is based around a variety of “movements” that blend together to create the full film. A cohesive synopsis is hard to articulate, because the tenuous connections to the movie are hard to find (the core one being a series of monoliths that each movement presents). The movie opens with the dawn of man, and the introduction of violence within our culture. After that, the story moves into the mass implementation of space technology, culminating with the growing antagonism between a computer called HAL-9000 with two astronauts.

To kick things off: 2001: A Space Odyssey deserves its place within film history. Director Stanley Kubrick creates a masterpiece that explores life, religion, technology, paranoia; essentially everything we would come to fear in the next several decades. The movie’s release in 1968 is telling from a historical perspective; the US was in the worst year of Vietnam as well as the bloodiest period within the Civil Rights Movement. The space travel sequences Kubrick creates are spectacular, and surprisingly hold up to scrutiny today. America wouldn’t go to the moon until the year after 2001’s release, but Kubrick’s visions are prophetic and haunting (with many conspiracy theorists claiming Kubrick faked and filmed the lunar landing itself).

The strongest sequence is the HAL-9000; it’s the moment where the movie picks up and from which it never transcends as a whole. Sentient technology continues to be discussed in popular culture, and I have to wonder if James Cameron saw this and decided, “I could go bigger.” The fear and terror of HAL isn’t necessarily that he’s a machine slowly becoming conscious; it’s the fear that the two astronauts are as alone as they can get in the entire universe. There is no one to help them if things go wrong, and HAL is the feature meant to mitigate anything going wrong in the first place! Kubrick introduces a mystery element within 2001 with HAL; are the spaceodysseyastronauts going crazy, or is HAL really defective. There’s a heaping helping of various theories on which of those is correct, and Kubrick doesn’t make presumptions either way. The dichotomy lies in the horrors HAL’s committing, and the sympathy derived when Dave (Keir Dullea) finally decides to unplug him. As HAL is slowly being disassembled, his fears about life and death mimic our own. The computer recites his entire life’s story, transforming from adult to infant to, eventually, non-existent.

Unfortunately, the movie never really becomes as engaging or entertaining as it does in that one segment. Yes, every moment preceding and following the HAL segment is beautiful and necessary to understand Kubrick’s vision; it just doesn’t make for an entertaining movie. The final sequence, culminating in the birth of the star child, is beautiful, but it’s akin to watching a trippy music video or a screensaver. Similarly, the dawn of man sequence is interesting – particularly the use of costuming – but its message is so heavy-handed it’s literally beaten into the apes brains. Kubrick seems to misapprehend his audience at various points. In some instances, the aforementioned dawn of man, he believes the audience is stupid and needs the message reinforced. In the last sequence, it comes off as incredibly overwrought and pretentious. I haven’t found someone who says that the star child sequence is the best part of the movie, yet.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a beautiful movie, but it is an odyssey in itself to sit through. At a turgid 160 minutes, the HAL section is the glimmer that shines bright and then fades away. Please don’t misunderstand me: 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic, and rightfully so. I do believe, though, there’s a difference between classics that are timeless and entertaining, and classics that are timeless and required viewing. The ones marked required viewing, generally aren’t rewatched more than once; the latter is where I put 2001.

  • moviewatcher

    But… like you said, this movie is not meant to be entertainment. It never for one second pretends to be that. So why do you still judge it in terms of its entertainment value? I really don’t understand when people do this, especially about 2001. Say they understand that it is merely a piece of art and then judge it as entertainment. You can’t stick to your preconceived notion of what cinema is supposed to be when judging a film like 2001. Cinema is an ever changing artform and you must adapt your expectations and your critical judgement when dealing with these kinds of films. Otherwise, you’re criticizing them for not being what you thought they SHOULD BE, not for being bad at what they want to be.

    Also, how is the last sequence overwrought? It’s incredible in its simplicity. Kubrick conveys very complex ideals with zero dialog (and at the same time capturing some of the most beautiful, if arguably disturbing, images ever caught on film). You say you have yet to find someone who says that the star child sequence is the best part of the movie? Well, jot that one off the bucket list, ’cause here I am. Those last 30 minutes are masterful. And I think that the fact the film is mentioned in so many of those “best of all time” lists proves that there are many many people out there that would agree with that.

  • Since I saw it in first release in the Cinedome and was stunned by the film from beginning to end. To this day, while finding much of the equipment (particularly Bell Telephone) anachronistic and sometimes fast forwarding through the pre history segment, I still find it one of the most enjoyable films ever made. It is entertaining. It is also magic.

  • JamDenTel

    The greatest film ever made? I’d say so. And the Star Gate sequence is the best part of it. The last five minutes aren’t my favorite, but I’ve come to appreciate them.

  • This is a divisive film, so we should all understand how people can and do feel differently about it. To me, it is one of the 10 best films of all time, and if you said it was the greatest movie ever made, I wouldn’t argue with you. Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail, the bone/spaceship jump sequence, the terror of the HAL 9000, and that beautiful ending, are just a small part of what makes this film a perfect 10, something I can only say about six films ever made.

  • jmlatinsir

    Kirsten, excellent review. You made some very good points in your analysis. I am not going to argue with them since I do understand them. However, I have to say that for me 2001 is one of the greatest films of all time. It is pure cinema: the photography, the production design, the music, the actors. I believe Kubrick chose not to use big names so as not to distract from his focus and themes: man’s destiny’s and place in the universe. The ambiguity works for it rather than against it, and yes, one needs patient to absorb it all. It is slow-spaced but I was enthralled from its first image to the last. It’s interesting that you bring up Gravity, which I recently saw. Both these films push the boundaries of filmmaking to new heights of innovation. But whereas Gravity is a white-knuckle pop-corn thriller (and I don’t mean that as a negative), 2001 is food for thought. I believe when it first came out, it was not embraced by the critics, yet time and perspective has pushed it up the list of the greatest films ever made (see Sound and Sight list).
    Thanks for the review.

    • jmlatinsir

      Sorry, I made a typo in your name Kristen.