In 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 astronauts 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.