Originally Written on 6/14/2011
Sixteen years ago, in the basement of my parent’s house, I had my first run in with the Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. My dad, being a pretty big science fiction fan, told me this was one of those must see films and for the most part, he was right. The stunning visuals, deliberate pacing and one of the most cunningly evil antagonists in movie history enthralled my growing pre-teen mind. The thought of my 486 Packard Bell computer becoming self aware or playing chess with my microwave was a chilling idea for my 14 year old brain. Despite my amazement, one thing bugged me when the final view of the obelisk in alignment faded from the screen: what did it all mean? Asking my dad was no help. Sure he had read the book and had said something about the Star Child being a metaphor for the next era of man or some claptrap but I remember distinctly nodding my heads in agreement while wondering what the hell he was talking about. Since then, I’ve seen it numerous times and while I get the jist of the film much more than I did when I was fourteen, I still can’t help but feel I’m left with too many questions at the end, despite my mind, one again, being blown. Challenging, beautiful and sometimes exasperating, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a landmark movie that poses tough questions with no easy answers, forcing the viewer to interpret the events in their way, leading them to their own conclusions.
Released in 1968, a full year before American astronauts would land on the moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey was Kubrick’s follow up to the wildly controversial yet wonderful Dr. Strangelove. This wide sweeping story of man’s evolution from ape to intelligent human to something beyond was met with critical damnation upon its initial release. Many theaters stopped running it due to poor critical support and the studio was ready to pull the movie completely due to languishing box office receipts. Despite this impending doom, the film, after a short period of middling success, finally found its audience. Largely made up of younger people, eager to experience the mind bending head trip of the star gate scene, new audiences ate up the revolutionary special effects, deliberate pacing and other worldly vision of a director at the peak of his filmmaking prowess. Science fiction would never be the same.
Now, seen over forty years after its initial release, 2001 still holds much of its initial magic while at the same time becoming rather dated with age. This dichotomy is evident within the first ten minutes of the feature, where we are treated to six minutes of a black screen, peppered with noises, sounds and an overture gets immediately followed by stunning views of a pre-man world. This mixture of brilliant photography and head scratching surrealism is what makes 2001 a joy and a chore to get through. For example, just as you get sucked into the story of pre man creatures discovering humanity through violence, the film bogs down, showing long takes of spacecraft floating poetically to the Blue Danube. Right when you start learning about the lack of communication from the outpost and start wondering about the mysterious object, the film grinds to a halt, forcing you to sit through a painfully slow ten minute space travel sequence. In 2001, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these criticisms need to be graded on a forty year curve. Take the original viewing audience, for example. Back in the late sixties, nobody had seen space like the one Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke had imagined. The floating anti-gravity and the way everything in space seems to dance with the soundtrack was wondrous to an audience raised on Buck Rogers television serials. Now consider the source of this review. Being a newly crowned thirty-something living in Manhattan, I’m surrounded by constant motion: my route home is dependant on walk signs, I’ll transfer from subway to subway to shave minutes off my time and I walk at a pace so brisk, I should be auditioning for a Nike commercial. Sure, I relish and seek out slower moments in my free time, but in the end, my time is a precious commodity that I have little latitude to waste. The struggle for me is that even though I appreciate the artistry and beauty of the filmmaking of 2001, the effect has diminished some, removing much of the tension that must have been felt by the original audiences. Although the film really hits its stride when HAL is introduced ninety minutes in, even that experience is marred by long pod trips to fix antennas and brilliant yet tedious shots of astronauts walking in concentric circles. The film has a distinct ebb and flow to it and your enjoyment of the movie will depend largely on how much you throw yourself into the deliberate pacing. 2001 can either be hypnotic or mind numbing, all depending on your personal preferences, your point of view or how many Red Bulls you knocked down before the screening.
Despite my less than perfect score, 2001 is a defining experience in the world of science fiction and film at large. A sweeping epic of impressive imagination and scale, Kubrick reaches out to the far reaches of space with only a handful of facts and returns wielding only more questions. Minimalist yet epic, complex yet simple, disarmingly patient while at the same intensely vibrant, 2001 is a film that should be experienced by everybody at least once. While much of the film plods along at a glacial pace, the acting is very average and some of it just screams of pretentious mumbo jumbo, it’s hard to put down a film that is the obvious result of indescribable genius. Kubrick had a lot to say about time, space and the nature of man and while the way he presented it may not jive with my modern day sensibilities, it is impossible to deny the artistry behind it all.
Score – 85%