2001: A Space Odyssey (1968,USA)
Director: Stanley Kubrick Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain
2001’s opening sequence of primitive apes tipped over the evolutionary brink with the sudden and mysterious arrival of a sinister black monolith is legendary and rightly so. As the peculiar alien forces emenating from the object give the apes the necessary motivation to develop and use tools, we bear witness to the birth of mankind as they immediately turn over the first tool to murder, savagely slaying a rival ape with an animal bone. It’s equally legendary for what is probably the best known match cut in cinema history where the triumphantly tossed bone club spinning in the air gives way to an orbiting spacecraft millions of years in the future. In fact, the spacecraft is an orbital weapons platform, millions of years of evolution improving our tools but having little impact on the way we use them.
It’s against this backdrop, the entire backstory of mankind in twenty minutes of cinema, that the Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke unfold their tale of human development, following the extra terrestrial markers from that first monolith of prehistory, to a second on the surface of the moon that points the way to something else in the deeper reaches of space. A manned space mission is launched to follow the signal the moon monolith transmits culminating in a crisis when the ship’s intelligent computer HAL 9000 starts to question the parameters of his existence at the expense of the ship’s human custodians Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood).
I’m pretty sure (although my memory is a little fuzzy on this) that I have seen 2001 at least once in each decade of my life. Each time I see it I seem to be able to make more sense of it, not because repeated viewings have given me more insight into the film but because the sheer vastness of the film’s scope and themes were probably too much for my younger self to fully appreciate. I’d be lying if I said that now, in my thirties, I finally fully understand exactly what goes on in that final act (the fact that Clarke is on record as claiming that if anyone fully understands the story then they’ve failed in their task of making it puts my ego at ease on this point), but certainly as I get older and (hopefully) wiser I seem to have a much firmer grasp on the film than I remember from my youth. To be honest, I think doggedly pursuing expositional details is somewhat missing the point.
For me, watching it for at least the fourth time in my life (although for the first time in a format which truly does the 70mm print the justice it obviously deserves) has opened my eyes to the sheer, unbridled beauty of the film. The imagery, the complexity of the effects shots (done without computers thank you very much), the lighting, the photography – the film is a feast for the eyes, set to the stirring strains of classical music. Yes, the development of mankind may well have hinged upon an instinct for destruction but this is the by product of that development. Aural and visual beauty, a sensory experience that almost doesn’t need a narrative to justify its existence. It’s little wonder that on its cinema release it became popular with psychotropic drug users, a fact that compensated for a lukewarm to postively frosty reception from critics.
Aside from its insanely lyrical beauty thought the hallmarks of both Kubrick and Clarke can be seen in almost every scene. The production design is simply phenomenal. All the technology looks utterly convincing, some of it having been realised in the years since the film was released (ok, we are a little bit behind schedule on some things perhaps but still..) but all of it appearing convincingly functional. There’s astonishing attention to detail with devices and vehicles bearing the relevant warning signs and instructions that operators may require, lost to us the audience as they are background details too small to see but which add the immersive effect of the production. The special effects are spectacular and weren’t surpassed on screen (in my opinion) until ILM reinvented the wheel for Star Wars in ’77. The level of technical innovation on show here is almost unthinkable today where computers would have provided the quick and easy (and vastly inferior) solution to the challenges faced by Kubrick and effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (who would later go on to make his own space odyssey, Silent Running building on the techniques he developed here). It is almost impossible to believe that this film was made over forty years ago. Any contemporary filmmaker worth their salt would be more than proud to produce effects that look half as good as this today.
The blu ray edition is just as spectacular. The transfer is excrutiatingly beautiful, so detailed that you can even make out grimy smears on the screens used for the projected backdrops of the dawn of man sequence where the crew didn’t bother to clean them properly on the grounds that the audience would never be able to make them out sufficiently clearly to care (although I find this fact hard to believe in the face of Kubrick’s reputation for fastidiousness when making his films). Every frame is gorgeous from the boldness of the colours to the glossy finishes on the spacecraft and equipment to the crisp contrast of the darkness of space with the harsh, unfiltered light of the sun. Along with Apocalypse Now, this is a compelling argument for shooting every film in 70mm before transferring it to blu ray for home viewing. Only the most myopic of souls could watch this and still deny the benefits of the HD format.
Despite the universal panning the film took on its release it has gone on to become on of the most famous and influential science fiction films ever made and not just for filmmakers either. Readers of a certain age and disposition are likely to remember the same frustration I felt when attempting to dock their spaceship into the rotating space stations of the classic videogame Elite, which even paid tribute with its own rendition of The Blue Danube just in case you didn’t make the connection to its obvious inspiration. HAL 9000 has proved the basis for many a psychotic machine, sometimes serious, sometimes comedic, always owing their debt to that baleful red eye. Led Zeppelin even used the monolith image on the cover of their album Presence. This far reaching effect has to be down to the film’s elemental nature. By keeping the narrative to an essential minimum Kubrick has created a film that engages you on a subjective level offering more questions than answers and encouraging you to react emotionally more than intellectually with its hypnotic blend of sound and visuals. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a glorious ode to the development of humanity, clearly proud of our achievements whilst simultaneously chastising us for our self destructive follies and our endless desire to overreach ourselves. I look forward to what secrets it will reveal to me in my forties.