Top 250 Tuesday #006 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #006 on the list, Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

***SPOILER WARNING: Okay, today I’m writing about a movie that is 45 years old. One might think that a spoiler warning would be unnecessary. However, in keeping with the rules that I have set up for this blog, and my own personal belief that there are probably a LOT of people who have never actually seen this film and that everyone deserves a chance to see it without knowing too much about it, and due to the fact that I am going to be discussing the plot in detail and that there really is no way to write about it it in the way that I want to without discussing the ending, I am throwing the big old spoiler advisory up here, just so you know ahead of time what you’re going to be getting into. You have been warned. END WARNING***

2001-1There are some movies that one simply watches. There are other films that one experiences. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is definitely a film that one experiences. Moreover, it is a film that, I would argue, if you haven’t seen it on the big screen, you have not really seen it.

Just last week, thanks to a special screening at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre, I had the chance to – for a second time, actually – experience this film on the big screen, along with a presentation and Q&A session by Frederick Ordway, who was one of Kubrick’s science advisers during the making of the film. Obviously it was not a chance I was going to pass up.

The “plot” of 2001, despite its sheen of ambiguity and the various interpretations that have been laid upon it, is actually quite thin. The movie begins at “The Dawn of Man”, and shows two warring tribes of proto-humans as they are going about their lives. Soon, a mysterious black monolith appears before one of the tribes, and sparks within them the next step in their evolution, the idea of using things around them as tools. (The fact that the first use of these tools is for destruction and the second for killing – first of animals to sate their hunger and not long after of their enemies is something that I could make more of, but I think I’ll save that for another time.)

Also, one other important thing happens: the monolith begins to emit a sound. A signal, perhaps?

2001-2After that, the movie shifts forward in time and we encounter Dr. Heywood Floyd, who is on his way to a meeting at the Clavius moon base. Once at the base, Floyd is informed of a mysterious artifact that has been dug up at the site: what has been found is a monolith, identical to the one that appeared earlier in the film. It is stated that the monolith seems to have been deliberately buried millions of years ago. An expedition is mounted to examine the object, and once it is reached, Dr. Floyd reaches out and tentatively touches the object, much the way his ancestors did oh so long ago. And in an echo of that first encounter, the object again begins to emit an almost deafening sound. Another signal?

Skip ahead another 18 months, and we join the crew of the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter where, unbeknownst to the ship’s crew who have largely been kept in the dark about the real purpose of their mission, yet another black monolith has been found in orbit around the planet.

2001-5This is, of course, the most popular (or at least most quotable) sequence, since it is the part that features the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000. However, in terms of the actual narrative of the film, it is actually perhaps the least important part of it, since the sequence, much like the actual mission of the trip, is really there only to bring the last survivor of the trip, David Bowman, into contact with the monolith. Upon seeing the monolith, Bowman, in a pod outside the Discovery One, again makes tentative contact with the monolith via one of the arms of the pod, and is seemingly sucked into some kind of time/space vortex, seeing at first simply brightly colored lights, and eventually, in a scene that to modern audiences probably evokes the feel of similar scenes in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks ( even though the film predates the TV show by a couple of decades) appears to be in an oddly decorated hotel room where he encounters various versions of himself through time, until he finally finds himself as an extremely elderly bed-ridden man.

It is at that point, just as he lies in the bed, seemingly at the point of death, that the monolith makes its final appearance, and, as Bowman once again reaches out to make contact with the object, he, like the proto-humans millenia ago is transformed, and takes yet one further evolutionary step, transforming into the so-called star-child, thus completing (?) the monolith’s purpose and preparing mankind to enter into the galactic civilization.

2001-4Okay, so that takes care of the plot of the film. Complex, perhaps, at least on the face of it, but really rather straightforward and not all that complicated once one actually gets to the core of it.

It also strikes me, especially upon this most recent viewing, that it is actually the least important – and really, least interesting – aspect of this film.

You see, to me, in a way, 2001 is – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – pretty much the definition of arthouse cinema. It’s a film that is all about the combination of visuals and sound, experimenting with both, trying to push both to the limit, and inviting the viewer to experience film in a way that perhaps they never have before. The fact that it manages to do this and yet still have turned out to be commercially successful and to have turned into something that was actually popular with film goers at the time and remains so today simply speaks to the magnitude of craft that Kubrick brought to his creation.

M2001-3uch has been made of the “silent” portions of the film, though actually, there are very few of these. True, there are moments in the space sequence that are silent, because, of course, there is no sound in space, but these are actually very few. What there are, really, are two lengthy (almost 25 minutes apiece) segments that are dialogue free, yes, but they are far from sound free. Instead they are overlaid with various classical pieces that set the mood and tone of what is happening in the visuals in a way that combines to make for a truly stunning experience. Indeed, if these segments had contained some sort of dialogue, or even worse – as was especially considered at one point for the opening Dawn of Man segment – some sort of narrative voice-over, the end result would have been much less than the piece of true cinematographic art that is the final whole.

In fact, sound is such an integral part of this film, and the pieces that Kubrick selected so fitting, that in this most recent viewing there were moments when I was tempted to close my eyes and simply take in the aural delights that make up the soundtrack. I resisted that temptation, of course, because I didn’t want to miss seeing how they blended with the gorgeous cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, who is perhaps one of the most overlooked creators who had a hand in the making of this film, but whose shots are so incredibly composed and thought through that he definitely deserves more praise than he is given.

2001-6Hmmm… perhaps here is a good place to also mention another aspect of the movie that I had really overlooked until this viewing, but it speaks volumes, both about Unsworth’s cinematography and Kubrick’s vision for this film. You see, it struck me that there is a definite parallel between the physical spaces that are depicted in the movie and the development of the theme of evolution which is carried on throughout the narrative. At first, when the world of the proto-humans is very small, encompassing basically the small space that they inhabit, the watering hole that they fight over and the adjacent extremely small hunting ground, the cinematography is also very tight, closed in, its sound-stage bound nature really somewhat apparent, especially in this new digital print, and indeed there is a definite claustrophobic nature to the entire scene, especially when we see the tribe at night, huddle close in their cave, fitting into crevasses big enough for only one or two of them to fit into. This is a definite reflection of their view of their entire world, which for them is a very small area, and fits with the idea that they have far to go before they are ready to begin exploring further afield.

2001 A Space Odyssey movie imageHowever, when man has begun to reach out, when he is ready to make the second contact with the monolith on the moon, the space, and the cinematography employed both open up, and we are brought into the much more open and bright lobby of the space hotel where Dr. Heywood has his layover before reaching the base upon the moon. Just as man’s intellectual capacity and outlook has broadened, so have the visuals which accompany the narrative.

So why then, do we eventually return to the relative claustrophobia of the Discovery One and the space pod before the third contact is made? Well, one could argue that this isn’t really true, that much of the cinematography is focused on the space outside of the ship, thus depicting yet again, man’s even broader outlook on his place in the galaxy along with his furthered intellectual capacity, and while there is much justification for this, I would also argue that the return to the much smaller space of the pod is necessary because it signifies that although mankind has made such leaps, in a way, he is still as evolutionarily stunted as the proto-humans, and must once again have his horizons expanded, which is what occurs in the visual light show that makes up a large part of the final act of the film, and brings us eventually to the point where, as the star-child, the newly-born citizen of the cosmos, man is depicted in the vastness of space, almost as one with the galaxy itself.

2001-7Thus, then, we finally reach that last act of the film, and the visual tour-de-force that is that (again, perhaps, at least for now) final step in the evolution of mankind.

This is also, where Kubrick again is truly trying to challenge not only the audience, but himself and his fellow creators, to see just how complex and visually stunning a film he can make. And again, this is an area where his artistry truly shines through.

One thing that a modern viewer has to keep in mind is that all of the effects work that was done on this film was truly limited by what could be done in 1968, long before the advent of computer-aided graphics and the now-possible seemingly almost anything goes effects work of today. However, rather than let that limit his vision, instead of saying, well, there’s really no way to depict what he was trying to say and bring it to the screen, Kubrick went for a much more abstract rather than literal evocation of his thematic intentions.

2001-9Of course, this is also the segment that seems to have lost so many viewers and caused them to simply throw up their hands and say that the film either makes no sense, or to claim that they “just don’t get it”. What these viewers don’t seem to realize, what they fail, in a way to understand, is that there really is nothing here to get. This is, again, where the film itself could be said to evolve into pure art. This is, again, one of the reasons that I said up above that 2001 is a perfect example of what could be called arthouse cinema, because, at least for a few moments, it completely abandons the narrative (though it is still being carried along by it and carrying it along) and simply becomes both a visual and audio tour-de-force.

2001-11In fact, those who say that this portion of the film “makes no sense” have, in my opinion, kind of missed the point. In a way it makes perfect sense. In another, it is not meant to. Instead, this is one of those moments in cinema history that is meant to be simply evocative, that is meant, as I noted at the very first, not merely to be viewed, but to be experienced, It is also one of the reasons that I said that if you haven’t seen this movie on the big screen – with the sound all around you, and the visuals fully engulfing your field of vision, swallowing you up into them and bringing you, along with Bowman into a new kind of narrative, fully engaging all of your senses and giving yourself over to that moment – if, instead, all you have seen is some smaller screen version of the film with all of the accompanying shortcomings and distractions that that kind of viewing inevitably bring to it, you haven’t truly seen the film at all.

2001-8And that’s a shame, because 2001: A Space Odyssey truly is one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of its own, or any time. There is a reason why it is number six on this list, and why it has to be considered a contender in any discussion of what film can be when it truly is taken on as a challenge by the director and everyone involved, and then offered as the same kind of challenge to its audience. It is not a movie that is aimed at the lowest common denominator movie-goer – though it can certainly be enjoyed in that way. Instead, like the enigmatic monolith that is at the heart of it, it is a film that invites the audience on a journey of expansion, a journey of discovery, a journey of evolution, and an exploration of just what film can be.

So what are your thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.

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