2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

Part of Dastardly Difficult December: film nr.13

This is not a ‘film’. It is cinema in its purest form. Every aspect of this particular artform is used to its fullest extent. It exposes themes without narrative, offers no explanations but leaves room for interpretation and it provides a visual and aural sensation to accompany the unravelling of its internal philosophical debate. No other director than Kubrick could have made this.

The first time I saw this film I didn’t care much for it. I was far too young to fully grasp what it was trying to do. I remember finding it very dull and confusing, not something that sits well with your average teenager. It has therefore never been a film I was eager to rewatch. Last night, in a state of fatigue, waiting for my daughter to fall asleep, I found it on one of the many movie channels I subscribe to. I sat down and let it wash over me like a reinvigorating shower of pure beauty and awe inspiring wonder. After about 30 minutes my daughter was fast asleep, I, however, was transfixed in this gorgeous expose of human nature, all the while wondering why I hadn’t loved it this much first time around.

Let’s start with the visuals. This film is more than forty years old and looks absolutely amazing. The model work on the various spacecraft is meticulously detailed and has a fantastic aesthetic. Both interior and exterior scenes feel ‘real’ somehow and have a distinct timeless feel to them. The cinematography in the futuristic settings is great, but is absolutely breathtaking in the prehistoric setting. It just looks stunning with superb depth of colour and adds a sharp realness to the imagery that never takes you out of the film, but transports you into its world with the greatest of ease.

Kubrick’s choice of music is as bizarre as it is beautiful. I read somewhere that there was supposed to be a score (was it made? Haven’t had time yet to find it), but he used classical music while editing the scenes. This apparently worked so well that Kubrick decided to stick with it and it is a prime example of an inspired incidental flash of genius. The music adds nothing to the narrative, it does not comment on what we’re watching as a score is supposed to do. What it does is provide a contrast in its audience as it gives us something we know and places it against something we don’t. Whether it’s the docking of a spaceship or the first steps of mankind, it is a bizarre experience that I loved immensely. Kubrick manages to have these two apparently clashing elements co-exist, thus creating a sensory symphony of great beauty, pushing the limits of the medium and relaying boundaries of creativity and imagination.

The biggest problems many people (will) have lie within the narrative of the piece. It is essentially a four parter with a thinly stretched, subversively present, theme running through them. It is a challenge finding answers and interpreting what Kubrick is trying to say and it is still debatable if he wants to say anything at all. It is more thematic than offering opinions or interpretations. The commonality lies in the Monolith and the occurrences that accompany its discovery. Kubrick tries to capture the evolvement of mankind, documenting its first steps to its final plunge in evolutionary transcendence. It muses on the violent nature of mankind, it’s constant struggle for dominance especially when encountered with the potential of power (here represented by the Monolith), but also, more endearingly, it is a testament to the tenacity and survival instinct of our species. The latter is most prevalent in the iconic third segment where we are presented with the essence of Science Fiction, an idea or conceit set in a futuristic setting. This is almost a film within a film and provides the clearest narrative. One astronaut versus a rogue supercomputer. Kubrick manages to tackle this without going for cheap thrills, he manages to evoke the coldness of space and that feeling alone creates the tension, accompanied and contrasted by the warm voice of HAL. Comforting, menacing and sympathetic at the same time. The sequence where HAL starts to kill off the entire crew with the two astronauts outside lured me into a tension that caught me off guard. The subsequent successful attempt to get back into the mothership is fantastically shot and the shutting down of HAL is strangely creepy and affecting at the same time.

All these space scenes in the second and the third segment work because they are stripped of any unnecessary static. Kubrick has proven time and again that he is a master of distilling the essence of a scene, leaving us with the core, the bare minimum, that is required to tell its story. The effect this had on those two segments is one of isolation and detachment, mimicking the properties of the ever present darkness of space that surrounds our world. Where he sidesteps his audience is in the final segment. It is different in style at first and takes its audience, literally and figuratively, through a wormhole, an umbilical cord to a physical and intellectual rebirth. An end to a beginning, where time means nothing and possibilities are endless. The Monolith that inanimately causes these things remains a mystery. I couldn’t help but notice it almost seems like a doorway to change, in fact, it almost looks like a door. It is the catalyst to everything that happens, but we know nothing about it. Placed by unseen aliens, God, or whatever, this film purposefully leaves it a mystery as it clearly understands that it isn’t important. This film isn’t about answers, it is about observation and contemplation, leaving it, like all true art, up to us what we find in it. The first time I saw this final sequence I was annoyed by it, but now I was overwhelmed by what it conveyed. Apart from it being beautifully made, it triggered in me a deep awareness of how limitless time is, how little we know, how eager I am to discover what lies in store for me and my family, that there are endless possibilities and that we should never discard what we don’t know and always should try to find out what we do.

A complete and utter masterpiece for me this time around.

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