Retrospective: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick is an iconic director and renowned for many iconic films from black comedy with Dr Strangelove to horror in The Shining and everything in between. 2001 is one of those iconic movies.  But at its core, can the complete lack of character and dialogue be replaced by some of the most astounding imagery and music on film ever? Its other problem is that it’s not as good as you remember. It’s not so tight plot wise, with lots of empty space and no exposition, no real dialogue for you to get to know the characters and the iconic HAL is remembered for all of two lines as for the majority of his scenes he is silently watching.

This movie has the advantage of being written by Arthur C. Clark, one of science fiction’s best-known writers. All designs and styles feel very what to a layman may look scientifically true-to-life and everything has a nice feel of the future as seen from 1966-1968, where the future would be white, clean and technological in abundance with automation. It is unfortunately lumbered with the longest introduction of any movie at nearly an hour and twenty minutes. It follows a scientist from the earth to a moon base, going through all the aspects of travel, which includes lots of little entertaining anachronisms such as flying Pan Am (a company which went bankrupt in 1991). These scenes use wonderful classical music interspersed with some chanting synth stuff that really raises the hair on your back and keeps on going.

The film also has that famous 30-minute introductory sequence set at the dawn of time with our ape ancestors dealing with all facts of early society, including the appearance of the mysterious black monolith. Again, this is a beautiful sequence which is very hard to get a grip on due to its very unapproachable nature and the huge ambiguities, even with the famous jump cut of the bone into the space ship implying the development of humanity through tools and sociality. Bar HAL, the characters are irrelevant in the larger scheme of the movie as they aren’t even cyphers for the audience as they completely lack wonder (baring the last sequence of course). The lack of anything to help us get to know the characters means that they seem even more wooden than HAL, which is remarkable considering HAI is just a red light with a bit of IBM branding, although he is fantastically sinister. “Dave I can’t let you do that”, brilliantly shows the fearful situation of being at the mercy of a computer.

Science fiction is a rather maligned genre often for good reasons as there is the bad, the unapproachable, the strange and the stupid. This movie was made during the golden age of sci-fi during the 1960s and the age of Apollo. This affects the sensibilities of this exceptionally difficult-to get-into-movie. The imagery in space looks dated compared with the CGI work of modern space movies. The best example of a movie that takes Space Odyssey ideas forward would be two quite low budget English films: Sunshine and Moon. Sunshine shows the science and the wonder of interplanetary travel plus it includes an interesting story although the plot doesn’t quite hold up in the final parts and lacks the wackiness and wonderful music. Moon gives you the look and the music, and strong central character but lacks the sense of travel and feels restrained, while 2001 is out there with its ideas and visual imagery.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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