2001: A Space Odyssey (VHS, 2002, Widescreen: Stanley Kubrick Collection)

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Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Aug 30, 2000 (Updated Aug 30, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Incredible direction from Stanley Kubrick, coupled with a fantastic classical score, and a thought provoking ending make this film one of the most important films in the history of motion pictures

Cons:the pace is a bit slow and some people might be put off by the ambiguity of the ending

2001: A Space Odyssey: MGM
Rating: USA: G/ UK: U

Does the world really need another dissertation on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? I mean, books have already been devoted to both this film and Kubrick’s grandiose and impressive body of work. What could I possibly have to add to the pot? Probably not a whole lot—this film, like all of Kubrick’s work, has been analyzed, dissected, pondered, and expounded upon at great length by minds far more perceptive and brilliant than mine. Yet, in a way, I feel almost compelled to offer my own two cents on the work of Stanley Kubrick—not because I think I have some blazing insight into this man’s work, but because his work has had such a profound impact on my own life. Were it not for Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento, I probably wouldn’t be the film fan that I am today. Both of these directors (and to be fair, several others as well) showed me that there was more to movies than just simple stories told for entertainment—they taught me that films could be about abstract concepts, that the medium could do more than simply entertain…it could touch people, and that film could be art…just as philosophical as literature, just as beautiful as a painting. Because these filmmakers made me aware of this added dimension of the movie experience, I feel that I owe them something—and since I can’t give Stanley Kubrick anything in return for the joy his work has brought me throughout my relatively short life, I choose to try and write about the brilliance that is so pervasive throughout his work. It’s the only way I can say thanks to one of the men who helped shape me into the person I am today.

The film, which spawned the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name, is perhaps one of the most confounding movies ever made. To this day, thirty-plus years after its initial release, it still leaves many mainstream filmgoers scratching their head and wondering just what Kubrick was getting at. Sure, on the surface 2001 looks like little more than your standard science-fiction film…it’s got all the prerequisites: space travel, astronauts, a futuristic setting, and a mission taking men to Jupiter to investigate what most assuredly is the sign of an alien intelligence. Yet, underneath that, lurking just beneath the surface, the film reveals that it’s not really a science-fiction film at all. Instead, it’s a philosophical meditation on man’s place in the grand scheme of things and how small and inconsequential we really are in that plan. No one can tell you exactly what 2001 is about—and if anyone ever tells you they can, run in the other direction…they’re not someone you want to talk to at length. But, that’s part of the beauty of the film—viewing 2001 is an intensely personal experience. The film’s ambiguity allows you to shape the events to fit your own personal philosophy—and that’s perhaps Kubrick’s greatest gift to us all.

2001 isn’t a plot driven film. Yes, there is a story here, but it seems far less important than the ideas that Kubrick is presenting us with. The film opens with a title card telling us it’s the dawn of man—a group of primitive apes frolic around a watering hole, leopards stalk their prey on the savannahs, everyone is essentially equal in the scheme of the universe. At the start of the next day, a strange black monolith stands next to the watering hole. The apes are frightened by it, but intrigued as well, and one eventually touches it. Soon after, the apes have learned that bones can be used as both tools and weapons—witnessed by the fact that they use bones to beat a rival clan of primates—and our evolution has begun.

After one of the more infamous jump cut transitions in film history (a whirling bone thrown into the air becomes a space station) we jump into the future. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to a US space station in order to look into a recent moon based excavation—it seems that a monolith has been unearthed on the surface of the moon and it’s sending a signal back to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the US has mounted a five-man expedition to investigate the situation on Jupiter. This team is led by Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) with the other astronauts in a state of hibernation. Running the ship is the HAL 9000 (voiced brilliantly by Douglas Rain)—a super advanced computer that’s never made a mistake.

However, soon enough, HAL does make what appears to be a mistake (the film never really reveals if this is the case or not for sure)—which causes Dave and Frank to conclude that they should shut down the computer. But, in one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, we see HAL spying on the conversation concerning his fate—his red, unblinking cyclopean eye reading the lips of the two astronauts as they chat candidly in an area they believe to be safe from the computer’s ears. The film soon becomes a man versus machine battle as the astronauts try and take HAL offline—but even that isn’t what the film is really about.

From there, Dave makes it to Jupiter, ducks into what appears to be a wormhole, and undergoes 20 minutes of acid flashback-style visions before finding himself in a room, where he ages, then dies, then is reborn as the ‘star-child’—end of flick, beginning of major audience confusion.

Running nearly two hours and twenty-minutes, 2001 is a fairly long film (although, it’s not really that long when you consider that Kubrick fits almost all of human history into the film’s running time). What makes this even more apparent is that the film only features approximately forty-minutes of onscreen dialogue—and much of that banal chatter to break up the monotony as opposed to move along the plot. Of course, this doesn’t actually hurt the film—but it does stand in very stark contrast to the films of today, movies made for an MTV generation with attention deficit disorder. I have no doubt that the vast majority of viewers under 25 would find this film unbearably boring—it requires something that the younger generation of film audiences doesn’t possess…patience and the ability to look at what the filmmaker gives you and draw conclusions from it without having someone spoon-feed a meaning to you.

Kubrick films the movie in his usually majestic fashion, full of beautifully conceived pans, long takes of the shuttles docking, and loads of weird angles to highlight that the characters are in a zero gravity environment. Kubrick spent a great deal of time making sure that the film was scientifically accurate—meaning you won’t see any zooming spaceships, laser battles, explosions, or anything else that is solely the domain of Hollywood space flicks. Instead, you’ll see a vast and cold looking nothingness—dark and infinite--this is what space must really be like. Some critics through the years have accused Kubrick of making cold, clinical films—films detached from humanity. I’ve never really bought into that theory (although, looking at the majority of Kubrick’s work it seems apparent that he’s often more interested in abstract notions and philosophy than in people—which, I think, emphasizes that he’s a humanist after , all…just one who’s more interested in man’s potential than where we are now), but if that were the case, this setting suits him.

It is interesting that of all the characters, the computerized HAL 9000 seems the most human. However, like almost all of Kubrick’s films, 2001 isn’t a character-driven piece anyway—a fact that his odd casting choices (none of the actors here were major stars) only helps highlight.

All that aside, the film’s greatest strength is perhaps the seamless way that Kubrick melds visuals and music. Kubrick commissioned an original theatrical score for 2001, but, he scored the rough cut with classical pieces—most notably Johan Strauss’ The Blue Danube and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra (inspired by Fredrich Nietzche’s book of the same title—the book where he introduced the concept of the ‘Superman’)—two compositions that worked so well that he ultimately decided to use them and not the original score. Now, when viewing this film, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any other music so effectively conveying the mood of the apes’ meeting with the monolith, or the docking sequence at the space station.

As I mentioned before, the film is open to many different interpretations—each generally as valid as any other. Kubrick himself once stated that he felt if a viewer felt he understood the film in its entirety, then he had failed as a filmmaker—a statement that only highlights how complex the film really is.

The ‘Beyond Infinity’ segment (where Dave endures his twenty-minute trip ‘through the looking glass’ so to speak) culminates with the character living the rest of his life alone, in a small room, before dying and being reborn as the ‘star-child’. You can interpret this scenario in any number of ways, but these two have always worked for me. Since the monolith causes what appears to be an evolutionary leap for the apes in the film’s opening, one could make the assumption that the star-child is the next evolutionary step for mankind—a rebirth, or even a sign that no matter how evolved we believe we are, we’re still in the infancy stages of evolution. Another possible interpretation ties into Nietzsche’s Superman theory itself—man is only capable of taking the next evolutionary step after he’s been freed from the moral constraints implied by his fellow men. Here, in this strange void, Dave lives out his days alone, doing as he pleases, before being reborn as the star-child. Of course, interpretations are limitless—which is one of the reasons this film is such an enduring work.

Ultimately, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what makes 2001 such a brilliant film. Kubrick brings his distinctive cinematic style and his flair for philosophical material to the table and creates a film that is often slow and ponderous, but never fails to engage its audience. And while this isn’t my favorite Kubrick film (I’d probably go with either A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove for that particular distinction) it’s still a marvelous movie. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left who hasn’t seen this movie—but if you haven’t, then you owe it to yourself to check it out—it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time for a reason…it delivers in every area.



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