From the Vault #29: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 22nd, 2015…

It begins with nothing. A long, drawn out vision of blackness, as a haunting elegy of sound plays. The Dawn of Man approaches, a twenty minute or so beginning not just of Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, but indeed a circle that will form and close by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey draws to a close.

We may know those are men in ape costumes but that doesn’t prevent us appreciating what Kubrick is doing, saying, in a motion picture that stands less a conventional piece of cinematic narrative, rather a visual, multi-textual work of cinematic art. Many have suggested 2001 kickstarted, wrote the book on, and simultaneously signalled the death knell of cinematic science-fiction, creating something that simply cannot be equalled – perhaps that’s true, perhaps it never will be, but what Kubrick did–along with co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction author who was equally as responsible for a project that jointly became a film and novel, in one of the first examples of cross media–was to birth a picture that fired so many imaginations, inspired filmmakers for the next half century, who went on to create different but in some cases no less seminal pieces of cinema.

The legacy of 2001 stands. Its reach far, its magnificence unparalleled.

In all of his films, Kubrick often defied classification. He dabbled in a range of genres and created truly unique pieces of work within each, and 2001 is no exception – indeed it’s perhaps the greatest example that proves the director’s rule.

What he sought was to engage his fascination with extra-terrestrial life and sought out Clarke, developing with him a plan to adapt his short story The Sentinel, along the way vitally consulting pioneering alien life theorist Carl Sagan, all of which went into a long gestating melting pot of ideas and themes that would constitute the final picture. As with all great art, and this extends beyond mere cinema into that, individual interpretation is key but ostensibly Kubrick tells a very human story here, shot and characterised with distinctive alien distance but very much rooted in the human experience; beginning with our forebear’s, the ape, he charts a course from our discovery of how to destroy as well as create, all the way to a near-future whereby orbital weapons rotate around the Earth symmetrically to our spacecraft which centrifuge in tandem, and our relationship with the next stage of evolution in HAL-9000, a super computer who understands the very human need for its own survival.

While Kubrick does evoke a sense of terror about what our future may hold, in exploring contact with unknowable alien life, his film is more concerned with the wonder of such an experience and the very human rebirth of the soul it may bring. You’re left with a rousing sense of hope, born out of cold adversity.

Undoubtedly the marriage of sound to Kubrick’s visuals help. Again, in all of his pictures, his relationship with music is deep, complex and rooted in transformative emotion; he rejected a traditional score from Alex North to use the haunting, choral strains of Gyorgy Ligeti (without his consent, indeed), the elegant dance of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz and, unforgettably, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra – of all these pieces, set to visions of the towering, silent alien Monolith, or the clean beauty of sleek white spacecraft docking or landing among the stars, the latter piece as the Sun eclipses the Moon or the ape slams his weapon down on the formative ground, is among the most iconic and memorable fusions of sound and cinema of the 20th century.

Kubrick also understands the importance of the absence of sound – while he may litter sequences with the towering classical strains throughout, he was perhaps the first filmmaker to understand the vacuum of space, the power of silence in his characters walking outside their confines; he focuses on their breathing, which only serves to heighten the intense claustrophobia of many such sequences. It also further accentuates the coldness many have accused 2001 of having, but Kubrick often maintained a dispassionate distance from his characters and in such a visual, thematic piece as this that almost seems fitting; we may not feel a great deal when Poole meets his desperate fate for him personally, but we’re impacted by the consequences and the moral, philosophical questions behind it.

His characters, indeed, are functions rather than people we root for, or know; Keir Dullea’s David Bowman ostensibly becomes our protagonist and his experience is the most transformative – an astronaut on a mission he comes to suspect isn’t quite crystal clear, the fate he meets is enormously open to subjective interpretation and more crystallises him as a representation of the circularity of mankind, given what befalls him; he becomes equally as slavish to the higher order of the Monolith as do those apes who may have learned their darker impulses from such a power.

HAL, if anything, feels the most human, which certainly acts as no coincidence – voiced with a sonorous lack of inflection brilliantly by Douglas Rain, the super computer represents the conundrum facing humanity of the future; he’s ostensibly artificial intelligence, referring to himself as an individual, appreciating art and emotion, and questioning with clear thought processes that go beyond a machine – yet he’s also capable of truly dispassionate, logical thinking which threatens the sanctity of life, tapping into that human impulse to survive that led us to create the weapons Kubrick regularly reminds us of. HAL is the fascinating, unerring creation that truly makes the piece, even beyond the Monolith’s – perhaps the most alien of any intelligence committed to celluloid in cinematic history; powerful, remote, unknowable and truly inhuman in a very humanist film. They also represent the other key to why 2001 is such a powerhouse of an artistic achievement: their design.

The way Kubrick devised and shot 2001 was years, maybe even decades, ahead of his time; producing Interstellar, almost fifty years later, Christopher Nolan developed centrifuge, rotating sets inspired by Kubrick here – the first person to do so in four decades. In many such films of the 60’s, the future by now looks interminably dated – the year 2001 is now long gone and yet Kubrick’s film remains, for the most part, exclusively futuristic looking and forward thinking (indeed Samsung started litigation against Apple several years ago claiming the iPad was directly copied from devices Poole & Bowman watch TV from here, and it’s hard to dispute).

Its sets are a mesh of white walled, chrome slickness with dabs of intrusive colour; he fundamentally understands the operation of gravity in his ship designs, having crew members walk in gravitational circles (which thematically parallel the circuity of life itself); his model ship designs are remarkably detailed and match anything devised with today’s CGI, plus you can see the design influences clearly on later science-fiction boundary pushers such as Star Wars. Then indeed you have the awe inspiring reach of space itself, of Jupiter, and finally the Star Gate sequence that climaxes the piece, a rush of remarkable photography from Geoffrey Unsworth that launches us into a breathtaking sequence of colour and visual range. Interstellar most recently tried to bring a modern sensibility and take on such a journey and while it was stunning, it pales in comparison.

One might suggest most pieces of cinema pale when compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it would be a more than fair comment. Stanley Kubrick made films with a greater punch to the senses in his career, but this arguably is the true zenith of his incredible directorial reach; with 2001 he unlocked in no small quarter just what cinema could do, one of a very elite group of motion pictures in cinema’s first century that went where no one had gone before, transformed visuals into art, and one can only imagine what 2001 must have felt like to audiences of its time – even now it remains a piece of work nobody has ever truly managed to equal in terms of its fusion of visual magnitude, thematic resonance, audible beauty and philosophical study. To watch it is to be taken elsewhere, to a place of wonder, a place few filmmakers have ever had the talent or bravery to go before or since.

A phenomenal achievement and a real candidate for the greatest motion picture ever made.

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