Space may be, as a famous starship captain or two have described it, the final frontier, but it also very, very scary. From copious amounts of B-movies to some of the greatest filmed productions ever made, to television series such as Star Trek and its spin-offs, Babylon 5 and Firefly, there is perhaps no movie or production that has ever managed to capture the sense of wonder, mystery and how downright frightening the cosmos can be in the manner that Stanley Kubrick did when he brought 2001: A Space Odyssey to the screen in 1968.
The idea was to make the “proverbial, good science fiction film”. Instead, Kubrick and Clarke would produce, arguably, a film that went beyond “good” and into the realm of the truly great, while fifty years after its premiere, can still cause discussion and debate as to what it all means.
Influential, iconic and still debated to this day, it is hard to believe and fathom the notion that the film is now fifty years of age and that we have now surpassed the year in which it was set. The film has always felt as if it is a part of the cinematic fabric, its imagery, editing and use of music feeling like it been a part of film history and heritage forever while showing that being a film set in outer space didn’t have to mean B-movie monsters and hokey production values. You could literally reach for the stars.
It may also be the first film we can think of as a Stanley Kubrick film in the way we think of the works from one of cinema’s most famed and controversial auteurs.
With Spartacus, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove under his belt, 2001 became the first example of the grand, artistic excess we think of when we think of a Kubrick production, with its astonishing filming style, use of classical music and perfectionist approach to its production, the type of which would become more commonplace when Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut came to our screens, films that would be acclaimed for their film making, but prove incredibly difficult to realise due to Kubrick’s insistence on total perfectionism and seemingly never ending productions, the last of which took nearly two years to complete.
It is pure cinema of the highest order and probably the greatest film that Kubrick ever directed, its influence felt on so many films set in the cosmos that came from other noted directors who have made their mark in the genre; Ridley Scott’s Alien, to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, while James Cameron’s tribute would be set under the depths of the ocean with The Abyss, and Steven Spielberg’s wondrous, mysterious sci-fi would be Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whose setting would be the roads and mountains of the US but which would retain a philosophical spark worthy of Kubrick’s work here, albeit with a more humanist approach, while Spielberg himself would come to bring an unfinished Kubrick project, AI, to the screen after Kubrick’s death.
The lack of a somewhat humanist approach is something that many critics and detractors hammer over the head of 2001 with, something that detractors do with all of Kubrick’s works admittedly, and yet the film does have a three-dimensional character worthy of capturing our emotions, it’s just the character in question is not human and is portrayed by a small yellow light with the calming tones of Douglas Rain, while the film’s central core and story is essentially centred around humanity; who we are, where we’ve been, who we’ve become and where we go next as a species.
It’s the ideas and themes, and just how daring it was in its approach to the story and filmmaking craft, that makes the film what it is and always has been; it does not rely on dialogue or character development in a straightforward way, and instead presents many of the ideas within its heart in a manner that it is finally up to the audience to interpret them. Understanding is not the key here. It has never been the key. To fully understand it, according to Clarke, was to mean that the film failed.
Never has a film been made before or since that relied on the art of interpretation, something which critics or haters of the film have had a problem with. Famously after the film’s premiere, Rock Hudson was quoted as asking “what the hell was that all about?”, but it’s that feeling of elusiveness and mystery that has helped sustain its reputation for years and decades and why it’s still celebrated fifty years after its release.
I was very young when I first watched it, viewing it on a late night broadcast on Channel 4. It was a mesmerising experience, and yet I had no idea what it was about or what I just watched. All I knew was that I had seen something amazing even if I didn’t grasp it. The film was wonderfully mysterious, engrossing, magical and yet scarier than I could have imagined; the empty, vastness of its space setting, the isolationist feelings that accompany Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) in the final third of the movie, the use of Ligeti over the soundtrack anytime the Monolith appears, the trip through the Star Gate, the film was unlike anything my ten-year-old self had ever witnessed before. I didn’t understand what I was watching, but I knew in my heart that it was amazing.
From the Dawn of Man opening, to that trip through the Star Gate, to the eventual reveal of the Star Child, the combination of Kubrick’s incredible cinematic direction, Douglas Trumbull’s visual effects, Ray Lovejoy’s editing and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography, the film still feels, fifty years after it was first unveiled to an unsuspecting audience, unlike any other film that has ever been produced.
Many of the films influenced by it have been wonderful (this reviewer has a particular fondness for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar despite its mixed reputation), but 2001 is the alpha of all outer space epics. Its lack of humanist approach may prove off-putting to some, but it sometimes makes other grandiose exploration narratives that owe 2001 a debt almost conformist in a way that Kubrick’s film never was; Nolan filtered his story of Interstellar through a father and daughter relationship; Cameron’s The Abyss explored a broken marriage alongside its explorations of alien life under the ocean, but the more documentary approach that Kubrick brings here has always given 2001 an edge, even if we’re not allowed to fully commit emotionally to Dave and Frank as they battle for their lives with HAL-9000 as the AI takes control in the film’s second half.
In fact, there is something daringly different about how the film takes its approach. It never relies on one lead character, instead opting to split itself into different sections, each with a different lead; from the man-apes in the Dawn of Man sequence to Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) to Dave, Frank, and HAL, to Dave himself in the final act.
It’s a mysterious film, wrapped up in an enigma, but full of visual wonder. We may never know fully what it is the film is trying to tell us, but the pieces are there for exploring further and further, becoming a relative rabbit hole with mysteries and themes that are waiting to be newly discovered with each viewing.
Alongside its visual splendour, haunting use of Ligeti and classical music, some of which has very much become synonymous with the film, it is the purest piece of cinema that has ever been produced and while we are now well past the year in which it is set, and the film has now reached the grand age of 50, 2001: A Space Odyssey has never lost its spark, its mysterious heart, or its grandeur. If anything, the time has been nothing but good to it and it still remains a high watermark in science fiction cinema.
Proverbial good science fiction film? Try the greatest.