Essential Cinema #1: 2001: A Space Odyssey

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”  For those who have seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the lines call to mind the entire movie as a whole.  However, as with all great movies, the mere memories of the sets, the music, and the actors cannot compare to the actual experience of being encompassed by the world of the film.  Released in 1967, 2001 is a movie that is unlike anything seen before or since.  It is one of the few timeless science fiction classics that has hardly aged since the year it was made.  It is arguably the greatest film of the genre due to its stunning vision and timelessness in addition to its remarkable influence on the films to follow.  The plot is simple: a crew of astronauts is sent to find the source of a mysterious monolith that was found beneath the surface of the moon.  Still, the movie is deceptively complex and extremely well-executed.  The movie combines realism with traces of surrealism that haunt every frame.  In addition, Kubrick vitalizes a soundtrack of classical music that has become famous for its role in the film.  The special effects, both visual and auditory, are not only believable, but wonderful to look at even 45 years later.

The film stands apart from every science fiction movie made before 1967.  Viewers will not find laser guns, flying saucers, or hideous aliens.  Instead, Kubrick presents a future in outer space that is impressive, but nonetheless believable.  The sound, the visual effects, the costumes, the set designs, and even the lethargic pace contribute towards a film that is more interested in truth than fantasm.  Still, there are mysteries displayed that elude exact audience interpretation.  These mysteries are the reason that moviegoers remain fascinated by the film to this day.  The meaning of the arcane monolith, that is discovered first by apes on Earth and then found by astronauts on the surface of the moon, remains a secret that no one can explain with definite precision.  The final sequence, involving a curious extra-terrestrial bedroom as well as the famous image of an infant hovering over the planet Earth, endures within everyone’s memories of the movie.  These strange events in the film add an element of intrigue that the realistic and believable parts of the film lack.  The surrealism underlines the entire picture and Kubrick seems to be telling the audience that, no matter how advanced mankind becomes, there will always be mysteries beyond our understanding.

The score that accompanies 2001 is among the most sublime ever placed in a film.  None of the music was written for or inspired by the film, and yet because it “exists outside the action,” as Ebert says in his Great Movies essay, “it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.”  The fact that such medieval pieces can add “transcendence” to a story set centuries into the future testifies to the eternal relevance of classical music.  Not only is the music masterful in itself, but the choice and placement of each composition is also skillfully executed.  For example, Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem”, a haunting and other-worldly choral piece is implemented in the scenes that contain the mysterious alien monolith.  The grace and tenderness of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz fills viewers with wonder and awe when played behind the images of a revolving space station.  Even though almost half the film is completely silent, the chilling and magical effects of the works selected by Kubrick remain with the audience even outside the duration of the movie.

In 2001, the visual and sound effects, invaluable aspects of nearly every science fiction film, are strikingly complex and consistently convincing.  Because there are no laser gun shoot-outs or alien invasions, the movie rarely looks dated.  Indeed, the only passé elements of the picture are the uniforms worn by the female flight attendants onboard the space station.  The space sequences feature several shots that are nothing short of awe-inspiring: a gigantic spacecraft landing in an immeasurably larger space station, an astronaut hurtling through the vast and empty expanse of outer space, as well as an extraordinary assortment of glowing colors enveloping the spaceship Discovery.  The sounds that echo within the spacecraft are unique, authentic, and vital to the atmosphere of the movie.  Various sirens and buzzes that the audience believes they would hear within an actual space station sound occasionally and then complete silence becomes startlingly present when the astronauts dare to venture outside of their ship.  The sights and sounds of space travel are represented so well that the film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1967.  It would be impossible for audiences to lose themselves in this film without skillful effects work, and it is a credit to the filmmakers that movie lovers find themselves absorbed in the world of the future even after the year, 2001.

Man versus machine has become a popular subject of many science fiction pictures since 1967, but few of those films tell its story as originally as Kubrick’s does.  One of the most memorable villains of cinema history, it is amazing how much we seem to learn about the HAL 9000 computer onboard the Discovery while actually being told very little.  The visible body of HAL is the collection of small, circular cameras that appear around the interior of the ship.  He speaks in monotone under precise grammar rules and his words are continually polite and friendly, even when he refuses to allow an astronaut to reenter the Discovery.  Yet there seems to be a quiet desperation that fills his voice when one of the astronauts begins to disconnect him from power.  When the lines, “I’m afraid, Dave,” are delivered just before his death, feelings of sorrow and regret barrel into the hearts of the audience and, oddly enough, make viewers pity him.  After all, it is difficult to detest a creature that only does what it is programmed to do.

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece deserves a place among the greatest films ever made because it patiently inspires the audience to ponder their existence in a genre that focuses on action and thrills. The mix of realism and surrealism makes the film a pleasure.  The music connects the audience to the world of the pictures.  The special effects create the world for viewers to enter.  The sounds force us to react to what is happening in that world, and Kubrick’s wise direction ensures we will never forget the experience.  After seeing 2001 for the first time in 1968, New York Times film critic Renata Adler proceeded to write a review that acknowledged the film’s monumental visual effects, but attacked the movie’s sluggish pace and patient detail.  She wrote, “The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.”  ReelViews reviewer James Berardinelli’s take on the film is the ideal response to Adler’s complaints: “Watching this film demands two qualities that are sadly lacking in all but the most mature and sophisticated audiences: patience and a willingness to ponder the meaning of what’s transpiring on screen.  2001 is awe-inspiring, but it is most definitely not a ‘thrill ride.’  It is art, it is a statement, and it is indisputably a cinematic classic.”

4 responses to “Essential Cinema #1: 2001: A Space Odyssey

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