2001: A Space Odyssey

The story of 2001 is, briefly, that someone or something interferes with the development of some primitive hominids at some point in the Earth’s past. Several million years later humans find a strange buried structure on the Moon which sends out a very strong electromagnetic signal aimed at Jupiter as it is hit by the light from the sun. An expedition is organised and sent off to Jupiter to find out what is on the recieving end of the signal.

There have been very few serious science fiction movies made, and the concept and genre of science fiction (sf) has been seriously watered down by Star Wars and its various clones and extended family (or the predecessors, such as Flash Gordon). Without getting too far bogged down in the theory of classification these latter ones are rather part of what is called space opera – lots of guns, swords, battle in space and young, preferably lightly dressed ladies in distress. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day are action/thrillers with space bits – a space ship does not make it science fiction.

To become sf it takes something more. A cornerstone of what is considered “real” sf is that the writer changes some basic condition (for example, someone or something gave what was to become humanity an evolutionary push) and then finds out what might happen. Sometime, as in 2001, Alien or Blade Runner the change is obvious, while in cases like Brazil it is more subtle.

Of course, the definition of “real sf” is under constant debate. This is a good thing, but may be slightly bewildering for the newcomer.

The first time I saw this movie I was really young, 7 or 8-ish, and I didn’t see all of it and didn’t make any sense at all. I did have memories of HAL being disconnected and Poole spinning away into deep space, probably causing all sorts of strange effects in my psychological development… The second time I saw it was in late 2002, at least ten years later. I remember watching it extremely intensely, eyes never leaving the screen more than ten times in the entire time and not once in the last hour. When it was over I was so stunned I could not move and just barely speak, semi-coherently. No other movie has quite managed that although some have come close.

In my book, especially visually, 2001 is the best sf movie ever made. To begin with it is amazingly well shot: the landscapes in the first part and the still unsurpassed spaceships in the later parts are stupendous. I especially like how light in space is rendered – sharp as a razor. And the Discovery is the best made ship ever to be seen in a film; computers have a long way to go before they can measure up to well crafted models, skilled lighting artists and really good cinematography.

As much as this is a film to look at, it is a film to listen too; from the deafening silence of the beginning to the whisper of air conditioning; the breathing of the astronauts in their space suits to the choral works of Ligeti. The aural detailing is every bit as good as the visual.

I won’t address the story of the film much, because so much of it is just hinted at or suggested. You certainly have many questions afterwards, from the profound to the very basic – where do the monoliths come from? How to use a zero-G restroom? What is actually happening in the finale, is that Bowman returning? What are the consequences of instructing a logical being to lie? How to stay alert after many monotonous months in space?

2001 is a major multisensory experience, and makes demands of its viewer. One has to be able to accept that a movie does not have to have fast-paced editing; that it can be long, slow and “different”; that not everything is answered. For me the best movies are those that stir up my thoughts, that I think of long after they’re over. 2001 does not end when the the screen goes black – for me, it will never go away.

PS. Should one really trust someone claiming that “Everything is going extremely well”?

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2 thoughts on “2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    Ah, Karl, I’m with you. “2001” is an extraordinary film that requires an intellectual investment from the viewer. It is not eye candy like today’s CGI spectacles. Arthur C. Clarke described it as a “ten million dollar religious movie” and that may not be far off the mark. Kubrick was an intelligent, demanding director who never catered to audiences. How many directors can you say that about today? Instead we get twits influenced by comic books and video games and scripts are little more than story boards. Every time I go through the “New Release” section of our local video store I am appalled by the selection; nothing for serious cineastes…or anyone with three working neurons…

  2. Karl says:

    Hello Cliff!

    Well, I think caution is called for here – I rather like comics and video games! It’s just that “the Studios” appear to see only the money – and if that attitude is in control, it will only be the quick money. Had they spent more time on it, more care, I am convinced the returns would have been much higher – artistically as well as financially.

    A big problem with at least US cinema these days, as I see it, is that it’s always the same movie over and over again. Why must there always be redemption for the “Good Guy”? Why must the “Bad Guy” always die? Why on earth must there be a “Bad Guy” in the first place? And so on and so forth… I sense a topic for a future kbospeak post here!

    And in closing – I think it is a bit of a mistake to view 2001 as primarily intellectually demanding. My experience is that the emotional demands are much higher, the demands on emotional investment made on the viewer. There is no “good” or “bad” in 2001, which makes it such an accurate reflection of reality.

    Thank you for reading my post!

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