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”?