2001: A Space Odyssey (Review) Humanity’s rise and the dangers of technological advancement…

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2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

 

THE SETUP

This is a review of the 1968 Adventure/Sci-Fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Written and Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining). 2001: A Space Odyssey has been described as a space opera of sorts, divided into three separate acts, each depicting various stages of our evolution. In the beginning, we’re shown how man came to learn about the use of tools and weaponry. The appearance of multiple Black Monoliths (machines built by an unknown species) acts as the catalyst in advancement that eventually sees humanity reach as far as the stars and beyond. Then, onboard spacecraft “Discovery One”, Dr. Dave Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are en-route to Jupiter on a mission, the details of which are classified. During their journey, they’re confronted with the potential dangers of their onboard supercomputer, the seemingly faultless HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Its ever-expanding intelligence could ultimately threaten the next step in the evolutionary chain. The film also stars William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, and Leonard Rossiter.

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THE GOOD

It’s hard to believe that in his 70 years of life, Kubrick only managed thirteen films (it sounds like a lot but it’s not). The approach was clearly quality over quantity, and that shows in the way he moved freely across all genres, making a name for himself in each of them. It began (more or less) with “The Killing”, his very own Crime/Film Noir picture that came at the height of the genre, yet still had its own style and structure that set it apart from the rest. “Paths Of Glory” and “Spartacus” saw Stanley step into the world of war, and “Lolita” added that touch of Romance and Eroticism to proceedings. His most well-known films like “A Clockwork Orange”, and the now-infamous “The Shining” received the level of attention they did because of his groundbreaking work with 2001. To date, I’ve seen seven of his films, and whilst I think this science fiction saga has been somewhat over-hyped, I still highly respect the work and the techniques used to make it. Kubrick clearly paved the way for the likes of Christopher Nolan and his less than stellar “Interstellar” (whom the filmmaker even referenced as inspiration), as well as “Europa Report” or something like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”, a masterclass survival thrill ride. The cautionary tale element of humanity’s technological developments proved to be well ahead of its time, especially given our now somewhat unhealthy reliance on it here in the 21st century.

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With over twenty years of prior experience, DP Geoffrey Unsworth (Superman) used his ingenuity to conceive the absolutely stunning visuals on display in 2001, the likes of which had never been seen before. There are a series of grand establishing shots (probably too many) that not only set the atmosphere but allow Kubrick to bask in his own eminence. Understandably so, considering he was the first to take on something of this magnitude. Unsworth utilizes the full scope of the camera’s capabilities, placing it at various angles and in interesting positions throughout the second act in order to demonstrate the aesthetics of zero gravity. It helps to put you in the shoes of the crew members, while simultaneously presenting the viewer with something innovative. The bulk of the cinematography showcasing space is grand in nature and highlighted what could be achieved using miniatures and the right backdrops. Some of the lighting is quite expert too. Namely the use of reds and whites. I personally feel as though the full-blown classical music has a sense of heavy-handedness about it, but the various composers are good and the crew did a wonderful job of the arrangement. I think that the high-quality sound design actually eclipses the self-satisfying ways of the musical compositions. The tradeoff between subtle sounds heard onboard the craft and then the cutaways to Frank out in the haunting void (and the same with Dave) makes the experience a completely immersive one.

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2001’s Set Decoration by Robert Cartright is a huge part of the reason that the film was successful and why it’s managed to hold up so well today. The facility set introduced at the end of the first act is nicely detailed, so to the craft that Dr. Floyd and his counterparts travel in. Remember that this was 1968, so attention to detail hadn’t really become a thing of note yet. The design and detail in all the features of Discovery One is certainly something to behold, simply unparalleled for that era. The wardrobe department created realistic suits and helmets and zero gravity is mostly nullified due to the fact that characters are often seen wearing a kind of soft velcro shoe. Due to its seemingly non-existent character development, not a lot of range is actually required of the actors. That said, both Dullea and Lockwood’s performances are serviceable and Douglas Rain happens to possess the perfect tone for the supercomputer’s voice. It’s equal parts controlled and eerie. The middle act is by far and away the strongest. It’s the closest the film ever gets to a semi-conventional narrative that’s both rewarding through its entertainment value as well as its cautionary warning. Kubrick’s writing surrounding the HAL 9000 and its determinations is genius, eventually leading to some thoroughly unnerving and suspenseful moments of unpredictability.

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THE BAD

Whilst I really respect Kubrick and what he was able to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film still comes up somewhat short in regard to its “masterpiece” branding. It’s unnecessarily long and lethargic in its pacing, and therefore I don’t think that it really warrants such high esteem, at least not in its current state. There’s quite a sense of overindulgence on Kubrick’s part (and it wouldn’t be the first time), but I guess the hope was to give audiences a larger than life cinematic experience, unlike anything they’d seen before. Said to have set the tone and depict the notion of the unknown, 2001 opens with a black screen and some eerie synth for the first five minutes. I understand the reasoning behind it but half that length would have sufficed. The same can be said of the bizarre warp speed sequence in the third act. I’m not sure I understood the context, so I’m going to assume the most logical explanation was Bowman entering a black hole of sorts. It’s an extremely long-winded scene loaded with landscape establishing shots where Kubrick goes well and truly overboard with colored lens filters, and for what purpose? I really don’t know. In the first scenes with Dr. Floyd, we’re introduced to a number of other scientists and researchers who end up having no bearing on the events. No important information is conveyed between them and they’re never revisited. It’s yet another example of five or six minutes screen time that probably should have been cut. The infamous “hominids” sequence is undoubtedly important to the evolution framework of 2001, but once again, it’s just a bit too long.

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Continuity-wise, the film is pretty solid. Though if I’m being finicky I’d say that the counter to depicting zero gravity ( e.g the velcro shoes) isn’t actually established on board the Discovery One. Much of the final act can only be described as highly conceptual and I have no qualms in saying that I didn’t fully comprehend all of it. Stylistic Filmmakers like David Lynch (Eraserhead) and David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch) were clearly inspired by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and 2001. The black monolith still remains somewhat of a mystery, although I suppose that’s the point. The hominids touch the pillar in the beginning and I guess that ultimately acts as a catalyst in their understanding of tools and weaponry and how to use those elements. Does the monolith on earth somehow project to the other one eventually found on the moon? If so, does that mean you have to make contact with it? How do the researchers even know where to go to find it? Or were they heading to the moon on another mission and then randomly discovered it? Little is understood about any of it. What is it that the monolith does to the structure of the space-time continuum that results in Dave being able to see multiple versions of himself? Everything comes to a culmination in a kind of rebirth scene, but it’s all rather abstract. I suppose the takeaway from 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it’s by and large a story about humanity, about the life cycle of a human and told among the widely unknown nature of the universe. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” tried to accomplish the same kind of thing but failed miserably with regard to exploring the human condition.

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I’ve been meaning to watch Stanley Kubrick’s infamous “2001: A Space Odyssey” for several years now and just never got around to it. With stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood set to visit Australia next month for a convention, I thought now was as good a time as any. There are some interesting layers to 2001 and Kubrick’s thoughts on life, the universe, and technology, particularly in his foreshadowing of the potential dangers of its advancement. Unsworth’s cinematography is unique and super sharp, the lighting is fantastic and the sound design is often unexpectedly eerie. The set decoration and wardrobe still hold up today and the performances are more than serviceable. Despite not being seen, Douglas Rain’s performance as the HAL 9000 remains the most memorable, and that whole middle segment is where the film is its strongest. Unfortunately, as it stands, 2001 is a good twenty-five minutes too long and the overall sluggish pacing makes it seem even longer than 140 minutes. There are four or five examples of scenes that could have been cut down and they wouldn’t have lost anything. Having questions about something so cerebral isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but coupled with the vibe of Kubrick’s excessive self-congratulatory nature, it’s all a little much. If the bulk of 2001 further explored the link between man and machine it would have not only maintained a more defined narrative, but it would have been more interesting and relevant. With that said, one can’t deny Kubrick’s level of ambition with this film and how truly impressive it is that something that’s now 50 years old, still holds up today. It’s not quite the masterpiece some say, but it certainly helped shape the world of modern science fiction filmmaking and for that I highly respect it.

My rating for “2001: A Space Odyssey” is 6/10

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