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Friday, 14 January 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey - 1968

And now for what might be my most ambitious review to date, I will be reviewing a film that, fittingly, ranks among some of the most ambitious films ever made.
2001: A Space Odyssey.

Directed by the great and often revered Stanley Kubrick, 2001 might just be his most widely recognised film by the general public, although that title might belong to The Shining, but I can't be sure for I am not a member of the general public.
But I digress, back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film ahead of it's time which dramatically changed the way films were made and brought the previously overlooked genre of Science Fiction to it's height in Cinema.

This was the film that raised Stanley Kubrick's name alongside those of the greatest directors, this was the film that changed the way films were made and the film that invented entirely new filming techniques and visual effects.
All films are group efforts, which each person from the director (or Film-maker as Kubrick preferred to be called) down to the gaffer doing their respective tasks, but some films bear the mark of their directors more than others, 2001: A Space Odyssey is such a film. The involvement of it's director, the genius Stanley Kubrick, can be felt in every single frame of the film, in every movement of the camera and in every note of music that accompanies every movement of the space craft.

But despite the fact that 2001: A Space Odyssey is most assuredly an intelligent and creative film, and immensely different from what the general public were used to experiencing during their trips to the cinema, it did make a relatively large profit, out of it's 10,5 million dollar budget (6,5 million of which were spent of the models and other visual effects) the film made a revenue of 56,7 million dollars. Now this is an undeniable success, yet these days one would tend to suppose that such a mysterious and ambiguous film as this would go largely unnoticed or purposefully ignored by the general public, maybe people were more open minded in those days.

As I mentioned previously, I believe that this film can be counted among the most influential and the most ambitious ever made. It was influential in it's use of music, a classical soundtrack that has become instantly recognisable today even by people who haven't watched the film, "The Blue Danube" has become "the tune of space" or something along those lines, this is due entirely to this film. 
The use of models, which required the construction of some of the most detailed models ever made for film, the use of hidden wires, the use projected images, the extraordinarily  effective use of front-projection, and the use of complex camera movements which most directors had never even dreamed of before, all this makes for a ground breaking and innovative film. 
But all these acheivements didn't come easily to Kubrick and his crew, it took 106 specialists 18 months to get everything ready, and Kubrick worked especially hard even before shooting began as he had decided, rather unorthodoxly, to co-write a novel beforehand which he would then adapt into a screenplay along with his co-writer, Arthur C. Clarke.

Now I won't go into all the details of how marvellous this film is from a technical point of view, as it has been said many times before. Nor will I say much about the various performances in this film, as this film is not a film driven by it's actors, this is not a film to showcase certain performances, the real star of the film is Kubrick. But I would like to write a bit about what the film made me feel and how I interpret it:

The beauty and strength and above all the timelessness of 2001 arises from the fact that it is a film that each individual can interpret differently and according to their beliefs. It is much more a film to be experienced than to be analysed and it moves the viewer in a way that is unique in film.

The film opens with an often overlooked element, more than 2 minutes of nothing, the screen is black I have never seen this done before in any other film, it is quite unique but most people seem to overlook it. Then after this void in which the music has been gradually been building up we hear the first notes of Richard Strauss's triumphant Also Sprach Zarathusa (Thus Spoke Zarathusa) which is inspired from Nietzsche's work of the same name, now this reference, if I can call it that, to Nietzsche so soon in the film is well worth noting as the film as a whole contains many Nietzschean idea's and themes, according to Kubrick.
So to the sound of Richard Strauss's triumphant and majestic piece, we see a sight that would surely have had the whole audience holding their breath back in 1968. We see the alignment of the Earth, The Moon and The Sun, now of course such imagery is common nowadays in film but one must remember that this was a time before man had even set foot on The Moon, and yet here we have Kubrick and his crew creating such realistic visions of Space and The Moon that NASA has proclaimed 2001:A Space Odyssey to be one of the most accurate Science Fiction films ever made.

So, the film progresses..., but I won't waste any more time on a plot summary as I'm sure pretty much every one reading this will have seen this or at least heard much about it.
Instead I'll just proceed directly to my thoughts on the film's somewhat ambiguous story:

The film is divided into four sequences (The Dawn Of Man, TMA-1, Jupiter Mission, Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite.) The Dawn of Man shows a group of primates living in Africa, a Monolith appears, and upon being touched by the lead primate presumably imparts with the knowledge of tools-weapons and eventually machines. But The Ape uses this new-found knowledge in a violent and destructive way (which could hardly have been the purpose) and despite the great technological advances Man later achieves he is obviously on the wrong path, so to speak. Thus the "discovery" of the Monolith on The Moon, which then leads man to "Jupiter and beyond the Infinite", causing him to evolve into a Superhuman, who hopefully will use his new found knowledge more sensitively than man.

This concept of a "Superhuman" or "Superman" is at the heart of much of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Indeed, 2001: A Space Odyssey has been named "The First Nietzschean film" by some critics. But I won't go into a detailed analysis of the philosophical content of this film and it's parallels with Nietzsches work. Although I would recommend reading "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" which I am reading at the moment, it's a wonderful work of literature and philosophy. I suppose I should also recommend the book named 2001: A Space Odyssey ,for obvious reasons, but I have yet to read it myself.

 At the heart of the film is "Man", this is a film about mankind. Of course there is the mysterious presence, whether Extra-Terrestrials, God or any other interpretation. This presence is represented by the Monolith, but the film is not about this Monolith it is about Mankind and it's evolution which is aided or even triggered by this Monolith.
The decision not the show the extra-terrestrials (at least not in any physical form) worked greatly in the films favour. For 2001 is a film meant to raise questions in the reviews mind not to entertain them with ridiculous looking creatures (even though Kubrick and his team had some interesting idea's for their aliens, such as a luminous being or a Giacometti inspired humanoid).
And it that respect it certainly succeeds admirably, for I'm sure after watching this film, every person will be pondering Man's place in the Universe, where he is personally in Man's grand evolution and of course the limitless possibilities of intelligent life being somewhere out there.
You may think i'm naive for supposing that everyone would reflect upon this and maybe you would be right, but I think this film touches every Man and Woman somewhere deep inside their consciousness for have we not all thought about how insignificant Man was on a Cosmic scale or wondered how we evolved and if we've finished evolving?

I think that the element of this film which causes the most confusion and speculation in the presence of the Monoliths. I think symbolise man's evolution, they are responsible for the Dawn of Man, when modern man first came into being, and they are also responsible for the transformation of Bowman into a "Superhuman" a stage of evolution as far above modern man as modern man is above the primates seen at the beginning of the film.
Whatever they may symbolise they surely are awe-inspiring, especially when their presence is always accompanied by this magnificent music:

This first sequence contains not one word of dialogue, the first interaction takes place well into the second sequence. In fact all the films dialogue is contained in the middle of the film, for the final sequence is also dialogue free. In fact, on a total run time of 2h 29min there is only less than 40min of dialogue.
(I would like to say a quick word about how this dialogue is filmed for it pleased me very much. Instead of using the most common technique to film dialogue in Hollywood, that is the cuts to each speaker's face interspersed with "reaction cuts", Kubrick opted for a more detached method. He filmed the dialogue scenes from a distance thus creating much detachment and vastly reducing the importance of the actors as we can barely see their faces. This is exactly how I like dialogues to be filmed, but sadly it isn't used much any more, most directors these days choose the rapid-cut style of dialogue.)
 But on this subject I will let Kubrick himself have the last word:
"It's not a message I intended to convey in words. 2001 is a non-verbal experience"..." I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalised pigeon-holing and directly penetrates the
subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content "..." I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness."
Excerpts from a interview of Kubrick in 1968 by Playboy.

The Genre:
2001: A Space Odyssey single-handedly changed the way science fiction films were regarded by critics and general public alike, they had been cheap and tacky B-movies based of cheap pulp-fiction books.
This film elevated the genre to it's highest point, after a few years science fiction started reverting gradually to what it had been before, crowd-pleasing mindless entertainment, and know 41 years after 2001's release, Science Fiction is a pretty stale genre, with such films as Independence Day and Emmerich's other work, The Matrix, Armageddon, Jurassic Park, I Robot, Terminator and more recently Skyline. All of these films are average at best and one wonders what became of the brilliant days immediately after 2001: A Space Odyssey, when such films as Star Wars, Solaris and Stalker, Alien, Mad Max, Soylent Green and 1984 were being made.
But despite the noticeable decline in quality Science Fiction all hope is not lost, as we have Terry Gilliam's films Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, as well as more recent films such as V For Vendetta, Children Of Men, Minority Report, District 9 and Moon, these last two being some of the best Science Fiction films ever made in my opinion.

However you choose to interpret it, you cannot deny that this film is a masterful technical achievement that revolutionised Cinema.
Many people consider this to be Kubrick's finest film, and while I do think that title should go to Barry Lyndon, I can't deny that 2001: A Space Odyssey has had an enormous impact on me, it showed me a film could be highly intelligent yet flawlessly made and very entertaining, it had me reflecting on the nature of man and of our place in the Universe, it inspired me to read Nietzsches work and it inspired me to make great films of my own and that a director shouldn't always be satisfied with what he's already achieved but should be constantly striving to achieve more and inventing whole new techniques along the way...

Sadly, Stanley Kubrick did not live to see the year 2001, a year that presumably would have held a lot of importance for him. For he died in 1999 after the completion of his final film, the often underrated Eyes Wide Shut.

I would be interested to read what your thoughts and various interpretations are of this film, please don't hesitate to comment, I'll be sure to respond!


  1. Having admired the film myself, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated your essay which I think gets to the essence of what Kubrick was trying to say. A writer needs to be truthful foremost and your writing has the ring of truth as you share your reactions without beating arond the bush.

    The mysterious monolith representing whatever drives the universe, the infinite progression of the human spirit--it's a very philosophical film. Well, that reminds me of "Barry Lyndon" which I must see some time.

  2. Ah! I see that we are both fans of Barry Lyndon! I hope to see you review it one day.

    By the way, according to Kubrick himself, in the opening two minutes of the film we don't watch a black screen. We are, actually, looking at the Monolith turned on its side.

    Neat, huh?

  3. @Rana
    thanks, you're too kind :) I do try my best (especially with this review) but I always feel I could be much better...
    and you MUST see Barry Lyndon, it's in my top favourite films ever, it's just perfect!

    I've been thining of reviewing it for some time, but to be honest I doubt I could do it justice with one of my reviews, maybe you should review it, I know it's on Ebert's great movies list but I still think it's a Forgotten Masterpiece, well anyway you decide...

    And I really had no idea about the black screen being a Monolith, very interesting...

  4. More than doing justice to the film one should do justice to oneself by attempting the difficult. Movies are for us, not vice versa, and one always has a reaction, even boredom, disgust or sheer incomprehension. If a film is worth seeing it's worth writing about.

  5. That's a very persuasive argument Rana, I think I will try reviewing Barry Lyndon after all!
    I suppose I can always improve the review later when my writing skills evolve...

  6. Ebert's finest reviews are from his youth. Ebert recently wrote, "start from the top and work your way down."

  7. Great review Jack. I stopped reading as soon as you started interpreting it. I really really loved this one and will watch it again tonight. Great work. Will read it again after my second watch.

  8. That's fine Rohit, I did ramble on a bit there.

    Please come and read the rest when you've seen it again, I'd look forward to discuss it with and hearing how you interpreted it!


  9. You know, Jack...I've been thinking...

    What would you say to joining with Rana and I to create an international film blog?

    All three of us come from three different cultures, are passionate about film, and are great writers.

    Maybe we could try and make some money off it, too...

  10. I also had that thought, especially seeing how similar are blogs are in terms of how they are setup...

    I would love to join with you guys, but I wouldn't know how to go about it...I'm not much of an expert when it comes to such matters.

    Well, excellent idea, let me know how we would do this and when we do it, if we do it that is...
    Have you asked Rana what he thinks?

  11. Not yet...he said he was out of town...

  12. ok, well send me an e-mail when you've asked him and if you have any new ideas,
    you can find my mail address on my profile, it will be easier than on these comment sections!

  13. By the way...I just joined the Classic Movie Blog Association. They'll help get your work more exposed!

  14. I just checked out their blog, very impressive, but I don't think I'm experienced enough for that sort of thing yet...
    But I'll probably apply for membership later, when I feel more confident about my writing.
    I just don't know if I'm ready for something like that yet... still, I wish you luck and hope your blog gets more readers!

  15. Great Article Jack. True 2001 : A Space Odyssey was one of the greatest science fiction ever made & way much ahead of time. When it was first released it did not get the global appreciation as people were not accustomed to just depth in movies...considering the time the special effects were absolutely stunning...till date it looks fresh & to me some of the good movies related to this genre are Solaris (Clooney's Version) as I have not seen the older version, Dark City, Moon, I Robot, A.I. which is highly underrated...& you can also put Donnie Darko though it had been a little bit complex.

  16. Thanks DJ,
    I'm glad we agree, this is a great film.

    I haven't seen the remake of Solaris, but it doesn't look as good as Tarkovsky's you should check that one out!
    I'll agree that Moon was excellent but I disliked I Robot and wasn't impressed by Donnie Darko, haven't seen Dark City or A.I. yet...

    thanks for reading!

  17. Nat/Jack

    The word "money" makes my mouth water and I'm even willing to work for it. Frankly, Nat, you interest me.

  18. AND, if you click on my name here, you can see another facet of my genius.

  19. Rana,
    Glad you're interested, I also think Nathanael's idea is great, we should just go for it!