From the Archives: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Originally posted 2014 | Review by Luke O’Reilly

The upcoming release of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the BFI will be it’s fifth time to hit the cinemas since it first came out in 1968. Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick it is one of most iconic and influential films ever made.

Stanley Kubrick stands amongst the greatest film makers who have ever lived. His filmography includes A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Strangelove, Full metal jacket and Spartacus. 2001 is his Magnum Opus, his most original and enigmatic film. Standing at 161 minutes it is not a viewing experience for the impatient. Yet 46 years on from its release it has entered into popular imagination. It was taken off most memorably in the twelfth Simpson’s ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode, where Pierce Brosnan voices ‘Ultrahouse 3000’ an artificial intelligence that turns against its owners.

2001 was revolutionary in its production. Front projection with retroreflective matting gives the impression of an open African wilderness, rather than the usual fake painting on walls. Large scale models were made for all of the spaceships and the images were created by superimposing the models onto background shots.

The cinematography is one of the films most impressive elements. A bone tossed in the air cuts to a spaceship, the entire technological history of mankind encapsulated in one shot. The special effects are exceptional, much of the film consists of long shots of space and ships moving through it. Scale is used well here and the enormity of the ships is captured and contrasted with the still greater enormity of space. The sense of man as an intrepid explorer of the great beyond is summed up again and again in the cinematography. Flashing lights speeding up as an astronaut pushes past infinity. Suddenly changing camera angles that give smooth transition of perspective for the same character in different incarnations, are masterfully utilised to demonstrate giant jumps of time in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film.

Everything exists for a reason. The designs of space ships are founded on the principle of being scientifically possible. This is what takes the viewer immediately into the realm of well made Sci-Fi, a genre that can be giggle-worthy when executed poorly

The least impressive aspect of 2001 is the acting. Often stilted and strange the film is without a notable performance. Human interaction is lost within grand spectacle. Actors seem inconsequential, as if Kubrick only includes humans to justify the spectacular special effects and high concept plot. The opening scene of men dressed as apes is outright comical. One of the ape suits was made with breasts that could produce milk, Kubrick hoped that they could tempt a real baby ape to suckle on it. A baby chimpanzee was hired and coerced into suckling. The result was messy and cut from the film. A scene between a father calling his young daughter is one of the few scenes with any emotion in it and it is utterly forgettable. It is a clear sign of the film’s other strengths that performance, usually an integral part of any narrative movie, is almost unimportant in 2001.

The majority of the live-action scenes were shot without the beginning or ending having been decided by Kubrick. There is great attention to detail in making sure that the film is as scientifically accurate as possible. Everything exists for a reason. The designs of space ships are founded on the principle of being scientifically possible. This is what takes the viewer immediately into the realm of well made Sci-Fi, a genre that can be giggle-worthy when executed poorly. One of the most impressive scientific creations for the film was the concept of a ship that would rotate 360 degrees at a speed that would maintain centrifugal force and so create artificial gravity.

The film is an epic that is separated into four distinct parts. The first 28 minutes of the film has no dialogue, and shows how the appearance of a black monolith kick started human evolution. The monolith returns in the second part of the film, but this time it is a different one found by American astronauts on the moon. The third part is the most tense and exciting of the film. It is set on the space mission to Jupiter to find the source of a signal for a third monolith. It consists of a series of gradually more unsettling altercations between the astronauts on the mission and the ship’s computer.

The soundtrack for 2001 is the most iconic element of many. It is Kubrick at his most impulsive and brilliant. Kubrick’s conceptualization of the movement of space ships being like the whirls of dancers inspired the use of classical music. ‘The Blue Danube’, a waltz, was chosen for this and the result is mesmerising. One becomes pulled into an almost dreamlike spectacle where all human context is removed and these great machines seem to be beasts in and of themselves. That man should later compete against machine in the film seems  natural after so much life has been invested into Kubrick’s floating behemoths. Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ resonates the moment you hear it at the opening of the film. The section of the piece used was meant to be the fanfare for a sunrise at the start of the day. The piece was written as a companion to Nietzsche’s ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’, from which it gets its name. 46 years on it has lost none of its power. This is man as overcoming. Man that has killed its God and taken his place. All of creation is his for the taking now.

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