04th Jun2018

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Review (50th Anniversary)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Douglas Rain, Leonard Rossiter | Written by Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke | Directed by Stanley Kubrick


Stanley Kubrick’s mid-period masterpiece is almost as remarkable for how it has not influenced sci-fi filmmaking as for how it has. While special effects took a giant leap in 1968 (thanks largely to Douglas Trumball, who would go on to give us a far grimmer new world in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), to this day we still have the sounds of swooshing of ships and zapping lasers in the vacuum of outer space. Then there is the small matter of awe. It’s hard to think of another example of a science fiction movie with such an unflinching commitment to wonder.

Now 2001: A Space Odyssey is being re-released in honour of its 50th anniversary, with a pristine 4K remaster (those matte paint smudges during the Dawn of Man sequence appear to have been digitally removed, thankfully) in its original, super-stretched 70mm aspect ratio.

After endless Star Wars instalments and Star Trek variations, there’s been nothing in mainstream sci-fi cinema that looks or sounds or feels like Kubrick’s space oddity. It remains conspicuously unique. The multiplex has seen plenty of quiet films, slow films, serious films – but how often do we see something truly transcending its medium? For all its indelible images – that thrown bone; the orbiting Hilton; the obsidian black monolith – it is a film that singularly understands that the unique power of cinema lies in editing. Whether it’s the famous match cut, eliding millions of years of homo sapien evolution, or the climactic breakdown of temporality, where astro-pioneer Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) appears to watch himself age and die and resurrect upon a new evolutionary plateau.

And to think it all came from a very short Arthur C. Clarke story named The Sentinel, a tall tale about a pyramid-shaped creation half-buried on the Moon. Kubrick and Clarke’s screenplay plonks this lunar discovery into the second act of a four-act epic. Before that there’s early, ape-like Man. The mysterious monolith appears to the Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter) and his clan, perhaps signalling the birth of religious thought. Jump ahead to the space age (as you do), and technology reigns. Humans are now able to detect a magnetic anomaly on the Moon, which leads Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) to our species’ second audience with the strange black block. It’s pointing toward Jupiter.

So begins the third act, where astronauts Bowman and Poole (Gary Lockwood) set sail for the great Red Eye, with their hubristic red-eyed companion, HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain), who represents the pinnacle of Man’s technological endeavour. Paradoxically, HAL also represents the limitations of technology, inadvertently highlighting the need for humankind to transcend its current form. This paves the existential way for the redemptive voyage into the unknown, which sees Bowman enter a Jovian Stargate and undergo an exhilarating process of accelerated self-actualization. Then Kubrick cherries it all with the most profound image in cinema.

Clarke and Kubrick surround their characters with the clinical environment of technology, almost to the point of fetish, only to strip it all away in the final reel, where Bowman’s trip finds its apotheosis in a cosmic hotel room decorated in the design of pre-electronic Earth. Glowing floor aside, we could be back in the time of Enlightenment. 2001 is a story about humankind, but it’s not a human story. The space station dialogue is bland and functional, barely more advanced than the grunting exchanges of the apes at the Dawn of Man. Kubrick is asking us to look not at a husband, a father, a man. He’s asking us to look at a species in the realm of its technology. A species whose outward advances have far outstripped its inward understanding. A species that has realised such delightful convenience, such elegant design, that it has become distracted from the realisation of its own self.

The technological prescience of Kubrick and Clarke is specifically remarkable today. Heywood’s video call to his daughter (Vivian Kubrick): look closer and you’ll see the screen is flat. And what are those contraptions Bowman and Poole use to watch the news on BBC 12? They don’t half look like tablet computers. It may seem silly now for an orbiting Hilton to be imagined for the year 2001. Yet had the Apollo space programme continued – had American imperialism not thrown the Starchild out with the bathwater – then the vision seems eminently plausible.

It’s easy to throw around words like pompous and pretentious when presented with conceptual cinematic art. If a viewer isn’t affected on an emotional level then the natural defence is to attack the intentions of the artist. In the case of 2001, it’s possible to read the Starchild as a god figure, or perhaps a blandly consoling religious promise of what is to become of us beyond our corporeal suffering. That’s a reasonable interpretation. But the keyword here is “interpretation”, made possible by the bold ambiguity of the style and the narrative. Love it or hate it, 2001: A Space Odyssey has substance enough to furnish conversations for centuries to come.

For all its grandeur and intellectual rigidity, this is an inviting, often amusing, and deeply stirring film: a celebration of humankind’s practically infinite synaptic potential. See it big. See it loud. See it again and see something new, every time.

2001: A Space Odyssey is out in cinemas now for a limited run.


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