With Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we approach one of the handful of films with a serious claim to be considered one of the greatest ever made. How you measure this is, of course, a question in and of itself: but it regularly scores in the top ten of film critics’ all-time polls, does even better when film directors themselves are asked their opinion, and so on. (The best film Oscar that year went to Oliver!, which I will happily admit is a brilliant piece of work, but it still goes to show that the academy is inordinately fond of a good tune.)
On the other hand, just the other day a (pttp!) Mail on Sunday critic was describing it as a ‘three hour epic with nothing to say’, which, coming from a professional, is just a bit dumbfounding. Slightly less savage is the review a friend submitted to an online zine I used to be involved with, which went more or less thusly:
‘Five million years ago, the Apes of Earth crawl around, shouting and screaming at each other. Then, some Apes find a monolith, and suddenly they evolve and start using bones as tools and weapons. The meaning of this: unknown! Then we jump forward to 2001 and people on the moon dig up another monolith. When the sun hits it, it starts sending a deafening radio beam aimed at Jupiter. The meaning of this: unknown! Eighteen months later, on a spaceship going to Jupiter, the computer HAL9000 (Douglas Rain) goes nuts and tries to kill all the crew before being shut down by the last survivor, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). The meaning of this? Unknown again!
2001 is an old movie that is mainly just full of special effects – they may look really clunky today but this movie pretty much invented modern special effects. At times these long special effects scenes can seem boring, however, if you stick with it you will find a good movie. The story seems to be deliberately mysterious. The story has the most mysterious ending I have ever seen. Dave seems to travel through a large monolith where he ends up in a white room. As he travels out of this room into another he sees someone eating at a table. At this point Dave seems to become something else and nothing appears to make any sense. ‘
(He did go on to recommend 2010, though.)
It does seem to me that nowadays, with talents like Shane Carruth making their own almost entirely exposition-free movies, 2001 seems a lot less cryptic, but then I have had the advantage (or possibly the impediment) of reading Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the story. I think it’s safe to say that most of the cosmic vision that Kubrick puts on the screen is essentially Clarkean – what Kubrick opted not to include was Clarke’s love of solid, traditional storytelling virtues, with no piece of exposition withheld without good reason.
With the benefit of this insight, it seems almost self-evident that 2001 is quintessential science fiction in that it deals with what it means to be human and our place in the wider universe. More specifically, it’s about the development of new forms of intelligence and the evolution of mankind – said development and evolution being catalysed by the presence of the enigmatic Monoliths which are a recurring motif throughout the film, and which we are invited to interpret as the emissaries of a mysterious higher intelligence which we never actually see.
(It is a fairly little-known fact that Stanley Kubrick invited Gerry Anderson to do all the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey – now that’s a lunch I would like to have sat in on! – but the supermarionation maestro turned it down due to pressure of other work. Part of me wonders if, having seen the 2001 script, some elements of that didn’t subconsciously turn up in Captain Scarlet, which was in production around the same time: you’ve got the disembodied alien superintelligences, initially baffling plot developments, strange artifacts turning up on the moon, personnel with colour-coded spacesuits… Not to mention that Ed Bishop is in both productions. No? Oh well, just me.)
Naturally, none of this occurred to me the first time I watched it, which must have been when I was seven years old (on the occasion of the film’s British TV premiere, the date of which BBC Genome has just kindly provided). Bafflement and fascination are all I really recall of that initial viewing, and I really must acknowledge the good judgement of my parents in letting me stay up late and watch such a challenging movie at such a tender age. I have a much stronger memory of my second viewing, a couple of years later, when I was transfixed by the palpable verisimilitude of the movie’s futureworld – and so should anyone be, for surely one of Clarke and Kubrick’s intentions was to present a vision of the future in as much detail as they could possibly manage.
Of course, nothing dates quite as quickly or as obviously as futuristic SF, and this is as true of 2001 as of anything else. 2001’s 21st century, primarily seen in the second movement of the film, is very, very 60s – very early 60s, to be specific. Heywood Floyd’s flight to the moon seems to have deliberate echoes of a top executive on a business trip, and indeed everyone in this sequence seems to look and act like they’ve just walked out of an episode of Mad Men. The final irony, of course, is that Floyd is flying with Pan Am, an airline which – as it turned out – wouldn’t even make it to 2001 in the real world.
None of this really detracts from the great achievements of 2001, one of which is to show the world what happens when a genius film-maker and a genius SF writer put their heads together. The result is, of course, something almost unparallelled in cinema history – it seems more and more obvious that Interstellar is fundamentally a homage to 2001, in everything from its sweeping scale to its rather Monolithesque robots and on to its five-dimensional room, but even so it doesn’t have anything like its phenomenal scope or awesome clarity of vision. There’s nothing, for instance, that approaches the justly celebrated match cut between a flying bone and an orbiting space platform which forms the transition between the first two movements of the film. Not least of that cut’s virtues is the way in which it manages to suggest that everything that happens in the intervening four million years is just details and not really worth bothering with. (It also occurs to me that the second movement doesn’t have its own subtitle, which might even lead one to conclude that the ‘Dawn of Man’ segment doesn’t actually conclude until the second Monolith is discovered on the Moon – something which gives one a new perspective on the film which is startling but by no means at odds with the general tenor of the piece.)
One could go on and list all the brilliant touches – the almost-casual suggestion that human evolution is driven by murder, the casting of such nondescript performers in the key roles (which isn’t to say that Dullea doesn’t give a performance just as good as the more noted one by Douglas Rain as HAL), the way in which HAL himself is to some extent the most sympathetic presence in the film, and so on. But finding something new to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey is almost impossible. 2001 is a fading memory now, and you can quite happily converse with small people who weren’t even alive until long after it. But 2001: A Space Odyssey is still way ahead of not just its own time, but ours as well. Virtually nothing in cinema or in written SF has come close ever since.