Should I Watch..? 2001: A Space Odyssey
What's the big deal?
2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic science-fiction film released in 1968 and was produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The screenplay was written by Kubrick together with Arthur C. Clarke who wrote the novelisation concurrently - the film is loosely based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel". The film deals with themes of evolution, artificial intelligence, technology and alien life as well as pioneering special effects and achieving realistic portrayals of space flight the year before the Moon Landings. Despite splitting the critics upon release, the film has since come to be regarding as one of the greatest sci-fi movies in history and one of the best films of all time. Its ambiguous story-telling continues to provoke debate among its viewers while Kubrick's minimalist use of dialogue and style of film-making continues to inspire countless imitators and parodies.
What's it about?
The film opens in the middle of an African desert millions of years ago when a group of ape-men are displaced from a water-hole by another tribe. One day, a strange black monolith appears before them and suddenly, the ape-men understand how to use old bones as tools and weapons. Returning to their water hole armed with bones, the ape-men drive off the others and reclaim their territory.
Millions of years later, a space flight approaches an orbiting space station above the Earth. On board is Dr Heywood Floyd, en route to the moon on a mission of upmost secrecy. A strange black monolith - identical to the one seen in the opening - has been found buried under the lunar surface and the scientists have no idea what the meaning is. Eighteen months later, the research ship Discovery One is heading to Jupiter - crewed by Dr David Bowman, Dr Frank Poole and the ship's computer HAL 9000 - to potentially unlock the mystery of the monoliths...
Dr David Bowman
Dr Frank Poole
Dr Heywood R. Floyd
Douglas Rain (voice only)
Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke *
Release Date (UK)
15th May, 1968
Best Visual Effects
Academy Award Nominations
Best Director, Best Screenplay Written For The Screen, Best Set Direction
What's to like?
The very best sci-fi films are meant to be challenging, open-minded and ambiguous - no other genre of film tackles issues that affect us on a daily basis in quite the same way. The ambition of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as vast as the canvas on which Kubrick paints and while it never claims to have the answers, it is apparent from the outset that this film deals with more than the trifling affairs of mortal men. The soundtrack alone stirs the soul, using classical pieces instead of the digital instruments typically used in visions of the future. This is epic stuff and Kubrick uses every method in his arsenal to bring us the full picture while still keeping enough obscured to provoke debate.
That it is a film of meticulous craftsmanship is undeniable, given Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail. Even without the CG of today, the film's shots of space-craft docking in enormous space stations with the occupants dealing with the every-day inconvenience of zero gravity is truly breath-taking. Most of the cast would be unknown to viewers today with the possible exception of Leonard Rossiter in a brief cameo so the film's almost documentary-feel has an impenetrable feel of realism. But most memorable of all is the cast member you never see - Rain's unflappable HAL is both chilling and disturbing and never before has a simple red light been quite so ominous.
- There is no dialogue in the first 25 minutes of the film nor in the final 23 minutes. Altogether, the film has about 88 minutes free from any sort of dialogue.
- At the film's premier, 241 people walked out including actor Rock Hudson who apparently asked "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?" Clarke himself once said that if anyone understood the film completely then they had failed - they wanted to raise more questions than they answered.
- Kubrick's daughter Vivian makes her cinematic debut as Dr Floyd's young daughter. She would also be cast in more of her father's films like The Shining (1) and Full Metal Jacket (2).
What's not to like?
Given that the film has so much to cover in a relatively short space of time, the film abandon conventional story-telling and uses no real narration to explain exactly what is going on. It's not really a problem during the three main acts but the conclusion definitely needed some clarification - the first time I experienced the Star Gate sequence, I gave up on the film completely because it didn't explain anything at all and frankly, the constantly shifting colours gave me a migraine. Having seen the film again, I have more of an understanding but still don't fully get it. Don't expect the film to provide any sort of satisfactory conclusion.
One suspects that in order to fully grasp what the film is trying to say, the book written by Clarke in conjunction with the making of the movie suddenly becomes essential. It will obviously fill in a number of blanks left in the film but why couldn't the film be a little bit easier for regular audiences to understand? I remember listening in horror to people who said that they didn't understand films like Pulp Fiction (3) or Memento (4) which also play games with conventional and chronological story-telling. I felt that they were fairly straight-forward once you got used to them but the story-telling in 2001: A Space Odyssey is so obtuse that even clued-up viewers might feel a bit short-changed.
Should I watch it?
Rare is the film that is a complete game-changer but 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly qualifies. With its iconic soundtrack, ground-breaking cinematography and stunning special effects, it is a film of absolute quality that any serious fan of cinema should watch it at least twice. It may well go above your understanding but even from a purely technical point-of-view, the film is a landmark picture and one that will stand the test of time for generations to come. Proper science-fiction simply doesn't get much better than this.
Great For: cinema, sci-fi, intellectuals, hippies.
Not So Great For: epileptic viewers, casual cinema-goers, Rock Hudson.
What else should I watch?
The argument about the greatest sci-fi film in history continues to rumble on as technology allows film-makers to expand their visions in new ways. From George Lucas' ever-popular Star Wars (5) saga to James Cameron's equally epic Avatar (6), audiences are often transported to distant alien worlds and the strange creatures that dwell there. But CG doesn't have to define the genre as most of the best sci-fi films are often from before the use of such technology. Consider Blade Runner (7) with its dystopian vision of a industrialised Los Angeles terrorised by rogue replicants - all of it done with practical special effects.
I personally would fight to proclaim one of the first sci-fi films as one of the greatest. Metropolis (8) might look quaint by today's standards but the sheer scale and imagination behind the picture is second to none. Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece is a truly astonishing piece of cinema even viewed today and like 2001: A Space Odyssey, still finds the time to question what it means to be human and where are we going as a species.