Here it is...a review that reveres, not rejects, Stanley Kubrick's serious sci-fi masterwork. Even six years after the implied narrative fact, it remains Judge Bill Gibron's favorite film of all time.
Our reviews of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi (published September 25th, 2009), 2001: A Space Odyssey: Special Edition (Blu-Ray) (published November 15th, 2007), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (published June 12th, 2001) are also available.
Let the Awe and Mystery of a Journey Unlike Any Other Begin
Star Wars screwed it all up. Before George Lucas delivered his unheralded horse opera in space, science fiction used to be considered a serious, sometimes overly dramatic, genre. Oh sure, the '40s and '50s used the rising threat of A-bomb obliteration as a means of mutating every Tom, Dick, and horsefly into a menacing monster, and the shape of things to come usually resembled a college campus in California retrofitted with randomly blinking panels of fairy lights, but until Darth's daddy delivered his big-time popcorn pleasurefest, most movie fans based their love on the speculative on one of three influential films—The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes, and the grandest grandpappy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's safe to say that in the 100-plus years since celluloid sold itself as art, Stanley Kubrick's visionary Valhalla was the benchmark by which all purposeful projecting was measured. Granted, it remains a dense and difficult film, laden with elements only implied or inferred, but the forward-thinking approach taken by the director (in collaboration with the equally influential Arthur C. Clarke) was the great aesthetic advance the genre needed. Today, most fans prefer Luke Skywalker and his coming-of-age pseudo-samurai saga. Sadly, such individuals are misguided, overlooking 2001, the greatest movie of all time. The reasons why, however, are as complicated as the film's often obtuse narrative.
Warner Brothers honors the Stanley Kubrick classic with 2001: A Space Odyssey (Two-Disc Special Edition).
Facts of the Case
It's the Dawn of Man. As ape-like creatures gather and gawk, a large monolith arrives on the prehistoric landscape. One brave animal approaches the giant geometric shape. Its interaction with the thing brings about a decided mental evolution. Soon, tool-making and its inherent violence comes to the fore. Fast forward millions of years, and NASA specialist Dr. Heyward Floyd is on a shuttle mission to the Moon. There is an object buried just beneath the satellite's surface, and with tensions high between the United States and still Soviet Russia, there are rumors and innuendo swirling around the project. When he arrives on the lunar plane, however, things are far more confounding. Finally, a group of astronauts, including flight pilots Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, David and Lisa) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood, The Magic Sword), head toward Jupiter to investigate another cosmic anomaly. While in orbit around the planet, they come face to face with the ship's cold and calculated computer, the HAL 9000. Specifically programmed to complete its own explicit protocol, the mad machine puts the lives of everyone on board in jeopardy.
Let's get all the motion-picture mumbo-jumbo out of the way right now; 2001: A Space Odyssey is an undeniable masterpiece and one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever committed to film. It represents the continued cutting-edge of serious science fiction and marks the moment when its director, Stanley Kubrick, went from able auteur to actual art form legend. It is not for everyone. It will not resonate with individuals who find reconfigured genres with an interstellar setting as the ultimate speculative expression, and there will be many who see it as self-indulgent, wildly uneven, and somehow without purpose. These are not invalid feelings, but they also fail to address the reality of what's on the screen. It's safe to say that, in collaboration with prescient author Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick defined the boundaries of believable futurism, avoiding gimmickry and the simplistic to deliver a stunning statement on man's relationship to the cosmos. Again, it's okay if you don't like it. It doesn't reflect poorly on your aesthetic to find it talky, slowly paced, and undeniably confusing. But if you go into the film with a few foundational nuggets, subtexts draw from decades under the film's undeniable spell, you can gain a much better appreciation of what Kubrick and Clark were aiming at.
First off, 2001 is meant to support science over religion, the oneness of the entire universal community over the concept that humans are direct products of an all-powerful, omniscient father figure. The film begins by bolstering of evolution (showing our hairy forefathers honing their hunter-gathering skills) and ends with the creation of a new alien/man metamorphosis. Indeed, Kubrick clearly wanted God out of the discussion as he makes technology's ability to play same, in the guise of the far too self-aware computer HAL, the movie's main villain. Indeed, 2001 suggests a synergy between everything in existence—biology, the stars, mammals, mechanics, spirituality, science—with the result being a much more cohesive and considered stratagem. Humanity is constantly taken down a notch in this film, from our bumbling, brutal beginnings (the entire opening act suggests that otherworldly intelligence was required to moderate our murderous instincts) to the fabulously confusing finale where all of existence is boiled down to one man living a cocooned, clinical life. 2001 rejects God as readily as it establishes it own set of faith-based beliefs—faith in physics, faith in nature, faith in something far off and distant.
Similarly, there is a clear argument against the non-spiritual dogma of the masses—politics—at the center of the story. While Kubrick and Clarke are careful to keep it in the background, there are Cold War pronouncements, issues between nations, the rise of the nuclear threat (in the case of the famous jump cut between a primitive weapon—a bone—and a thoroughly modern one—a bomb-filled satellite), and the belief that such scattered sovereignty leads to our mutual downfall. When Heywood Floyd meets with the Russian delegation while awaiting his shuttle to the moon, it's pure pre-'70s saber rattling done with sinister subtlety. Clearly, space is not the final frontier for ideological stand-offs. Likewise, astronauts Bowman and Poole monitor some minor crisis while on their journey, juxtaposing their personal adventures with HAL against the seeming international standoff back home. It's a theme that would be taken to even more proselytizing extremes in the sequel 2010. In fact, Clarke's main concern in all his Odyssey novels is the notion that man's inherent hubris over his importance will end up overriding discoveries so great that we might never recognize their importance. It's all part of the warning system structure of the storyline.
Indeed, all of 2001 is an abject admonition. From our homo sapien start to our starchild end, Kubrick and Clarke want to make us aware of our slide into stunted self-fulfilling prophecy. All throughout the film, we get moments where something greater than us provides a glimpse of its power. It happens when the monolith first appears in prehistoric times. It arrives again when another is uncovered under the Moon's surface. We see it when Bowman and Poole are locked in a life or death struggle with HAL, the massive storm spot of Jupiter sitting idly in the background, or when we witness the mind-blowing majesty inside the alien-made star gate.
2001 is intended as a brain buster, a way of breaking you from your conventional way of viewing space and taking the vastness of its many secrets as one big tab of enlightening LSD. One of the reasons many people dislike the film is this notion of ambiguity and vagueness. Instead of spelling out what each sequence symbolizes, Kubrick lets it play out organically and unadorned. Sometimes, the results speak for themselves (the battle with HAL). At other instances, he can make an attentive viewer queasy from all the shockwave psychedelia and emblematic sturm and drang.
Finally, one must remember that 2001 is really nothing more than Close Encounters with a more metaphysical mothership hovering over the horizon. Sure, there's the story of Heywood Floyd and his mission to the moon. There's also the battle between HAL and our two helpless space pilots. But if you impose a superior extraterrestrial will on the entire narrative, if you see its influence from birth of a planet to rebirth of a species, you can begin to see the essence of Kubrick's and Clarke's ideals. We are dealing with the progression of all in the universe, how one more highly formed and functional life form hopes to reach out and touch/influence/shake up another. The concept of "we are not alone" did not begin with this film, but 2001 was the first attempt to deal with aliens intelligently, scientifically, and exponentially. They are never seen (apparently because Kubrick could not settle on a plausible design). They are never really addressed; in fact, some might miss the advanced order implication all together. We know the monoliths are controlled by something, but we never get a clear picture as to who—or what. But one of the core concepts driving the film is a vision of a future where man stumbles upon his past and his potential simultaneously—and there's a sentient being from another planet observing and manipulating it all.
Still, none of this will help those who are simply bored by what Kubrick accomplishes here, who find no greater truths in the supposedly overlong sequences of rotating F/X and classical music. All the anti-religious/pro planetary positioning will not make the split-screen space race inside the monolith any more meaningful, nor will it erase the abject strangeness of Bowman's bizarre fate. To all those issues, 2001 has no answers. It stands as what it is and speaks in the manner and tone of its own intentions. It won't wow those who don't find it fulfilling and it won't inspire those needing grander fireworks and/or fisticuffs to inspire their sense of wonder. Yet to translate one's non-appreciation of something into a universal dismissal of same is as ridiculous as relying on one's opinion to prove factual distinctions between truths. The Mona Lisa is not considered a masterpiece solely on the basis of the subject's looks. If that were the case, tabloid photos of slumming superstars would be hanging in the Louvre. No, the reason 2001 is one of the greatest films of all time is what is means to the medium, as well as its ability to inspire.
It was made in the late '60s, not a time known for its realistic approach to special effects or views of the cosmic. We had barely placed a man on the moon, and yet Kubrick and Clarke were extrapolating outward, wondering what the next steps in space exploration would produce. There was talk of ancient astronauts—alien influence on our prehistory—and while most scoffed at such a suggestion, 2001 decided to work within the confines of such a suggestion. In a decade overdosing on its own sense of entitlement, freedom, and self-indulgence, it was a weird wake-up call, a reminder that arrogance never helped anyone achieve their loftier goals or aims. The natural order, the arrival of cognizant technology, the desire to move beyond our own solar system, and the potential pitfalls (both personal and unplanned) that could come from such an adventure were all part of the plotting. But more than that, 2001 was hoping to make such visionary variables part of a larger discussion. Kubrick and Clarke weren't just out to make a serious science-fiction film, or a good version of same. No, their real goal was a journey inward—and it's the main reason for the whole love/hate assessment.
It could also be generational. As with most movies made within certain era-specific confines, some view 2001 as a precursor to all the "really cool" space junk to come, a far-too-fancy-panted production that simply needs some light sabers and jujitsu Sith to spark things. In a post-modern mindset that's cranked way too far into ADD overdrive, where everything must be fast, flash, and far-out, Kubrick's ultra-deliberate, almost static, steps don't create gravitas, but aggravation. For those just starting their life, the looking-back effect achieved by the film is too much, too soon—and too talky. It's unimportant—unless you've passed a certain expectancy point and recognize the decades fading in your own personal rearview mirror. For those of us who've met our adolescence head on, survived our twenties, and taken the inevitable blows that would come with three decades in this dominion, 2001 practically sings. It strives for implausible pronouncements and soothes the mind savaged by visions of mortality, meaninglessness, and the mundane. It may not explain the placed on a pedestal appeal that some (like yours truly) give the film, but it does offer an argument—the test of any timeless work of art.
In the end, the reason 2001: A Space Odyssey stands near the top of so many critical compilations is its inherent ability to instigate contention. To deny its visual power and cinematic revelation is single-minded shortsightedness. There is a vast difference between hating the story and hating the way it was told. Kubrick creates a flawless realm where believability is matched point by point with possibility, where what we are fuses effortlessly with where we're headed. Like other notorious names that always seem to find themselves at the top of "Best Ever" declarations (Renoir's Rules of the Game, Truffaut's Jules et Jim) the greatness argued over can be unrecognizable at first. But again, just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not there. Critical consensus is, indeed, a glorified grouping, the like-minded monopolizing the discussion in deference to everyone else's ideas. But sometimes, mob mentality is right. It creates the context a single voice cannot manage. In the case of 2001, calls of its place among the best films ever are not unqualified. If you don't see it now, just give it time. You'll get it—eventually.
When it comes to DVD, the films of Stanley Kubrick have faced more geek groans than any other offerings combined. There are reports that the filmmaker crafted all of his films in an open-matte format that makes the creation of a true anamorphic offering a fool's paradise. There are others who argue that any 16x9 presentation—1.85:1, 2.20:1, 2.35:1—destroys that man's true intentions. Leaving this argument for another site, another day, let's look at things from the product perspective, shall we. Short of calling on a psychic to channel Kubrick from the great beyond, replicating the theatrical experience—how the film was viewed on the big screen when it was projected back in 1968—is the best a company can contribute to the ongoing, often circular, argument. In this case, Warner Brothers has delivered a magnificent print. The 2.20:1 transfer here is outstanding. It is much improved over the previous MGM version, and bodes well for any HD or Blu-ray disc to come. The colors are incredibly sharp and the attention to detail breathtaking. As for sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround remix is equally impressive. The channels all get a workout, especially during the many moments of orchestrated splendor and the dialogue is clean and easily decipherable.
What most fans will be anxious about, however, is the wealth of new bonus features offered on this two-disc DVD edition. While it wouldn't be fair to call them completely underwhelming, they just can't match the brilliance of the film they are supplementing. Disc One starts off with the original theatrical trailer. Then there is a full-length audio commentary from actors Gary Lockwood (Astronaut Poole) and Keir Dullea (Astronaut Bowman). It's a pleasant, if rather loose, conversation, focusing more on working with Kubrick and the ambitions of the project over technical explanations and backstage politicking. While it's great to hear the human face of the film defending itself, learning how many of the more momentous scenes were crafted is what most sci-fi nerds are after. Some of that arrives on Disc Two. An hour-long documentary from England's Channel 4 (2001: The Making of a Myth) helps provide some perspective. Hosted by James Cameron, the sometimes kitschy forum does let those still living (Douglas Trumball, Arthur C. Clarke) compliment and complain about the results. We learn of budgetary shortcuts and last-minute compromises. We also are reminded of Kubrick's famed perfectionism and tendency toward reshoots (or in the case of HAL's voice, the differing attempts at same).
Next up are four fascinating featurettes. "Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001" lets fellow filmmakers (Spielberg, Lucas, etc.) wax poetic about the film's lasting impact on their careers. It's a wonderful tribute. "A Vision of Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001" concentrates on the technological predictions that have actually proven out since the film's release. It's a nice bit of insight. "What is Out There?" finds Dullea in a discussion of alien life and theology while "2001: A Space Odyssey—a Look Behind the Future"is a Look! magazine-produced documentary that provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the movie being made. Because it was created almost 40 years ago, there is a real vintage quality to the presentation. Dated as it is, the information provided is pointed, to say the least. "2001: FX And Early Conceptual Artwork" gives us Trumball and Kubrick's widow Christiane describing the design phase and the realization of Kubrick's loftier aims. It's incredibly interesting and over far too quickly. Finally, there's a marvelous 75-minute audio-only interview with the auteur that's well worth your time. It's engaging and thoughtful. Finally, a slideshow of images from a Look! shoot are also provided. All in all, it's a decent selection of added content. The only complaint, especially for those of us who worship the film, is that there should be more, MORE, MORE!!!
In the end, it's hard for a 2001: A Space Odyssey convert to express to the uninitiated (or unimpressed) the importance this film has in their own artistic aesthetic. It's even harder still to describe the rationale behind such a reaction. An exercise in philosophy may provide some insight. The mind game goes a little something like this: Visualize yourself. Now incorporate that image into a view of the building around you. Again, add that to a mental picture of the town you are in. Then add a vision of your state. Project yourself out even further. See the country you inhabit, view it in conjunction with the rest of the continents on the planet. Realize that Earth is just one of nine (and counting) bodies in this particular solar system and continue to paint in the picture. Add in the knowledge that it is part of a much larger galaxy called the Milky Way, and that often-seen swirl is just one of billions of other galaxies moving around a vast and infinite universe. Now, this is not meant to make you feel small and insignificant, however. According to Kubrick and Clarke, once you realize this daunting ideal, you finally start to envision your place in the celestial scheme of things. It's a mindset complemented effortlessly by the film forged as a means of making said point. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unqualified epic. As with most important landmarks, time has only confirmed its status.
Not guilty. It's the best movie ever made. How could it be culpable of anything?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood
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