2001: SPACE ODYSSEY REVIEW

The sci-fi and fantasy 25 | Film | guardian.co.uk

BY THE GUARDIAN / from 1968

A mere dozen years ago, fairly typical of the science-fiction film as a whole, a pathetically tatty epic called King Dinosaur wobbled unsteadily across our screens, its cardboard spaceship wilting visibly whenever touched, its astronauts emerging one by one because the budget obviously couldn’t rise to space suits for them all. Since then the genre has acquired not only its lettres de noblesse, but a lot of money to play with: and the first thing to be said about Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Casino Cinerama) – several years in the making and costing heaven knows how much – is that it looks quite simply stunning.

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. Production year: 1968
  3. Countries: UK, USA
  4. Cert (UK): U
  5. Runtime: 141 mins
  6. Directors: Stanley Kubrick
  7. Cast: Daniel Richter, Gary Lockwood, Keir Dullea, William Sylvester
  8. More on this film

It may be safely left to small boys and astronauts to quibble or enthuse over the reputed accuracy of its facts and equipment. What matters for the lay spectator is that Kubrick’s vision of space is as endlessly fascinating as a vast toyshop of intricate, superbly photogenic working models. […]

Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the impedimenta and implications of space travel, and apart from a sequence involving an endearingly sulky computer, so offended by a suggestion that it has made a mistake that it announces in the silkiest of tones its intention of taking over command, there is remarkably little plot to 2001. The film, in fact, might be best described as a factual philosophical speculation, rather than as the drama it sets out as but never develops into: and like all good speculations, it leaves the spectator up in the air with a tantalising vision as food for thought.

As the film opens, we are in pre-historic times. Apemen scrabble for food in a rocky wilderness, cowering in fear of wild beasts, screaming abuse at rival tribes from a discreet distance. Suddenly a strange black monolith, smooth and menacing, appears in their midst: and as if inspired, one of the apemen discovers the secret of killing with a bone club. Triumphantly he tosses the bone into the air. As it turns in lazy slow motion against the sky, it is metamorphosed into a spaceship, and we are off in the year 2001 to the moon, where a strange, menacing black monolith has just been unearthed. Mystery…

More mystery, almost panic, when the monolith proves to have been buried four million years earlier, evidently with ulterior motive, by some extraterrestrial intelligence centred on the planet Jupiter. An expedition to Jupiter is mounted (the one almost sabotaged by the computer), and when the one surviving astronaut reaches his destination, he finds no monsters, nothing tangible, but simply a kind of philosophical conundrum … himself past, present and future, all things at all times.

One can, if one feels unkindly, say so what? But this is, I think, to miss the point of the film […]. If we conquer both time and space, then what? The final sequence of 2001 is speculation through imagination, positing a new Xanadu, a world of wonders where time and space no longer exist, just as the rest of the film speculates on various levels, exploring the new vistas opened up by the encroaching space era. […]

With the whole screen glittering in an ever-changing pattern of diagrams and equations from instrument panels and monitor screens, a ballet of spacecraft performing lazy orbits in the sky to the strains of the Blue Danube Waltz, and its astronauts wrapped up like jelly-babies for long-distance hibernation in blue mummy-cases, this really is a brave new world of the machines. As such, not to be missed.

THE GUARDIAN / FROM 2010

When 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released, few would have predicted it would still be feted nearly half a century later. In fact few would have tipped it for even short-lived glory. At its premiere – its premiere – there were 241 walkouts, including Rock Hudson, who asked: “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. Production year: 1968
  3. Countries: UK, USA
  4. Cert (UK): U
  5. Runtime: 141 mins
  6. Directors: Stanley Kubrick
  7. Cast: Daniel Richter, Gary Lockwood, Keir Dullea, William Sylvester
  8. More on this film

Even its champions were stumped. “Somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring,” thought the New York Times; “Superb photography major asset to confusing, long-unfolding plot,” reckoned Newsday. But bafflement was the intention, explained its creators. Said Arthur C Clarke, whose 1948 story The Sentinel was the starting point forStanley Kubrick (Clarke’s novelisation postdated the film): “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.”

A cop-out? Far from it: 2001 is magisterial. Its impeccable serious-mindedness is nothing to scoff at; what some saw as ponderous now seems merely prescient. It was both the last space-travel movie shot before men actually landed on the moon, and the first to turn a genre that had been the preserve of B-movie cheese into the highest form of art.

It looks not just as fresh as the day it was made but as fresh as the day you first saw it: iffy ape costumes aside, it’s one of the few 60s movies that stands up to contemporary technical scrutiny. At the time, it must have marked a quantum leap forward: suddenly, space seemed credible. To watch even now is to be awestruck: all those exacting details (the 700-word instructions for using a zero-gravity toilet), the pacing – at once lulling and urgent, the audio – soaring Strauss waltzes spliced with dead air. In space, of course, no one can hear you speak.

And so to the difficult matter of what on earth it’s about. On a bare-bones level, it concerns three artefacts: one left on Earth at the dawn of man by space explorers keen to steer the evolution of the apes, another buried deep in the lunar surface, and programmed to signal word of man’s first journey into the universe (in Kubrick’s words, “a kind of cosmic burglar alarm”) and the third in orbit around Jupiter – another alarm, this time for when man breaks out of his own solar system.

And that’s what happens in the film, when a team of five men (three in hibernation) jet off to investigate the second. But the mission goes awry – arguably the fault of the chatty command computer, Hal – and the sole surviving astronaut is swept into a force field that hurls him on a journey through the galaxy. From there it’s to a human zoo, built from his own subconscious, where he ages fast, dies, is reborn and enhanced – “a star child, an angel, a superman” (said Kubrick) – before returning to Earth to advance evolution.

2001 is a film whose ambition is only matched by its achievement in pulling it off. It was the world’s first – and perhaps only – metaphysical exploration of the workings of humanity, from the beginning of time to the far-flung future, and it’s small wonder sci-fi has never really recovered. It has really only been going backwards, relying either on splashy effects or psychological conundrums handled so tritely that they barely seem related to 2001 at all.

Some complain that it is chilly, inhuman. Perhaps. But the dying song of Hal, warbling out Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Made for Two) as his plug is pulled, must be one of the most haunting scenes in cinema, mechanic or not.

Not to mention, of course, that 2001 provides the most open-and-shut case for cinema being primarily a visual medium: from the twirling, dancing orbits to the extended acid(ic) trip at the end, it is, quite simply, a knock-out. And it features Leonard Rossiter as a Russian astronaut. The question back in 1968 would have been: how could this possibly be number 1? The question today is: how could it not?

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