:::2001: A Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick’s epic stands the test of time

Film Review: 2001:A Space Odyssey (4 stars)

It’s been said that the space programs of the 1960s unfolded as though someone had taken a decade out of the 21st century and plunked it down a hundred years earlier. For 10 giddy years there were regular launches into orbit, spacecraft rendezvous and docking, and manned flights to the moon and back.

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey some 42 years after its premiere feels similarly anachronistic, as though the movie had been made using modern computers and production facilities, not mid-’60s technology. The special effects, from the hominids in the “dawn of man” scenes to the various spaceships and the trippy lien stargate, hold up to modern scrutiny without even the “not bad for its time” argument.

Much of this can be attributed to director/co-writer Stanley Kubrick, whose mania for perfection seems to have reached its apotheosis with this film. He first met with science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in April 1964 to discuss a project they called Journey Beyond the Stars. Clarke would write a novel about the discovery of alien intelligence; Kubrick would adapt it.

The film — suggested titles included UniverseTunnel to the StarsPlanetfall and eventually 2001 — started principal photography at the end of 1965, wrapped an astonishing 21 months later and ate up an additional, partially overlapping 21 months in post-production and special-effects work.

Much of this labour never made it to the screen. For instance, the iconic black monolith that appears at several crucial junctures in the film was originally constructed as a four-metre-tall slab of Plexiglas, which required a month to cool — slowly, so it wouldn’t shatter — and weeks of polishing. Kubrick hated it, so a black-painted wooden monolith took its place. It had to be repainted if so much as a fingerprint was seen on it.

A fascinating article in the special effects journal Cinefex (April 2001 edition, naturally) discusses some similar tales of cinematic insanity. For instance, Kubrick oversaw the creation of lactating ape-woman costumes for the film’s opening sequence, suckled by young chimpanzees in tiny ape-baby costumes — and then left the footage in the cutting room.

What remains on the screen, however, is an astonishing tale of human pre-history and its possible near future (the space stations and lunar settlements seem as far removed in 2010 as they did in 1968) as well as a metaphysical suggestion of its next evolutionary stage. We witness the first (and deadly) use of tools by early man; a startling discovery by lunar explorers; and a manned mission to Jupiter in which a computer turns homicidal.

It’s a slow-moving tale, which has earned it detractors. (My wife refuses to watch it a second time except as a cure for insomnia.) But the stately pace allows one to discover novelty in repeat viewings. The last time I saw it I noticed that the space station features a Howard Johnson’s with a lounge called the Earthlight Room; and realized that the personal in-flight entertainment screens on the station-bound shuttle, common on aircraft today, was actually a science-fiction element at the time.

The film’s title exists in the same realm as George Orwell’s 1984; as an idea rather than a date. 2001 remains a thought-provoking examination of our place in the cosmos, and will continue to fulfill this function until our calendar catches up with whatever far-flung future year from which it was plucked.


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