"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."
It is argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the last Kubrick film to watch. The Shining clearly hints at a form of expression that is abstract in its intentions whilst A Clockwork Orange, though unsettling in its themes, is not incomprehensible. A film deemed frustratingly open-ended, it is also worth noting that 2001, a film that spans an epic scale and attempts to reach further afield than mere entertainment is also in fashion at the moment. Discussion and mainstream releases of Tree of Life, Prometheus and Cloud Atlas, clearly owe a debt to the scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey so maybe now is the ideal time to re-evaluate Kubrick’s life-changing classic.
It is difficult to imagine how this film came across to audiences in 1968. Kim Newman writes how Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a “Wikipedia version of 2001’s content”, and as a fan of the Alien prequel, the statement does ring true – but I don’t think that is such a bad thing in our “Wikipedia-age”. Like Prometheus, it divided critics – Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris provided negative reviews whilst Roger Ebert and Philip French praised the achievement. It is nice to know that a film, which continues to stimulate debate – much like the Top 10 Sight & Sound poll itself – originally held a divided opinion even amongst the critics of the time.
The iconic opening immediately confronts your attitudes to cinema. We watch twenty-minutes of apes attempting to communicate, without a single line-of-script uttered until they find a black monolith. We watch the apes become violent and aggressive. This is the dawn of man and – before the memorable cut between a bone-in-the-air to a floating satellite – either you’re with Kubrick, or you’re not. I remain transfixed. Jonny Greenwood and P.T. Anderson clearly owe a debt to Stanley-K when they opened There Will Be Blood with an extensive opening sequence, a shrieking string-score and barely a whisper of dialogue. Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E has its own homage. The space-station, for five-minutes, is onscreen set to the sound of Johann Strauss II’s ‘The Blue Danube’ Waltz. A waltz that we are half of as we dance with the space-station on the blank canvas of space. The majesty and scope of this sequence alone suddenly transports our minds to fully consider what this film is attempting to tackle. The initial context of apes at the beginning of time was personal enough. This is juxtaposed with a sequence portraying a small-object – like earth itself – small, insignificant and fascinating within the context of space. We see the filmmaker argue in the first 30 minutes whether mankind has a purpose – or whether we, akin to the space-station, are merely floating in the great abyss. There is a beauty and spirituality to what we watch; has a God created such a majestic vision?
Interestingly, a mobile phone advert in 2009 referenced the unexplained and unanswered question regarding the black monolith. It seems the single abstract form that begs for answers – according to LG – is merely a mobile phone (Oscar-winning short Logorama is a great example of how brands destroy art and culture for the sake of capitalism and advertising). The black monolith is separated by a millennia, leading to a continued exploration of the galaxy until we realise that though all the technological advancements have been created, we are still searching for answers to no avail.
Prometheus tackles something similar - we can search and crave for all the knowledge in the world; we could know everything. But it is the journey in finding, bit by bit, this knowledge that is the beauty of being human. This constant question-asking is important - the answers not-so-much. A mobile-phone is surely a gross form of abuse to this timeless cinematic milestone.
In terms of a narrative, 2001: A Space Odyssey does not strictly adhere to such a notion. The film is a feast for your eyes; an art piece speaking for itself rather than relying on melodrama to seek interest. The memorable narrative is set-up between 'Dave' and his conflict with "I'm-sorry- Dave..." HAL-9000. Dave realises that the machine created is the machine that will also destroy him. Dave's story ends as he is trapped in infinity, getting older, and coming face to face with the black block. Barry Norman summarises it perfectly describing Kubrick’s intention as an example of “man’s technology [which] is better than man himself”.
Since 1968, HAL-9000 has become almost cliché in Science-Fiction, as the untrustworthy computer on-board a space craft becomes a staple in intelligent space-stories. Duncan Jones Moon and Ridley Scott’s Alien are a testament to that. It is this that puts the film on a plinth - or should I say a monolith - as it not only tackles the huge questions of life with the required majesty and awesome breadth needed, it has also become iconic within the Sci-Fi genre inspiring countless imitators. In its narrative; in its set-design; in practically every aspect – it remains a core-influence to filmmakers. Rarely do you watch a film that explores such a personal issue within a context that is so distant to us all. But note, the vast majority of writers agree on one thing – view 2001: A Space Odyssey in a cinema. It is unlikely, even in this day-and-age that an in-house large-screen will suffice.
From listening to Danny Boyle speaking on a commentary-track for Sunshine, he explained that there are two types of science-fiction film: the Star Wars/Star Trek adventure and then an abstract “life-question” film - that inevitably ask questions about faith and spirituality. 2001: A Space Odyssey is firmly in the latter category - and I question if any other film has come close to portraying such an issue with such brutal scope. But to raise the issue, without answering a single question; therein lies the genius of Kubrick.