The movie itself is called 2001: A Space Odyssey and to this day it's almost impossible to believe that this masterpiece was released in 1968!
Yes, 1968, a year prior to mankind's actual first lunar landing. And while a few of the special effects may feel slightly outdated now, the key words here are "a few" and "slightly". In general, even under the revealing light of High Definition, 2001 stands up beautifully as a film far ahead of its time and far beyond just a Science Fiction Film.
Our four-act tale begins well ahead of its time in "The Dawn of Man" where we meet a genius member of an ape-like tribe of proto-humans. Though never revealed in dialogue his name is Moon-Watcher (played by mime Daniel Richter in remarkably convincing makeup). Moon-Watcher's tribe has been bullied and driven from their watering hole by a rival tribe. However, someone beyond the stars clearly saw the potential in Moon-Watcher's people to become something much more than what they are.
That someone sent the Monolith, a solid black rectangle of unknown construction and origin that is as foreign to these stone-age people as it would be to us today. They have no idea what this thing is, but once they touch it they begin to learn how to hunt and use tools... and ultimately take back their stolen property by force. And so our tale begins... mankind's tale according to Clarke and Kubrick!
The beginning of this film is incredible and the transition to our second act is one of the best in movie history. This next act details the not-too-distant future according to Clarke and Kubrick. Of course, this would be our own past... however the vision they set forth is nothing less than a waltz, a symphony as wonderfully detailed in the movement of space craft and space stations. The passenger on this Pan-Am Space shuttle flight is one Doctor Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) a very important scientist who has been summoned to the Moon (by way of "Space Station V") for a very important mission... one that might spell the next great advancement of humankind!
One wouldn't realize this to listen to the man talk during his layover on the station. "I'm just on the way up to Clavius." he says as if sitting in a Chicago airport and telling a chance fellow passenger "I'm on a business trip to Detroit." Then again, the "Serious Event" which comes to be known as the "Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One" (or TMA-1) is far from just business as usual.
Nor could our next act be described as merely a business trip, considering that this particular trippy trip is a Jupiter Mission! While the first act detailed the growing pains of Man as he violently fought his way from cave and veldt into modernity, the second act takes time to appreciate the proposed advancement that came with the dawn of the future age of 2001. From the beautifully music-laded musings over weightlessness to the awe that is still felt by space travelers as they look upon the vastness of space to the spectacle that is the special effects and model work that created this look of the future, the second act is a masterpiece all its own, even as it leads to a shocking close.
While we've had our Dawn of Man and our Waltz of the Future, our third act takes on a much more sinister turn as our crew approaches Jupiter. As pretty and occasionally whimsical as act two can be, act three is a muted experiment in realistic psychological horror. Alien has been referred to as something of a haunted house movie in space. However, the third unit of 2001 may be far more deserving of that description.
We are soon introduced to two waking astronauts in the form of Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea). Aboard the Discovery One they are performing their shift while the majority of the scientific crew is in hibernation under the watchful red eye of the ship's sentient computer Hal 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain).
While there are a few autonomous systems, for all intents and purposes, HAL is the Ship itself. But don't worry. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Computers don't make mistakes. They don't get paranoid and they don't have psychological issues. Do they?
Of course, a better question might be just what this mission really is all about and just what, or who, might be waiting for them around the planet Jupiter. What secrets might this hold... and can the scientists survive the horrors they must face on the way there?
Kubrick maintains the stark, dense and often silent (or ambient sounds-only) approach that he has in so many of his best films. Always the audience is waiting for something to happen and always they are rewarded... if only by another wait. The intelligent viewer, however, will understand that this is the same care and pensive pacing that Kubrick later employed to make The Shining so terrifying. There is so much to be terrified of in what we don't know and so much mystery still left in what we find out along with our intrepid astronauts... and HAL... and the Monolith!
There is so much more to find and discover in the fourth and final act of this mind-bending space opera! As we experience Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite we are given some hint of just what might be on the other side. But on the other side of what we're never 100% sure. Much of this is left up to the interpretation of the viewer and much of this is made crystal clear in its... ambiguity. Where is Dave and who is he with? What will he become? What is this strange Menagerie? Who is in control of all of this? Is there one more Monolith to encounter?
Entire books and documentaries have been devoted to discussing 2001: A Space Odyssey and I could scarcely in one article talk all about the many things that make this film not merely a "good science fiction film" but a truly, truly great motion picture of any kind. The attention to detail, both scientific and fanciful is amazing. The mix of science and fiction is near-perfect. The choice of music from Kubrick's working score (consisting of the works of such composers as Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and György Ligeti) is so perfectly integrated that a score written just for this film could not have been better done. In fact Alex North did indeed write a full score for the film that was rejected in favor of the working music Kubrick chose... not because North's score was lacking... but because the existing music fit so perfectly with this spectacular movie!
The makeup by Stuart Freeborn is unquestionably Oscar-worthy, though there was no Makeup Oscar at the time. Still, the ape makeup for the same year's Planet of the Apes was granted a special Academy Award... possibly because the makeup was so convincing in 2001 that many believed that these were real apes, not mimes in costume. Still, the Visual Effects, credited to Kubrick did win that coveted gold statue from the Academy (though the well-deserving Douglas Trumbull didn't share in this award for his special photographic effects).
Clarke and Kubrick (who conceived this film together based, in part on some of Clarke's short story works) were nominated for Best Original Screenplay. This, too was remarkably well-deserved as this film, far from dialogue-rich, is so beautifully put together that it survives based on the visual threads that started in this magnificent script. Kubrick focused on the screenplay while Clarke finished the excellent novel. This departure explains some of the differences between the novel and film, though both creators contributed greatly to both versions. I highly recommend the book (and its sequels and ancillary entries like The Lost Worlds of 2001) to just about anyone.
Having read the novel more than once (as well as its sequels), I can tell you that the story itself is the core of what makes 2001 so brilliant on so many levels. However, special credit must be given to Kubrick as director. He choreographs space ships in ways that have scarcely been seen before or since... or more convincingly. It's as if the Universe was a toy in his hands. He builds deep wonder and deep terror with equal aplomb all without any sort of gratuities or startles of any kind. Nor was this easy to do. It took years and an army of artists of all kinds to make this film a Surreality! But this was Kubrick's labor of love... and he made it into the wonder that it is. Every line of dialogue feels natural and even the late 1960s stylings are muted to the point that the film looks and feels as timeless as its hidden subject matter would purport to be. And that is incredible... as incredible as the fact that this film was released in 1968 and still holds up so very well.
There is, of course, that deep and constant question of "What is this film about?" and "What does it mean?" Well, much of this is left ambiguous for the sake of causing the audience to think, to create their own symphonies in their minds. Many have taken that to their own drug induced level and used this beautiful and surreal film as their own personal "Trip Toy". That aspect is certainly there, but much like the similarly used Fantasia, there is so much more to this film than its psychedelic properties.
Of course, left to their own devices without letting their imagination and sense of wonder take over some even complain that the film is "Boring". While it's most assuredly open to interpretation, frame after frame, I can only say that those who would dismiss this mind-blowing achievement as dull are missing out on the true art of this film. There are no laser battles, no mystical wizards (at least none on screen), no little green men, no menacing xenomorphs and no scantily clad princesses with exotic weapons. For those weaned on such things... this might come across as less than a thrill. But to the watchful viewer with their brain turned on, this is a transcendent film with so much to offer. I should know... I've been watching it along side such films as Star Wars and Alien for as long as I can remember.
And, like the best films out there, it gets better and better and the film makes more and more sense the more times it's viewed. HAL evolves into something else just as humans are shown to have. Will humans become something more in the next phase or might they just become tools, much as HAL himself is? What other corollaries are to be found in the expansive tapestry of 2001? There are a great many and as Dave himself says in the first sequel, what there is to discover is "Something Wonderful!"
Five full Stars out of Five for the incomparable 2001: A Space Odyssey! If you haven't seen it, haven't paid it the attention it deserves or haven't done either in some time, I highly recommend you pick up the Blu-Ray and relive this beautiful film that truly does look better than ever. If you're smart, lucid and attentive, I'm sure you will see the true greatness of this film. Trust me, if you're tuned in... there are no slow parts. So whether or not that proverbial "Good Next Reel" happens to be have been a fictional future from nine years ago (at the time of this writing), I promise to see you in the next reel, True Believers!
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