2001: A Space Odyssey - 1968
Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Cinematography by: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor(s): Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester and Douglas Rain
Synopsis: Humanity finds a mysterious, obviously artificial object buried beneath the Lunar surface and, with the intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000, sets off on a quest (IMDB).
2001: A Space Odyssey turns fifty this year and I foolishly will try to write a review for this movie. Back in 1968, Stanley Kubrick turned in one of the most misunderstood works of art in the medium of movies. It was received with polarizing reviews by the critics on both spectrums and it is still debated among movie lovers. Now it’s wildly considered to be ahead of its time, and I would argue it is still ahead of its time today. So, let’s talk about it.
One of the aspects that makes this movie a true masterpiece is the script Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke penned. This movie is sandwiched between an opening sequence of around twenty-five minutes and a closing sequence of around thirty-minutes in which not a single line of dialogue is uttered. This visual storytelling are huge indicators of how detailed the script was and how precise Kubrick had the movie in his head.
The opening sequence focuses on the evolution of our ape ancestors. We see a clan of apes defending their territory by screaming and pounding the ground against their rival gang. Once the monolith appears - a black rectangular object that towers over them - the score (I’ll touch on this later) kicks in and you see how the presence of the monolith starts to alter their behavior. Slowly they start walking upright and we see how they start to understand the use of a weapon or tool in the form of a bone. When the rival gang returns, not having been exposed to the monolith, they are met with a group of apes that understand how to kill using tools in order to survive and protect their territory.
Then we get one of, if not the, best transition shot ever put to film. This shot perfectly encapsulates the evolution of man and it only takes seconds to visually convey this message. After killing for the first time with their newly found tool, the ape leader throws the bone up in the air and the camera follows it as it floats in the air. The bone is spinning and we cut to a spacecraft similarly shaped to the bone floating in space on its way to a space station. Just like that we see the evolution of the tools mankind use to further advance their society.
Quick note: I’m fully aware that the ape costumes look like ape costumes. But if you can’t get over that fact and enjoy this cinematic masterpiece, I can’t help you.
The closing sequence is one of pure imagination. Yeah, I referenced Willy Wonka, sue me. Spoilers ahead, you have been warned. For spoiler-free comments jump to the next paragraph. Through events out of his control our protagonist, Dave (astronaut on a mission to Jupiter) is sucked into a black hole. We get a sequence of colors, images and terror that is just captivating and thrilling when combines with the score (later I promise). There is a moment where the camera shows us a close-up of his eye and then it turns into an image of spaces in the shape of the eye encapsulating the message of humanity’s place in the universe. I think. This movie is hard to fully grasp. Once we are out of the magical kaleidoscope of color and wonder we find ourselves in a foreign room. Everything is perfectly assembled and Dave sees an older version of himself eating dinner, alone. The shots abruptly jump, simulating the time lapse Dave is experiencing inside the black hole. We see Dave now an old man on his death bed and the monolith overlooking him. Dave points up at his creator and he completes his evolution in becoming a star child, floating in space, overlooking earth. Not a single line of dialogue needed because Kubrick is a master of visual story telling.
The score. Oh, God… the score. This is one of the most haunting and uncomfortable scores you will ever hear. In a good way. It's used at the beginning and end of the movie. It perfect complements the terror and confusion our ape ancestors felt during their first encounter with the monolith and the terror Dave feels during his excursion through the monolith. The score is recorded as a tone poem or symphonic poem. There is a sense of urgency and desperation in the music that only ignites tension in the audience as you are uneasy and aware that you don’t know where the movie is going. I’m linking the score below because it just something that stays with you long after you listen to it.
Quick note: the sequences that aren’t scored are elevated by the sound design of the rhythmic breathing of our astronauts. You fall in rhythm with the astronauts and your breathing becomes their breathing. It’s both weird and cool.
Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot this movie beautifully. There are countless scenes in this movie that I could screengrab, blow up, and mount on my wall as décor. If there was ever a review worthy of using the French term mise en scène it’s this one. Everything from the set decoration by Robert Cartwright to the costume department, the lighting, the symmetrical shots, the make-up, the props - nothing is by coincidence, everything has a purpose, and the result is perfection. If you don’t believe me that everything is thought-out, notice how the AI computer H.A.L. 9000 is always present in the background. Always watching always knowing, studying every single move our human protagonist makes.
Quick note: the acting, like in all Kubrick’s movies, is detailed and specific. Sometimes the humans seem more robotic than H.A.L. 9000. But the voice work from Douglas Rain as H.A.L. 9000 is beyond perfect. It’s humanoid, methodic and flat-out creepy. My skin crawls every time I hear him beg for his life.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterclass of visual storytelling. It’s one of the most creative and unique movie experiences I’ve had in my life. Outside of some few dated elements, this movie can come out today and audiences would eat it up and it would stand toe to toe with anything made with today’s computer advancements. This review barely scratched the surface of all the elements that make this movie a masterpiece. Stanley Kubrick was, by all accounts, a madman behind the scenes, but you can’t deny his status as a true auteur within the cinematic arts. Many have been inspired by him and you can see ripples of his effect through the landscape of Hollywood today. So, happy fifty-year-anniversary to one if not the best movie ever put to the screen. Stanley Kubrick is why I love movies.
2001: A Spacey Odyssey is available to buy. Buy it. You should buy it.
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