Wednesday Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

I’ve seen four Stanley Kubrick films and they’ve pretty much covered the gamut on my ratings scale:  Loved It; Liked It; It Was OK; Hated It Oh Why Did I Watch This Please Cleanse My Mind With Holy Fire.  The latest of these was 2001:  A Space Odyssey, which I watched in two parts this past weekend (I’ll let you determine which of the above ratings I give it).  If its possible for something to be simultaneously mezmerizing and dull, than 2001 is it.  To try to explain what the movie is about is pointless really, because it isn’t really about its story or its characters, but about images and the ideas they are meant to convey.  There isn’t a word of dialog that isn’t the grunt of an ape spoken for the first twenty minutes and the plot doesn’t become clear until nearly a full hour into the running time.  Though to say the plot is clear is a misnomer because it isn’t really.  I’ll just try to sum it up by saying a big black rectangle is discovered, first by prehistoric apes then again on the moon by people millions of years in the future.  This second time it is found transmitting a signal in the direction of Jupiter which, of course, must be explored.  On the way to Jupiter however, the ship’s crew end up having problems with their super intelligent computer, the HAL 9000 and man and machine are pitted against each other.  After the man vs. machine episode, the story jumps ahead in time about a year and a half and possibly alligorical weirdness ensues.  I’d explain the alligorical weirdness in more detail, but I honestly can’t. That’s basically it for the story, but like I said it isn’t really about the story.

Its about images, and there are some stunning visuals to be sure.  They’re perhaps less stunning to our eyes now then they would’ve been in 1968 when the film was released, but by and large they hold up alright.  As I watched the space scenes, particularly the ships involved, I found myself comparing it to Star Wars, which came out nine years later.  Or maybe contrasting is a better word.  Unlike Star Wars, 2001 has an air of reality about it.  The ships aren’t sleek Buck Rogers types, but they aren’t the fantastic looking “lived-in” craft of Lucas’ universe either.  They’re from our universe; sterile and institutional, like something NASA would actually design.  The way everything moves about space in Kubrick’s (and our) universe is also much different than in Lucas’s.  There are no hyperdrives or nimble speeders darting every which way.  The movements are slow and deliberate, again like the kind of thing you’d see on a NASA broadcast from space.  This was an interesting concept to see on screen–and shockingly prophetic given its release just prior to the moon landing and nearly a full decade before the space shuttle–and at times made for some mezmerizing, almost hypnotic, visuals.  But it also served to make the movie reallllly, reallllly long and a little dull.  There were times I felt myself just sort of, if I may pun, spacing out, kind of like you might if you were watching the visualizations on your media player on your computer.  In fact, that’s quite literally what is was like for the last forty minutes or so.

I’m sure those last forty minutes are loaded with all sorts of important symbolism and deeper meaning, but either I’m not deep enough to really get it, or in order to fully appreciate it you have to be high.  In reading other reviews, by people who are actually paid to analyze this kind of thing, I was relieved to find I was not the only one to not totally grasp what was supposed to be being said.  I’m not a total blockhead, I think it had something to do with man and technology and humanity’s future, but needless to say it was pretty freaking weird.  There’s something to be said for a film that doesn’t answer all its questions and leaves the viewer with their own thoughts on what it all means, but there is a point where the abstraction can become too abstract and leave the viewer feeling frustrated and confused rather than thoughtful and satisfied.

I watched 2001 because it is widely regarded as a masterpiece and so I naturally, as a novice film enthusiast, wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  While I can appreciate what it is cinematically and can recognize its achievments, in my estimation its repuation is propped up by the belief that it is strange and beautiful and not easily understood and therefore must be important.  For me, it is not without its merits, but too abstract (and long) to be truly great.

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2 thoughts on “Wednesday Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey… Seriously how does a person caffeinate enough to make it all the way to the end of this movie…. I honestly (no joke) fell asleep in the middle of the 5 minute breathing scene near the end of this ‘epic’

    In my mind this would have been a cool 30 minute “Outer Limits” bit. 141 minutes is about 121 too long for the content. I really liked the monolith appearing at major turning points of man.

    It should also be noted, that the book wasn’t publish yet, while the film was in production… Way too strange for me.

  2. Jason Summers

    Wow Andy, I wish I could watch this film with you and discuss point by point the themes and ideas that Kubrick explores throughout. As you stated you’re not a blockhead, so I’m sure you could see them for yourself, but this film has spawned for me both deep discussions amongst friends and interesting mind games with my own ideas concerning it.

    The main theme is clearly CREATION and EVOLUTION. In a way this was both Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s exploration of Darwin’s theories and the new idea proposed in their time of Intelligent Design. Through science in the last 2 centuries man has realized that the 7 day creation story was clearly not evident in nature, and yet the complex systems in which life evolves and the intelligence of our species grows both give rise to the idea of some form of intelligence behind it. Whether it be a “God” or some other “life” in our universe (or even across dimensions ie. String Theory and time travel as seen in the last act of the film). The “big black rectangle” as you call it is simply a visual metaphor for an intelligence promoting evolution. Each time we see one in the film we are close to witnessing another STEP in the humans journey forward toward the source of the intelligence. It also becomes an irony that the intelligence that man creates (HAL 9000) in order to reach further into the unknown, actually almost becomes they’re undoing, or perhaps was being controlled by the outer intelligence in order to chose the one man (Dr. David Bowman) to bring through that next step toward them. They choose him to be the Star Child, or the next step in human evolution.

    I know this all may seem totally weird and maybe boring depending on a persons pre-conceived ideas about creation and the universe, but to me this was a beautiful film that broke not only technical ground for future films (Star Wars with the motion control camera), but also broke conventional narrative form with the 3 story structure (that we see more commonly today with films like Pulp Fiction) in order to explore questions about our very existence as a species, our past, and our future in the universe.

    Whatever you do, keep watching great cinema!!

    First of all, thanks for the comment.

    Certainly the evolution of man is a major theme of the film and the “big black rectangle” (or the monolith as all real film afficianados call it) is an intriguing symbol of human progression and change. As Roger Ebert noted in his own review, “At the same time, a strange monolith appears on Earth. Until this moment in the film, we have seen only natural shapes: earth and sky and arms and legs. The shock of the monolith’s straight edges and square corners among the weathered rocks is one of the most effective moments in the film. Here, you see, is perfection. The apes circle it warily, reaching out to touch, then jerking away. In a million years, man will reach for the stars with the same tentative motion.” Something is telling man, its time to move on. I get that.

    It wasn’t that I found the ideas boring, if that were the case I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this review or have this discussion, but at times I felt the movie just dragged. Even at the big climax of the HAL vs. Man act, which as a whole was my favorite act, seemed like it went on too long. It wasn’t exciting, or even suspenseful, because we didn’t know the character well enough to really care if he could act in time to save himself. Maybe that wasn’t the point, to be exciting or suspensful, but if I’m going to love a movie, you’ve gotta give me something to hang my hat on emotionally. It doesn’t need to be manipulative, but just watching a guy remove what looks like eight-track tapes from a giant Lite Brite, just doesn’t do it for me.

    I do think my own “pre-conceived ideas” to use your words, but what I would call my convicted worldview, on creation and the universe undoutedly affected my view of the film, particularly the last act. As someone who does not hold to the belief that “through science in the last 2 centuries man has realized that the 7 day creation story was clearly not evident in nature” I can’t embrace the notion of the next step in the evolution of man. I do believe that man has gone through an evolution (note the small “e”), but not Evolution. Man over the centries and millenia has evolved scientifically and in knowledge and understanding about the world around us; has made new discoveries and undergone transformations socially and cultrually. But as a species, this is it and has always been it and will continue to be it. So perhaps the Star Child sequence wasn’t as powerful to me because its not a premise I buy into on a greater, more personal level. I could say a whole lot more about Evolution and creation, but to confine it to a comment on a comment on a little-read blog wouldn’t do it justice, though I am more than happy to discuss it further if you wish. Plus, this is supposed to be about a movie. ;]

    As I said in the post, I can respect this film, its technical and visual merits are apparent and undeniable, and even its place in some sort of pantheon of important films is unequivocal (though our two ideas of what exactly the rquirements for entry into that pantheon should be would no doubt differ). Plus I did enjoy the instructions for using the zero-gravity toliet scene. And if Kubrick’s goal was to make a film that inspired intellectual engagement, questions and discussion, this exchange is evidence that he was more than successful.

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