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.