Retro Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writers: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke

Composer: Alex North

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: G

This month the classic Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey has been given an extremely limited release in a fascinating new format! After fifty years the one time misunderstood science fiction film is back, bigger than ever, and presented in its original 70mm format from 1968.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: An ape beats another ape to death. Several characters suffocate and have their life support systems cut causing them to die.

Language/Crude Humor: Mild cursing including d*** and h***.

Drug/Alcohol References: Some alcohol is consumed.

Sexual Content: None.

Spiritual Content: No direct references to religion/spirituality.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: Profound themes of transcendence and divine intervention.

It’s been 50 years since Stanley Kubrick’s enduring masterpiece of science fiction dropped unexpectedly upon a public barely ready for such a film. Kubrick is, of course, one of the old masters but his work often couldn’t be understood during the time it was released. It took decades before most film scholars truly appreciated 2001 in its full complexity and scope. At a glance, it’s one of the most bizarre and esoteric films ever released in movie theaters. It’s a movie where in the first and last twenty minutes of its screen time lacks any dialog and where the interim is filled with lengthy digressive scenes of spaceships flying across the universe while classical music gracefully eases the slow spiral of objects in orbit. It’s a hypnotic spectacle of beauty, horror, and transcendence that guides the viewer on a path from the very birth of the human species to a possible stage in our evolution. With its status cemented as an unabashed classic after a half-century, it deserved something special for its anniversary.

The fine people over at Warner Brothers decided that the film needed a special presentation for such an event and they found something very special to do for it. With the help of Christopher Nolan, they oversaw the production of a special presentation of the film in a very unique format. Taking the original reels that the film was stored on in the great vaults in Hollywood, the untouched film prints were cleaned, transferred without using digital editing processes to new reels and then distributed across the country to theaters capable of presenting the film in the rare 70mm format for the two-week premiere.

In the United States, there are only just over a dozen theaters that are even capable of doing this and luckily for me one of them, The Music Box Theater, is in Chicago just an hour from where I live. Seeing the film in its original format along with dozens of other people was a mesmerizing experience. I’ve seen other films presented this way before such as Phantom Thread and Interstellar and I’ve even seen original preserved 35mm reels for, of all things, Deathwish III. What made 2001: A Space Odyssey so unique was that this was honest to goodness as close to physically possible a film could’ve been presented all the way back in 1968 without digital touch-ups or changes. This was almost literally a time capsule. Presented here as it was intended every shot and audio cue had exactly the effect that it was supposed to have.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a very special film. As most people can attest to though it’s not an easily accessible film. To say it’s “deliberately paced” would be somewhat redundant as it’s one of the slowest films in contemporary cinematic history. The film really takes its time establishing every small painstaking detail and asking the audience to sit back and watch it all play out. Fans of breakneck action and suspense will largely leave disappointed and horribly confused. This is a film that requires a very specific kind of audience participation. You need to be able to settle in and groove on the hypnotic imagery and visual storytelling otherwise it won’t work for you. If it’s not your thing, of course, that’s totally fine. Not every kind of movie is for everyone and this kind of science fiction is really trying to have a specific kind of effect on you that not everyone might want to have.

2001 is a film that wants you to be in awe of its grandeur and complex themes and it does so with a unique combination of sights and sounds that build off one another. We see an excellent example of this early in the film during the flight of the Pan America interplanetary jet trip as a ship with a single passenger slowly glides past a series of suspended satellites towards an orbital space station. There is clearly a lot happening in these scenes with the satellites being implied to be military nuclear launch platforms in addition to the importance of who the passenger on the flight is. The texture of the filmmaking, however, is preoccupied with lulling you. The movie wants you to feel the awe of a far-flung future of space travel that’s not dissimilar to the way we fly jets now but set against the backdrop of Earth’s orbit.

What does the benefit of such a tone and texture have? Well, it certainly plays into the film’s emotions and themes. Kubrick is a director that is most known for his coldness and logic but here the film is designed to overwhelm us. The film frequently diverts from seeing the reaction of the characters in this universe to the events of what is happening and swaps up the actual cast no less than twice between its four segments (five if you count the intermission bisecting the third segment of the film). This is a film that wants to overwhelm the audience.

How does it accomplish this? The story itself is an exploration of the ideas of human evolution and transcendence. That evolution is facilitated and represented in the film by the sudden and life-changing appearances of the Monolith. The Monolith is a tall black structure with fixed even dimensions that appears to us four times over the course of millions of years. We never know for sure who created it but we are shown a very clear idea of what it does.

The first appearance of the strange alien slab appears at the proclaimed Dawn of Man millions of years in the past. As we meet humanity we’re nothing more than upright apes struggling to survive on the plains of Africa. We can barely hunt, we’re surrounded by dangerous predators and rivaling factions of apes are contesting our limited resource of water. Abruptly this status quo is radically changed by the appearance of the Monolith as it seemingly dissolves out of thin air into the presence of the easily startled apes. Slowly, however, its mere presence begins to change the dumb animals. Suddenly a lone ape begins to do something that his limited brain never allowed before. He looks down at the skeleton of a dead animal, picks up one of its rib bones and begins smashing the other bones with all of his strength.

For the first time in history, man has thought and he has learned to use tools. Now, these newly evolved apes are able to use the first tools in human history to overcome starvation and conquer their enemies. In a rage of excitement and victory, the ape begins throwing the bones into the air. Just as we see the weapon that facilitated man’s evolution spinning through the air the film cuts abruptly to another weapon suspended above the atmosphere ready to bring about the end of the Earth on its creator’s whim.

In one shot we see the full technological evolution of humanity jump in the blink of an eye.

At this point, so much time spent watching the hypnotic spell of visual storytelling and classical music drench the audience in the first lines of spoken dialog appear and they’re almost jarring compared to what comes before. In this second aforementioned sequence, we learn that fifty years into the future of 2001 (hehehe) that the Monolith first seen at the dawn of man has manifested on the Moon and that it’s broadcasting a signal deep into the solar system in orbit around Jupiter. With the possibility of first contact with an alien species on the line, a team of scientists is dispatched aboard an interplanetary vessel to find the source and investigate it.

From this point onward we enter the film’s most famous sequence wherein we explore the relationship between the two awake members of the crew and the Hal-9000 supercomputer that is guiding the flight. If you aren’t aware of what happens during this sequence I won’t spoil it but needless to say the Hal-9000 has somewhat transcended the popularity of the film and gained quite the cultural reputation for what it does. This sequence is often held as the most accessible and easy to understand of its four segments as it’s the only one primarily driven by dialog and character interactions and has some of the most haunting and suspenseful imagery of the entire film.

The final segment is the infamous Stargate sequence. Just as the Monolith appeared at humanity’s doorstep at the dawn of the species, a massive ship-sized Monolith appears in orbit around Jupiter and draws our main character into its pull. What we come to see is a vast fever dream of the cosmos as the entirety of the universe appears before our lead character’s eyes. We’re drawn across what must be galaxies seen through the eyes of our protagonist as sights that the human mind can barely comprehend appear and disappear just as quickly.

Then after what feels like minutes trapped in this unending abyss the lead character David finds himself alone in a room with only himself and time. He’s shaken beyond belief, barely able to process the unceasing visions of the universe that have opened up before him. As he ages rapidly we come to see the final appearance of the Monolith standing over a dying David as he reaches out for it as though it were his savior. Then just as it did once before, it changes David into something new.

This may come across as a terribly spoilery review of such a vitally important film but I assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface of the full breadth of the imagery and thematic complexity. 2001 is a film that’s all about the emotional experience of coming to understand what true transcendence is. Just as the apes hardly understand what the Monolith is doing to them, the audience is warped and battered upon with a wall of lights and sound that we can hardly comprehend. We don’t know by the end of the film who actually crafted the Monolith or for what specific purpose. We do know, however, that it is intentional. It’s been placed there by something almost divine in origin that wants nothing more or less than the transformation of humanity into something greater.

If you’ve read Arthur C. Clarke’s version of the book you come to a much clearer image of what is going on logistically with the story but truly what is happening isn’t important. First and for most, this is a film that wants you to feel what it’s like to experience something inexplicable than to understand it. It like few films ever knows how to make the most of visual language of filmmaking to commentate something transcendental to the audience and in that and many more ways 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films ever.

Positives

+ Beautiful Hypnotic Imagery + Beautiful Music Composition + Powerful Sound Design + Complex Themes of Evolution and Transcendence Through Divine Intervention

Negatives

- Potentially Too Deliberate Pacing for Certain Audiences

The Bottom Line

2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. It's a complex, hypnotic tome poem that embraces and overwhelms its audience with images that confound and inspire.

 

9.6

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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