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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Following the thunderous and stupefying climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — after the film has dispensed with even the rudiments of plot and human interaction it had previously been dallying with and gone straight for the cerebral cortex with a sense-jolting assault of sound and vision — many have found themselves moved to do something extraordinarily foolish, such as ask questions about What It All Meant. To be sure, Kubrick’s epic of mental and interplanetary exploration did seem to ask for such a thing, fraught as it was with great yawning gasps of silence just waiting to be filled with symbolic import. But to try and pin down this multi-dimensional work with reasons and purpose would not only be futile, it would miss the point entirely (assuming there is one, quite debatable) while also justifying the complaints of those who consider the film a colossal bore and demand an explanation for their time. This isn’t to say that the complainers are wrong: 2001 certainly is a colossal bore, unless you’re on its wavelength, in which case it’s one of the greatest films of all time.

The arguments over the film’s meaning or whether or not it deserves the hallowed level of critical regard wherein it currently resides are beside the point not just because they are quite impossible to prove one way or the other, but for one reason in particular: Nobody having seen 2001 has ever quite been able to forget it. Even now, some four decades on, when the optimistic buzz of the space race has drifted away and we’re awash in films whose special effects dwarf the imaginations of an earlier Hollywood, and our media-saturated selves have been assaulted by more homages and parodies than one can even begin to count, there is still nothing quite like the film’s opening, with the sun and crescent moon perfectly aligned and the soundtrack blasting Wagner’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra.’ Kubrick seems to want to grab you by the senses and give you at the very least a remote chance of understanding, of somehow appreciating, the wondrous and mind-altering vastness of infinite space. If that doesn’t work for you, then little else in the film stands much of a chance.

Although his monomaniacal self is clearly the primary mover behind this idiosyncratic masterpiece, Kubrick’s film is based in some part on an Arthur C. Clarke story about an artifact discovered on the moon that serves as an alarm system for an alien intelligence curious to know when mankind had evolved to achieving space travel. From that rough idea, 2001, constructed in four movements (like a symphony, the film is composed of movements, each almost independent of each other, sharing almost no characters but a few themes) spins out a lengthy allegory about evolution and discovery, starting in prehistoric times in Africa’s Rift Valley, where mankind’s ancestors root about like the animals that they are, only to be struck by inspiration (I could use this bone as a club!) after a silent black monolith appears in their midst. A similar-looking monolith is dug up on the moon in 2001, after which it blasts a strong radio signal to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, a spaceship is en route to Jupiter, with five astronauts on board and a hyper-intelligent computer, HAL, that isn’t quite convinced of its fallible human crewmates’ dedication to the task at hand. The fourth movement follows the lone surviving astronaut (HAL apparently hadn’t been programmed with Asimov’s Law of Robotics) to his rendezvous with another monolith and his hallucinogenic journey to the infinite beyond. That’s it.

Kubrick has indeed made films that were, no matter how exquisitely crafted, colossal bores in the end. Most of them, stillborns like Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, would follow this 1968 film (three-plus years, and uncounted perfectionist-caused headaches, in the making), the pinnacle of his creative output. As usual the filmmaker’s attention to detail is astonishing, from the companies with presence in the orbiting space station (Howard Johnson’s coffeeshop, AT&T videophones, even a Hilton), to the carefully constructed space vehicles (courtesy of Clarke’s hallowed insider status at NASA), to a quirky shot where a traveler pensively reads the voluminous instructions for use of the zero gravity toilet; possibly the last instance of throwaway humor in Kubrick’s career. But the details don’t overwhelm the journey itself, which is either spiritual, scientific, or just a head trip, depending on your point of view. But one believes that journeys are the sorts of thing undertaken in order to get somewhere, and not an end in themselves, then 2001 will likely be a tragic waste of time.

The two-disc edition included in the six-film Warner Bros. Directors Series set has numerous extras covering most aspects of the production. There are documentaries about the film’s making, its impact, its meaning, and just about everything else one could imagine. They are, for the most part, though, rather standard-issue fare, and not really up to the task of explaining much about the film. Better is the truly wonderful widescreen transfer of the film, seemingly as beautiful as the day the first print was made. Of course, what little dialogue there is seems mixed almost perversely low, to the point where an appropriate raising of the volume results in getting one’s ears blown out by the next wave of music on the soundtrack. Regardless, it’s a sterling presentation of the film, and really all the explanation that is needed; no end of interviews with Arthur C. Clarke or voice-overs by James Cameron can quite improve on it.

The new two-disc DVD set (also part of the Kubrick Warner Director’s Series box set) includes commentary from Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, plus several featurettes and documentaries about the making of the film. Don’t miss the early conceptual artwork feature, too.

Sorry, my Dell is better.