2001: A Space Odyssey
There are films ahead of their time, and then there is 2001: A Space Odyssey. To say it is a masterpiece is an understatement, but it is in fact why it is a masterpiece that makes it so. Stanley Kubrick made a career of making great films, and you are hard-pressed to find much fault with his entire oeuvre, but from a lifetime of top-quality filmmaking there must be one single highlight that epitomises his skill, his talent, and his brilliance as an auteur, and that masterpiece is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The story itself spans thousands of years and is told in three parts. The first, set at the dawn of mankind, is the arrival of a sheer black monolith which inspires the ape-like ancestors of early humans to first use tools. In the second another monolith is found buried on the moon, and the third is the titular odyssey into space. Whilst the reference date may be 2001—a time which has already passed—the events could take place at any point in our future, as despite this being a film made before Neil Armstrong took one small step onto the lunar surface, it still appears futuristic and yet realistic today.
A great strength of the film is without doubt its visual effects, almost all of which still hold up. Every time I see it I am watching a film sixteen years older than me, but it does not feel dated or old-fashioned at all. The attention to detail is incredible and, despite knowing a fair amount about how the film was made, I find myself wondering how certain shots were accomplished so seamlessly and brilliantly.
The use of front projection puts green screen effects to shame, as the immersion of actors into places they were not was more real than many medium-budget films of the current decade, and even outshines some modern studio tent-pole pictures. Combined with miniatures and double-exposure film, plus moving sets and perfect choreography, the projection effects are simply outstanding and have to be seen to be believed. To have achieved all this without the aid of modern computer technology is jaw-dropping, especially when considering the work required to meet Kubrick’s exacting demands.
Although the technical mastery of 2001: A Space Odyssey is astounding, so too are the performances. From the opening sequence of ape-like pre-humans battling a rival tribe to the simplicity of a steward serving lunch on board a space flight, the acting is consistently naturalistic and above par. The lead character, who does not appear until halfway through the film, is played with quiet dignity and resolve by Kier Dullea in a sublime show of naturalism. The other actors, led by Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester, deliver equally excellent performances, including a brief but memorable appearance by Leonard Rossiter.
Questions are raised about what makes an individual human, as the thinking process of HAL 9000, the infamous Artificial Intelligence in control of the voyaging ship, stands out as possibly more human than the cold distance of the actual humans in the film. The calm voice of HAL 9000 is unsettling and, later, terrifying, though pales in comparison to the cold silence of space. During solo spacewalk sequences, only the astronaut’s breathing can be heard, which in a vast black vacuum is a horrific sound as the pace of breath gradually increases as the suffocating anxiety of the void grows.
What little dialogue is in the film is mainly banal, routine conversation, but that contrasts wonderfully with the incredible space visuals and claustrophobic interstellar atmosphere. The script by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke is brilliant in its simplicity, stripping away all exposition so the story is fully shown instead of told. It is magnificent writing, and gives so much space for the vastness of the visual delights Kubrick brings. The score is filled with familiar classical music that evokes the artistic creations of humanity whilst the camera itself shows the potential for scientific advances.
Space exploration has been a staple of films since the earliest moving pictures, yet there was a definitive point where they changed. Films which came before 2001: A Space Odyssey offered the fantastic, but those after have strived for realism. It was Kubrick’s film that changed the way science fiction was told on screen.
There are few films that are almost perfect, but this is one of them. 2001: A Space Odyssey should be on your list of films to watch, whether you have seen it before or not. It signifies the future it delivers and it is still a world-changing creation. It is truly one of the greatest films ever made.