Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Keir Dullea (Dr Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr Heywood Floyd), Douglas Rain (Voice of HAL-9000), Leonard Rossiter (Dr Andrei Smyslov)
Genre: Science Fiction
Where the fuck do you start with this? Like the mysterious monoliths that signal key shifts in the film’s drama, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an imposing figure in science fiction and movie history in general. One of the grandest, most majestic pieces of cinema ever created, trying to sum up its qualities and beguiling mysteries is a daunting task, one made even trickier by the slew of previous commentators who had waxed lyrical about this inspiring movie. Is another thousand words of hyperbole and clustered adjectives really necessary?
Well, yes. Yes, it is. Because no matter how you word it, or how many times for that matter, 2001 remains an awesome discovery. I say discovery because even once you’ve seen it, coming back to it remains a singularly peculiar voyage. With 2001 now 11 years ago you’d think it would have passed into irrelevancy, but it hasn’t. It doesn’t age, doesn’t date. The mark of a true classic, especially in the sphere of sci-fi.
But listing its great sequences seems redundant now. Expected. Perhaps the best way to articulate why I love 2001 – and the best way to avoid falling into the familiar pitfalls of commentary on this movie – is to chart my own personal experience of it. It all goes back to a school sports day.
Those of you familiar with my athletic abilities, not to mention my penchant for sarcasm, will be surprised to learn that I was not in fact competing in any of the events for sports day back in the halcyon days of, ooh, 1997 or so. Those of us not contributing were consigned to the art block, where our enthusiastic (and in hindsight delightfully mad) South African art teacher was filling-in time with 2001: A Space Odyssey on video. Because a lesson was an hour long, and as part of her aforementioned delightful madness, she proceeded to show us the first hour of the film four times. By the end of the day I was really good at making insightful comments about the first hour of this movie. And I really wanted to see the rest.
Channel 4 and a Sunday afternoon some months later provided the opportunity I needed, but on a pitifully small screen, and pocked with those jarring advert breaks. So we’ll fast forward to 1999 and one of the key moments of my film-geek life; I bought a DVD player. It’s difficult to appreciate now just what a remarkable jump in quality there was from VHS to DVD, and in order to celebrate this, my 16 year old self wanted to watch a film that defined cinematic spectacle.
2001: A Space Odyssey was my first DVD.
It was – and remains – an extraordinary film to watch. Beautifully re-mastered even then. Kubrick knew how to fill a frame. You can genuinely pause this movie anywhere, and you’ll have an image exquisite enough to hang on your wall. It is startlingly beautiful. He would repeat motifs from 2001 and refine his love of symmetry in his movies to come, but this is really the quintessential Kubrick film. The apex of a master’s career. And the perfect fusion of music and sound. Strauss and the infinite, dancing, swirling together.
A couple years later I heard/read the myth that Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” from the album Meddle syncs up perfectly with the astonishing ‘Jupiter & Beyond The Infinite’ section that closes the film. I tested it out. It does. I watched it that way several times. Some of those times completely straight. Try it.
Jump forward again – in a Kubrick-style jump-cut, but probably not one as impressive as the leap from flying bone to drifting spaceship – to the year 2011. The latest Exeter Picturehouse listings quietly announced that 2001 would receive a one-night-only screening. 2001. Restored. And all big. I booked immediately. And it was everything it could’ve been. Truly, this is a film to see in the cinema, as big and as loud as can be. The nail-biting sequence as Dr Bowman investigates a malfunction reported by HAL, leading to a prolonged section in which the only sound is Dr Dave Bowman’s heavy breathing and a constant, inescapable hiss. Heavy breathing, that hiss and the emptiness of space. The tension of that on the big screen is difficult to articulate. And I knew what was going to happen.
I went with my friend Alex, and he’d never seen it before. Talk about the best possible introduction.
And now here I am again, testing it out on my new TV. In fact, whenever I buy a new piece of kit for watching or playing films, 2001 is the barometer I use for its abilities. It endures, and stands as a benchmark for a certain quality of visual filmmaking. You can probably fit every line of dialogue in this 141 minute film into 30 pages of script. Talky it is not. But eye-candy – and brain-candy – you get in spades.
I could’ve gone on at length about what it all means etc., but you can find this elsewhere, and it’s a better debate to have in person, between friends. And then there’re all the other bits you can say about HAL being an iconic antagonist and what-not. You probably know it all already. And if you don’t, you should. This is essential cinema. One of the greatest of all films. What I’ve instead tried to illustrate is that 2001: A Space Odyssey endures, and for me on a personal level remains not only a consistently fascinating watch, but an important cultural landmark in my life.
Did I get enough hyperbole in?