There are films that you watch and there are films that you experience, and in almost every case, a Stanley Kubrick film will fall into that second category. This becomes clearer when you tell somebody that you recently watched one of his films and they ask you what it was about. Try and answer. Sure, you can give a plot summary, but trying to articulate what the film was about is like trying to describe color to a blind person. There’s simply too much there. Never is this truer than in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s legendary masterpiece devoted to the majesty and mystery of our universe. Kubrick himself said in a 1968 interview, “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.” His purpose was not to tell us what to feel, but simply to make us feel something immense. If, somehow, you come out on the other side of this remarkable piece of cinema without being moved, without feeling something, then friend, you’re doing it wrong.
2001 is broken into four pieces, all related to one another in varying degrees. The first is titled The Dawn of Man and tells the tale of an herbivorous tribe living in the harsh severity of the African desert millions of years before man would even consider venturing towards space. The tribe wakes up one morning to find the ominous and iconic Black Monolith stationed at the entrance of their cave, and soon after, become the first creatures on the planet to understand the concept of tools and weaponry. From here, the film journeys millions of years into the future and hundreds of miles off the surface of the earth, into the beautiful blue chasm of space. A group of scientists have discovered another monolith apparently buried intentionally on the surface of the moon. As they examine it, it unleashes a powerful signal aimed at Jupiter. 18 months later, a two man mission to Jupiter is underway, prompted by this mysterious signal. From here on out the film tells the story that most viewers remember. The story of Doctors Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and their ship’s computer, the brilliant and (supposedly) infallible HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). While the other elements of 2001 are more visual and auditory than plot-driven, this portion of the film is the real meat and potatoes, and I’ll avoid spoiling it. Suffice it to say, this is the most emotionally-charged installment, climaxing with the unforgettable, “Dave…my mind is going…I can feel it.”
I’ll be the first to admit that 2001 is remarkably slow-moving, almost to a fault. This is true of many of the director’s films and, in other cases, has hurt my opinion of them. Here though, he balances this listlessness with the best (and most accurate) portrayals of space travel ever seen, before or since. Better than Alien, better than Sunshine, better even than, yes, Star Wars, 2001 portrays the majesty of space and the intricacy of space travel with meticulous detail and astonishing beauty. Kubrick knows this, letting his scenes ebb and flow in a gorgeous astral ballet. Watching these flawlessly composed moments, it’s important to remind yourself that this film was made over 40 years ago, well before computer-generated effects simplified (to an extent) this sort of photography. Along with the immensely successful exterior shots of ships and satellites, Kubrick’s interior work is engrossing and fastidious. The weightlessness of his characters and the complex structural design of his sets are accurate and impeccable. In particular, the centrifugal set used to replicate the Discovery ship’s artificial gravity leads to a few of science fiction’s most indelible moments. Though it may at times feel as though Kubrick didn’t know when to cut something, a closer viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey makes it clear that he never really had the opportunity.
Not only is it better to experience 2001 as a visceral experience vs. an intellectual one, it’s almost key to fully appreciating it. The third (or fourth?) act of the film is notoriously idiosyncratic, and attempting to simultaneously take in and break down these final moments is taxing to say the least. That’s not to say that the film’s final 20 minutes don’t hold enumerable mysteries worth considering, and those minutes certainly deserve a closer look. But the final sequence of 2001 is no less robust when viewed without scrutiny. If anything, keeping clear of the density that’s tied up in an interpretation allows you to appreciate the last moments all the more. Nothing out right frightening ever really happens in 2001, but with his cameras and his music and his utter dearth of dialogue, Kubrick terrifies us. The film’s culmination is so suddenly bizarre, after a story that has been only occasionally curious, you’re mostly just trying to get your feet back under you. It’s very nearly frustrating as a viewer, because we all want a narrative, and suddenly losing your grasp on the one that’s been consistently there is off-putting. Still, if you think for one second this isn’t exactly what the auteur intended, think again. If there was one thing Kubrick could do well, it was inject his films with a dramatic and monumental sense of disquiet.
Though I haven’t seen them all, and haven’t seen a few of them in quite awhile, I’m still going to call 2001: A Space Odyssey my favorite Stanley Kubrick film. It is visceral and unmarred, and ingrained in the culture of film and the culture of this country to the point that even people who haven’t seen the film could say something about it. It’s the type of film that inspires the next generation to try and make something great for themselves. It’s a perfectly executed collaboration between visual and auditory storytelling. It is beautiful and iconic, and so far ahead of its time that it’s hard to believe it exists. It is the Sistine Chapel of celluloid. It is, perhaps, as close to perfect as the man ever got.
Not to put too fine a point on it.