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Film Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick’s incongruous 1968 sci-fi opus

Photo: Everett Collection, License: N/A

Everett Collection


2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Plays Oct. 10

Most movies come neatly packaged with a bow on top, all plot points tied together by film’s end, a journey from A to B tidily concluded. There are fewer movies in the greater cultural consciousness (read: the mainstream) that truly confound us, drive us to scan old source material and interviews for deeper meaning, and sometimes force us to ball up our own perception of a film, throw it in a trash can, and start all over again. These are not requirements to make a movie great—there’s certainly something to be said for a well-crafted story—but they lend an air of mystique that begs for multiple viewings.

All of these aspects are inherent in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s incongruous 1968 sci-fi opus that, at its core, focuses more on the breadth of humanity than on a Buck Rogers-esque space adventure.

That mystique is purposeful on the part of Kubrick, whose script (co-written with Arthur C. Clarke) intentionally leaves the meaning behind recurring symbols and particular plot points open to interpretation. Even without a clear consensus on the meaning of 2001, it is universally hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. So how can that be?

Aside from the unquestionable brilliance of its stunning, drawn-out sequences and evocative soundtrack, 2001 manages to provoke questions and stir feelings in the viewer, and the former don’t come with easy answers.

The film begins during the dawn of man; following an encounter with a large black monolith, we see a primate discover that he can use the bone from an animal skeleton to bludgeon his enemies. The camera shows him in slow motion, pummeling the remaining ribs of the animal carcass to the momentous notes of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Speaking strictly from the point of innovation, it is an ingenious discovery, allowing the ape and his tribe to assert their dominance over a rival group. But anyone with a passing understanding of world history knows the millennia of unimaginable pain, suffering, and conflict that stem back to this one moment. Kubrick presents it as being simultaneously beautiful and ghastly.

The counter to this comes millions of years (and several minutes of film time) later, when we are introduced to a scientist on his way to the moon to research the appearance of another monolith of unknown origins. Kubrick uses a moment taken for granted in pretty much every sci-fi movie that precedes his—a spaceship docking in a bay—and shows it in its entirety, rendering the ship and the space station it’s bound for as two dance partners. (Fittingly, the song for this scene is a waltz by Johann Strauss II.) It is truly striking in its depiction of the fluidity and grace of movement, but it also speaks to the beauty in the ability of human beings to develop our capacity for knowledge to the point where we can create vehicles capable of going beyond the stratosphere.

That theme of our ability to evolve crops up throughout the remainder of the film, wherein we see another mission to yet another monolith—this one by Jupiter—that eventually leads to a transcendent trip to a new realm. This new place seems to indicate that there is a greater being beyond our own, that eventually a higher species of humans will surpass our current one. That’s not a condemnation of our current race, more a sign that our capacities will only develop further in the future. If nothing else, it makes us look toward the stars and think about the future with a sense of wonder.

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