Sometimes, I get lucky. There are movies out there that are meant to be viewed on the big screen, and on the big screen only. By this, I mean the projection screen of a cinema. You can have the biggest TV at home with all the bells and whistles, it would still be insufficient. By all means, 2001 A Space Odyssey, is one of these films. Me, being somewhat of a snob, would like to be able to tell, that indeed I have saw these landmark films on the big screen. It goes a long way in terms of credibility of me being an avid movie fan, a film connoisseur even (again, I am a snob). The thing is, since the movie in question was released in the 60s, your nearest cinema most likely will not have it on the screening schedule. Actually, unless something special is going on, you are pretty much shit out of luck. But like I said, sometimes I get lucky. As it happens, this year is the 50thanniversary of the film’s release and Warner Bros. together with Chris Nolan have took it upon themselves to restore the film using the same photochemical ways it was produced (read about this here). Also, the product of said restauration efforts just happened to be part of a classical film marathon that is currently going on in my city. And yes, it was a pretty sweet experience.
Now, I have seen 2001 A Space Odyssey before, but I saw it on a small TV and as a child, so the entire thing was lost on me. My only memory of the entire affair is that it was way too long and extremely boring. Therefore, when the above described opportunity has presented itself, I was rather curious to see what my reaction would be this time. I do not enjoy old movies even if sci-fi is my go to genre, and there are a couple of movies out there considered to be among the all-time greatest that I just cannot get behind (I am looking at you Citizen Kane). But, regardless, this was a venue that I could not miss. But let us talk about the movie.
The story can be resumed quite easily. A mysterious black monolith jumpstarts civilization when under its influence some apelike creatures start using tools for the first time (which would be a weapon, naturally). Couple of millennia later, the fully civilized mankind discovers a similar monolith on the moon that has some connection to Jupiter, so a mission is dispatched to investigate. Naturally, everything goes wrong.
Now, the very first thing that I have walked away from this screening is that the movie has a much broader scope that I remembered or in fact, that people seem to realize. Whenever 2001 ASO comes up in a conversation, most people automatically think of HAL, the computer of the spacecraft sent to Jupiter and the events that transpire around it. I have to disagree on that. In my opinion, the odyssey is not from the moon to Jupiter. The odyssey is from the hairy apelike creature to the celestial baby. Now, at this particular junction I have to mention that it was both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s intention to leave the viewer with far more questions than answers, so there is no one good answer to this movie and the fact that everybody got their own take of it is by design. But moving on with my own. In my opinion, it is inaccurate to consider this movie to have a singular story. In fact, there are 5 different stories interlaced here. The first one is the dawn of man, the bit with the ape creatures, which is basically an origin story of us based on the ideas of Darwin and Carl Sagan. The second story actually isn’t a story at all but a beautiful presentation of the world of the future, how 2001 was expected to be. Commercial space flight, space station, moon station, video phones. All companioned by classical music, which was a great choice. Personally, I enjoyed this part the most because it managed to amaze me. I really would have like to visit the world painted in front of my eyes by Kubrick. It was grand, it was beautiful, and it was in space. And considering that it was done with effects from the 60’s, it is most impressive. Star Wars never managed to capture my eyes in this way, and that movie came out one decade later. In fact, the effects in Star Wars seem to be childish in comparison with 2001 ASO. The third story is the briefest of them all, with mankind discovering the monolith on the moon and deciding to keep it a secret until they have a better understanding what they are dealing with. The fourth story is the journey to Jupiter and of course the story of HAL. Now, it is understandable why everybody thinks that in fact the entire movie is about this part and everything else is just buildup. It is, after all, the most palatable story of them all, where we have actual character development, a plot and not to mention excitement. Also, HAL is one of the most memorable robot, or to be more correct, most memorable AI ever to be seen in a movie. But if we take a closer look of just how much time is spent on Discovery One (the spaceship making the journey to Jupiter) vs. the total runtime of the movie, we will find that this story is all too short for it to be the main dish, the essence of it all. Sure, HAL and all its actions do represent a fair share of topics that 2001 ASO brings to the debate tables, and yes, the topic of humans vs. AI is ahead of its time by almost 2 decades. The fifth and final story is the encounter between humanity, in the form of Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of the Discovery One mission, and the higher form of intelligence behind the monolith. And instead some pretentious dialogue between humans and aliens, Kubrick puts on screen a spectacle of lights and colors like never seen before. It is an almost 20-minute-long run of LSD high in a 70mm delivery system. It is memorable, to say the least. Naturally, the ending in itself is cryptic, and I do not have any theories regarding it. I do not need one. Kubrick did a rather realistic take of the story, even if we are talking about sci-fi. He tried to come as close to reality as possible on all fronts and most of the time, he managed to do so. So how can you be realistic about an actual encounter with a higher power? You can’t. Hence our open-ended ending of a film, where nothing is answered but plenty is provided for us to try to wrap our brains around.
As I have said before, this screening of 2001 ASO was a rather enjoyable experience. Both because I finally had the opportunity to fully enjoy its technical achievements and I was old enough to appreciate the film itself and what it was trying to accomplish. That being said, the film has plenty of flaws. The most crucial issue with it is its runtime and pace. It is two and a half hours long, which kind of feels appropriate on paper for an epic like 2001 ASO, but it really wears you out. It takes over an hour to get to Discovery One, where the more traditional story telling kicks in. Everything up until that point is either visual story telling or pure exposition. Either way, there is nothing for the viewer to attach itself emotionally, despite the spectacular visuals. Also, once we are done with Discovery One, we are back to visual storytelling, which is even more spectacular visually than before, but it is also far more alien to our minds. And while I do understand the intention, the effort made by Kubrick, and I will praise his genius, I do feel that the editing could have been improved. Also, in many instances, like when the apelike creature fight or when the LSD kicks in on screen, the score consists in a heavy choir singing, that feels apocalyptical. The visuals are already difficult to process as is but then the audio doubles the burden for the viewer. I know, the two are matching in a way, but it just felt like overkill. And finally, during the moon sequences and early on Discovery One, the movie really shows that is was made in the 60s. We see all the technological marvel that we were supposed to achieve, yet the way people dress and talk got stuck in the 60s. It bothered me that besides the evolution of technology the filmmakers did not have the fantasy to contemplate the evolution of the people in their everyday life.
In conclusion, 2001 A Space Odyssey is a must-see film, for everybody. It has a well-deserved place in cinema history and it has aged far better than most films, even more so, given that we are talking about a sci-fi movie, a bona fide space opera. And if you have the chance, do see it on the big screen. It will be an experience.