Top 25: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

This article is part of my Top 25 series reflecting on my twenty-five favourite films. You can check out the full list here. Please note that spoilers abound.

If you took a look at my initial list for this series, you already know that this won’t be the last time you hear about Kubrick from me. He’s one of my favourite directors and handily had the most prolific showing with three of the twenty-five films. There could have been more, too; one of the most painful parts of making the list was having to cut gems like Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove, three films that, on another day with me in another mindset, might have made the cut instead.

In a way it seems counter-intuitive that I would love Kubrick so much. I’m an emotional man who tends to respond to things that can tap strongly into my feelings, and Kubrick has a reputation for being cold and calculating, 2001: A Space Odyssey arguably his most “cold” and “calculated” film of all. But I think this is an unfair perspective on Kubrick’s films, one reinforced by his almost mechanical penchant for symmetry and exacting methods of perfectionism that border on lunacy. While the view from the lens is often unfeeling and the director’s methods dismissive of the mental health of his crew, the things that happen in front of the camera always feel genuine and human. That disconnect between the mind of the camera and the mentality of its subjects creates this eerie space that makes the unsettling aspects more unsettling and the disturbing aspects deeply, deeply disturbing. Kubrick knows exactly what he’s doing and how to leverage his vision to pry the emotional reaction he desires from his audience; his films dig into the psyche and root themselves in.

The feelings that 2001 instilled in me when I first watched it were confusion and wonder, and that’s still my response to varying degrees. I think this film was my first exposure to what could be described as an atypical narrative – not the presentation of an otherwise straightforward story through chopped-up and scrambled timelines (the bread and butter of the Christopher Nolans of the world), but a narrative that defies convention in that it ultimately makes no sense if taken at face value but bears deeper meaning upon examination. I remember (mostly) tracking with the story until the acid-trip light sequence, and then I was completely lost for the remainder of the film. Intrigued, compelled, bewildered, and enraptured, but lost. By this point I’d had experience with examining symbolism and searching for the deeper thematic material within films, the hunt for what the director was meaning to communicate, but this was the first film I’d seen that I couldn’t begin to comprehend without that process. 2001 required more of me than mere attention – it demanded examination. And it was exhilarating.

I’ve always found it bizarre how a film with this cryptic of an ending became such a pop culture phenomenon, not to mention that the virtually 120+ minutes prior to that scene move at a particularly deliberate pace. Not that I’m voicing any complaints – far from it. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see 2001 in its 1968 premiere, and my best efforts to put myself in that time and place remind me that this is more than a film or a story, but a spectacle. The stunning photography of commercial spacecraft transiting a glowing, blue Earth, the simple and convex furniture and decor, the business professionals going about their days as if space travel were something decidedly unremarkable, even the prehistoric apes communicating, fighting, and learning, all undergirded by a grandiose classical score…every additional second we’re given to soak it in is precious, and it makes it feel all the more real. This is such a genius piece of filmmaking that any viewer can’t help but be captivated by it.

I love this atmosphere of simple grandeur the film creates. Everything is so lofty in concept and elegant in presentation yet unembellished in execution. It seems so contradictory that an extravagant sci-fi film involving an expedition to Jupiter to find the possible origins of humanity would be described as “modest,” but 2001 almost never pushes beyond the most basic human functions. Whether it’s commuting, business conversations, eating, exercising, or playing chess, basic life functions and mere routine take centre stage here. It makes the film feel more believable and living, and it makes the conclusion far more jarring. Kubrick’s attention to detail with the visual effects helps sell the vision further. The design of the spacecrafts, the methods of flight, the sound, all of it is true to genuine physics, at least inasmuch as was possible and known at the time of the film’s creation, and it was accomplished with nothing but models and practical effects. It’s so good that I’ve yet to see a more convincing portrayal of space on film nearly fifty years past the movie’s release; it’s mind-bending how good this film looks and how well it’s aged.

At this point it probably seems that my love for 2001 is entirely based in aesthetics, and yeah, honestly, I think that’d be a fair statement. It’s certainly not that Kubrick has nothing interesting to say here – I could talk about the film as a study of humanity and their tools and how that relationship spurs forward human evolution – but I’m so much less interested in what the film has to say about that subject than how the film says what it has to say. The forward movement of millions of years through one of the most perfect match cuts in cinematic history, the mysterious blankness of the screeching monolith, and the chilling efficiency of the HAL 9000 supercomputer are what’s compelling to me. This is an audiovisual feast that arouses so many powerful feelings, and I adore it.

If there’s one scene that sums up my love for the film, it has to be the deactivation of the HAL 9000. There’s so much at play here on the subject of artificial intelligence and the ethics surrounding it, but it’s shrouded in minimalism. Beautiful, still shots capturing the simple task of turning keys in a monochromatic room, the only sound being Dave’s breathing and Hal’s monotone pleas for its life, which somehow grow more and more desperate and deranged without Hal’s tone of voice giving the slightest inflection of emotion. Suddenly a task that should amount to nothing more than shutting off a laptop is more in line with exterminating a sentient being, and it’s bone-chilling. And I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous zero-gravity visual effects, which complete the sale. Every time I watch this scene, I shiver. It, like the film, will haunt me until the day I die.

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