“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this”

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

To write about this film is, I have to say, a slightly intimidating prospect. It looms much larger in our cultural memory than most films. We’ve all seen it, one way or another we’ve all made our minds up about it. After 40 years of debate and dissection, how can I possibly say anything new about it? I’d seen 2001 a couple of times, but had never had the opportunity to see it on the big screen until today’s screening in the gargantuan NFT1. Now, I feel I can confidently say that if you haven’t seen it in a cinema, you haven’t seen it.

My tentative feelings about discussing the film are also caused, in part, by its cutting away of the normal anchors for any punter wishing to sum up their experience- plot is scant, dialogue much more so, and characterisation almost non-existent. This is because it’s a film concerned with scale. Most certainly, it can allow no heroes- Kubrick avoids casting any star actors, a bit part from Leonard Rossiter the most familiar face we see. Man needs to appear very small and petty to keep our attention to bigger questions; where do we come from? Where did the universe come from? What happens when we die? The individual is forgotten, the camera pans way, way back to take in the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars, and the balletic grace of the space shots does invoke a sense of awe. The film opens and closes with panning views of earth set to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra -it’s familiar enough to be cliché- but in that theatre, as we heard the timpani pounding I felt my heart beat a little faster. 

Indeed, this film’s music is a far more vital component than the sparse, trite dialogue served up. Thrilling as the set pieces where satellites and astronauts swivel around to the strains of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz are, the use of a Viennesse high society soundtrack feels somehow satirical. It roots this astonishing technology, and the assured, natural way that its inhabitants use it, in antiquity. Maybe it’s the many parodies -Homer Simpson et al- but the music gives it a whiff of cheese, of stuffiness. The infamous, astonishing jump-cut where the ape’s bone turns into a spaceship implies a continued lineage. Our boundaries continually expand but at essence we’re still a banal little lot; we’re still apes.

Each time the monolith appears, or when Bowman falls through the stargate, we find ourselves confronted with something beyond our comprehension that blows our minds. Then it’s out with the light, comfortable Strauss, and in with Ligeti, the avant-garde Holocaust survivor. His choral music is a mass of moaning voices, its texture constantly shifting; it’s mournful, disturbing, and clearly signals that we’ve ventured outside of our comfort zone. The one geuninely chilling moment, however, is delivered in total silence- when Bowman’s colleague is jettisoned by HAL, spinning out into nothingness and left to die. The silence of space echoing the utter insignificance of an individual’s life or death; in our self-centred, consumer’s mindset, perhaps the most chilling fact of all. 

But all this is iconic and you know it all already; the apes in the arid deserts, fighting over the watering hole until the monolith and the invention of weaponry. The jump cut, the chit-chat of a scientist commuting to the moon, the monolith on the moon that was “deliberately buried” 4 million years ago. The trip to Jupiter; HAL, the robot with feelings, computers are taking over, The Servant in space, HAL singing ‘Daisy Daisy’ as Bowman pulls out his hard drives.

Then that incomprehensible ending; the light show, the flight over landscapes of purple rocks and green skies, the Regency bedroom with white light disco flooring, the old man eating soup, the big foetus floating above the earth. Is it any wonder that half the people who’ve seen this film get annoyed and dismiss the whole thing as bollocks? At every film the NFT hand out a photocopy of a critical essay, interview with the director or similar- today we got a contemporary interpretation of the film by a precocoius 14-year-old, and quite frankly her guess is as good as anyone’s. 

I felt a tinge of regret that I didn’t know anyone who could supply me with a tab of LSD before seeing this in the cinema, to get that full ’68 experience. I also felt really jealous at the ’68 audience, as I can’t begin to think how impressive the space footage would have looked before CGI and Independence Day and all the magic tricks of today’s miserable shoot-’em-ups.

Nevertheless, I still walked away feeling that 2001 had given me an experience out of the ordinary. Yes, it’s pretentious and you can tell that even Kubrick and Clarke don’t really know what they’re talking about- but they had the guts to try and make a film this ambitious, one that goes beyond the stars and beyond this dimension. And I think it’s a good investement of two hours of your time.


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