#172) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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#172) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

OR “You Say You Want An Evolution”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Kinda sorta but not really based on the short story “The Sentinel” by Clarke.

Class of 1991

The Plot: A monolith. Ape-men. “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. The greatest jump cut ever. “The Blue Danube Waltz”. A mission to Jupiter. A supercomputer that has never made an error. Pod bay doors. A trip to the edge of the universe. A star child. “2001” defies plot.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it the film that “pushed the envelope of narrative and special effects to create an introspective look at technology and humanity.” And of course there’s an essay, this time by film critic James Verniere.

But Does It Really?: Oh I can’t touch this one. Clarke lays the foundation with some astute and provoking (and ultimately quite accurate) future theory, and Kubrick runs with it, showcasing his detailed vision, some of the best repurposed classic music choices, and one of filmdom’s most unique and terrifying villains. Kubrick is no dummy; he knows that film succeeds as a visual medium. He keeps the dialogue to a minimum, leaves a lot of the film open to interpretation (while still maintaining his own clear vision), and presents us with some of the best visuals ever presented on screen. This film is an experience, arguably the film experience. You don’t watch “2001”; you let it wash over you, allowing the images and ideas to stay with you and challenge your viewpoint long after the film is over. “2001” is an undisputed classic, and the ripple effect is still going strong 50 years later.

Everybody Gets One: Co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, as well as most of the cast. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood are still with us at the time of this writing and more than happy to discuss their experience on the film. The more private Douglas Rain resides in retirement in his native Canada.

Seriously, Oscars?: How much time do you have?

For starters, “2001” divided critics during its initial run, but did eventually find box office success with the counterculture youth, so its status as a classic wasn’t solidified when the Oscars rolled around. The film received four nominations, but NOT Best Picture (because “Funny Girl”, you guys!). Kubrick lost Director to overdue veteran Carol Reed for “Oliver!”, and Kubrick and Clarke lost Original Screenplay to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” – perhaps Oscar’s most extreme case of “Apples v. Oranges”. The film did, however, win for Visual Effects. Due to unnecessarily restrictive eligibility guidelines, the statuette was awarded to Stanley Kubrick, credited as the “Effects Designer”, though he was not one of the four credited effect supervisors. This win – Kubrick’s sole career Oscar – resulted in a revision of the category’s eligibility policy.

Other notes

  • The film was developed concurrently with the novel, hence its inclusion in the Original Screenplay category. The simultaneous writing led to some slight differences between the novel and the film, primarily the novel filling in some of the film’s story gaps.
  • Did I just watch a stuntman in an ape suit get attacked by a leopard?
  • Kudos to Stuart Freeborn, the film’s makeup artist. Those apes are way more realistic than the “Planet of the Apes” apes.
  • This is the beginning of Kubrick with a budget, and boy does he use every penny they gave him. There is some incredible model work happening here. So much detail in every shot. This is not just another “rocket movie”.
  • How different would this film be if they had used the Spike Jones cover of “Blue Danube” instead?
  • “Your Christian name”? I guess this version of the year 2001 didn’t go through a PC ‘90s.
  • Had to look up what a bush baby is. That’s a weird birthday request, Vivian.
  • I love me some practical effects. The shots of people walking up walls in zero gravity are incredible. Say hi to Fred Astaire while you’re up there!
  • A cover-up story on the moon that’s directed by Stanley Kubrick? What a ridiculous notion.
  • HAL gets one of the best intros in any film. You instantly know that something is up. It’s quite chilling.
  • Critics complain about how “bland” Frank and Dave are, but isn’t that the point? Technology has become more advanced, leading to more reliance on them from humans, meaning less independent thought, hence the blandness. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood are doing the best with what they were given, but they are fully aware that they are secondary to the visuals.
  • BBC 12 may be the film’s only joke.
  • Another What-If for you: What if Kubrick had kept his original choice of Martin Balsam for the voice of HAL? I’m sure Balsam would have appreciated not just being “the guy who falls down the stairs in ‘Psycho’”.
  • Science fiction is always dated once it arrives at its future year, but we caught up to this film’s use of flatscreen tablets eventually.
  • Yes, there are long stretches of the movie where “nothing happens”, but like “The Shining”, Kubrick still holds your focus in these moments. Even the stillness is riveting in this movie.
  • My note for Frank’s last scene simply read “Oh shit, son!” I knew it was coming and it still shocked me.
  • January 12th 1992: George Bush is in the White House, Americans are listening to “Black or White” and reading “The Sum of All Fears”, “Avonlea” wins big at the CableAce Awards, and HAL 9000 is born!
  • The Star Gate sequence. Man, that is a trip. No wonder you have to see this on the big screen. Side-note: Did “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” steal this scene shot-for-shot?
  • My own take on the film: The prologue sets up our ancestors as prey that evolved into hunters. The meat of the film is about “modern” humans who have created technology that can become autonomous and turn us back into prey. We are reborn at the end, but only after things have gotten too complicated. Perhaps we evolve beyond the point of our own survival. As for the monolith, I dunno…magic? You want a thorough explanation of everything? Read the book.

The Legacy of “2001” (as well as a few bonus segments) can be found here.

Listen to This: “2001” is represented twice on the National Recording Registry: the 1954 Chicago Symphony recording of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the film uses the 1959 Vienna Philharmonic recording), and the 1961 recording of “Daisy Bell” that inspired HAL’s last scene.

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