50 Years On: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-005-keir-dullea-red-interior-spacecraft

I’m afraid…of symbolic red: MGM/Stanley Kubrick Productions

There are films every cinephile should see on the big screen. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is near the top of that list. Last weekend I finally managed to tick this moviegoing experience off and thought it would be a great opportunity to look at how well it’s aged 50 years after its initial release.

From the dawn of man, to their journey to the stars and beyond, this is the story of humankind looking for answers, with only an increasingly aware AI and an unknowable black obelisk as our guide…

Five decades later and 2001’s influence still holds sway over cinematic sci-fi. For at least the following two decades, very few visions of the future – from STAR WARS to ALIEN and, er, EVENT HORIZON – didn’t owe something to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke. The future isn’t sleek and aesthetically pleasing, it’s pale grey, chunky and functional. It’s also tactile, this world created with models, sets, matte paintings and clever little in-camera tricks (the walking up the walls bit still astounds) and you get the feeling Kubrick would have done it this way even if better technology had been available.

Like a lot of the best sci-fi, the world we are presented with is outlandish yet plausible – are Hilton Space Stations really any less strange an idea than Virgin Galactic? We’ve come to terms with the fact that if any of us get the opportunity to go into space it’ll be a long haul, a massive commitment. Hints at necessary technological advancements, from super-grippy shoes for cabin crew to move around in low gravity, meals in liquid cartridge and paste forms and the essential complicates space toilet are all grounded in a 60s-looking-to-the-future logic. More chillingly, leaps forward in AI technology makes the prospect of computers, if not turning on us then killing us through a programming glitch (think driverless cars) all the more real. When our end comes, it won’t be an an apocalypse of terminators marching over a hellscape, but it might be HAL telling us “I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Re-watching 2001, I found myself quite unexpectedly thinking of BABY DRIVER. Don’t worry, I haven’t lost it (though by sheer coincidence a certain disgraced actor in Edgar Wright’s heist musical also played a HAL-alike in MOON). Like Baby Driver, 2001’s scenes are edited, and action within long-takes progresses, so perfectly in time with the classical score that Kubrick must have at least had the specific pieces of Strauss music he wanted to use in mind during filming.

The pacing of 2001 could be charitably described as “leisurely”. Less charitably, the film is “ponderous”. It is an epic which takes the time to ingratiate you in a new world. And surely telling the story of the entirety of human existence should be lengthy? At the same time, while I know slow movements and long sequences in space help sell the experience of entering a vacuum, I really don’t think Kubrick needed to keep every similar scene the length they are.

2001 still fuels passionate discussion today amongst sci-fi fans; its most famous imagery and elusive conclusion remain iconic and rightly so. Kubrick and Clarke stubbornly avoid proving anything close to an answer to what the ending actually means (oh, to be a fly on the wall as they hashed this one out together…). Personally, I think it represents evolution by time loop. From the dawn of man, the Obelisk has been guiding the evolution of our species, deciding when the right time is for us to take a leap forward. After he goes through the star gate, Dave (Keir Dullea, definitely cast for the reflective quality of his big eyes) enters the loop and every time he comes back around he is an improved, higher form until he finally transcends his mortal form as the Star Child. Of course, that’s just my theory. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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