Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

2001: A Space Odyssey is a science fiction film directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke and stars Keir Dullea (Black Christmas), Gary Lockwood (The Lieutenant) and William Sylvester. Following the discovery of an ancient alien monolith, the spaceship “Discovery One” is sent on a voyage to Jupiter, with the ship’s controls under the oversight of an advanced A.I. named HAL 9000.

After 2001 eluded me for far too many years, I finally managed to sit down and dedicate 100% of my attention to this legendary interstellar epic. I am not happy… I am not happy for several reasons, but mostly because 2001 kept me up most of the night as I tried to wrap my head around the mind-bending trip I had just explored. I was then compelled to watch it a second time the minute I woke up and then I sat through an entire documentary on the creation of 2001, “Making a Myth”, just to see how they pulled off some of the hypnotic special effects. The film focuses on conjuring an emotional response from its viewers, fixing me in a trance that still has me pondering the movie in full contemplation. I am going to put my neck on the line and say that 2001 is by far a perfect movie and I need a full disclaimer to say that this review is attempting to be as objective as possible, based purely on the film as a film today, ignoring any outside opinions from the millions of other critics throughout the years. I will also try to avoid the wormhole of theories, themes and interpretations around the ambiguous third act.

This wasn’t my first time attempting to view 2001, as my younger self failed several years ago. I stand by my criticisms at the time, given the artsy 4-minute intro with no picture and an incredibly elongated couple of scenes involving primitive humans and the landing of a shuttle onto Space Station 5. Despite the stunning cinematography behind every scene, 2001 is inflated during moments that are adding extraordinarily little to the overall plot, which gives off an almost conceited introduction to an otherwise tasteful film. There are a couple of imaginative visuals surrounding the use of zero gravity and a hostess that walks 180 degrees around a cabin, which had me wondering just how fantastic this would have been to see upon its release. And that is when the beauty of 2001 hit me like a train, when I noticed that this film was created in 1968! Putting this in context, 2001 was created during the “Space race” before man even landed on the moon. This was created before the internet, before mobile phones, before Star Wars even! Yet it still is utterly convincing and astonishingly prophesied much of the technology commonplace today.    

My intrigue spiked the second this film inserts an air of secrecy around the Clavius Moon Base, then it peaked at a horrifying scene of a group of scientists examining the mysterious alien monolith, elevated by a hauntingly eerie soundtrack that had a physical effect on my reaction. I was disheartened to learn that the entire first act is almost irrelevant to the main plot of the movie, in which there isn’t much in the way of a cohesive story anyway. However, I began to view 2001 very differently from other movies, in that I do not believe the movie was made to serve the story, rather to tell it with visual perfection and to provoke emotions that are unique to each viewer. When you are able to remove yourself from convention and simply enjoy the visual journey, this film is truly astonishing and undoubtedly redefined the Sci-Fi genre. Every shot is pre-designed to perfect symmetry, every futuristic detail is meticulously researched and the special effects still hold up against modern CGI, using practical effects wherever possible. Giant rigs were created to produce the baffling physics of outer space and the huge sets realistically bring the spaceships and the moon base to life. The scope of influence this movie is still having on cinema today was painfully obvious, as aspects of 2001 have been directly copied by hundreds of movies since, such as the initial shot of a Star Destroyer from A New Hope, to the steering wheel AUTO from Disney’s Wall-E being an almost direct copy and paste of HAL. 2001’s cinematography is the closest thing to perfection, the set design is painstakingly enormous and the miniatures used to create the vehicles barely take away from the overall look of the film.

Our initial lead is Dr. Floyd, played brilliantly by William Sylvester who is arguably the most human character in the film, acted with believable respect from every colleague he meets. Floyd feels almost like a senior Captain Kirk and was the first aspect that really immersed me into this world. Unfortunately, he is barely used and plays a minimal role to the main plot, leaving me wanting more from Sylvester and for the film to connect him to our astronauts on the Jupiter mission in dialogue. The films story finds its footing when we meet astronauts David and Frank, both of which feel relatable and are introduced using a TV interview that is played over footage of the two eating together, a clever idea given the visual dominance of the film. The two share little dialogue and do not have much of a relationship together, but both are shown to bond with the ships A.I. HAL.

Upon its introduction, we are immediately aware of HAL’s supreme intellect, an almost human persona and HAL’s relationship to the crew. HAL is built as a character and iconised as perfection, creating by far the most interesting crewman on the ship. The character shift is built to maximise impact, with an expertly crafted scene depicting HAL’s ability to lip read without the use of dialogue and building on his human-like personality in a desire for self-preservation. HAL is a cleverly constructed villain in the traditional sense, but is highly unique in its ability to standout as the best character in 2001, as it is physically just a bright red light yet manages to fit in as another member of the spaceships crew. The dramatic scene involving the deactivation of HAL showed David ignoring HAL’s pleads to stop, which was both sinister and playful, driving home just how well the filmmakers have subtly developed a computer to be a character you can sympathise with. I wasn’t completely sold on Dullea’s reaction to deliver a heart-breaking moment, but HAL admitting he was scared and the slowly fading rendition of Daisy made the whole scene far more personal.

Given that the unknown is an integral aspect of 2001, Space is viewable from almost every shot which gave a gripping impression that our characters were never secure. The film takes a psychedelic twist when Dave enters a stargate that is hypnotic and bursting with color, if not far too long to the point that I had to look away for fear of developing a headache. I found myself at several points during the film, but particularly during this scene, not knowing what I was looking at and firing questions at 100 miles per hour, which at first felt like the film was trying to deceive me. However, upon multiple viewings (and a couple of YouTube explanations!), 2001 is a movie designed to be picked apart, questioned and theorised, with an ending that is completely dependent on the audience’s personal interpretation. This ambiguity might put some viewers off, but I enjoyed going back through the film and trying to identify what story the filmmakers intended the final cut to covey, if anything!

2001 is a purely stylised Sci-Fi journey that is unlike anything else. It is the greatest comparison between filmmakers who enjoyed working on a project and those who were obsessed. The effects were ground-breaking for its time and the visuals mesmerise you into a world that is utterly surreal. A lack of sufficient story telling and the absurdly lengthy sequences may be enough to throw casual viewers, but those with an eye for the art-form and aspiring filmmakers could pick apart every scene for an eternity. I give 2001: A Space Odyssey a 9/10!

Did you enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey? Do you agree with or have conflicting opinions on this review? If so, please comment below and like, share or subscribe if you enjoyed this review!

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