2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The best.

I first saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 15 years old. It was one of many classics I was going through at the time, as it was the year of my cinematic awakening. I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film that year, discovered Fellini in 8 1/2, got lost in Last Year at Marienbad and found my way back home in Wings of Desire. Sixties Japanese cinema became a great love of mine and I followed the Man with the Movie Camera into silent film where I was thrilled by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and moved by Sherlock Jr.. I traveled the world in Koyaanisqatsi, escaped the Orwellian nightmare of Brazil and fell to the ground in tears at the foot of The Tree of Life. Of all the treasures I found that year, of all the intrigue, the humor, the horror and the heartbreak, the greatest of these treasures was Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick's was a voice that deeply resonated with me. Nearly every film, a masterpiece. Nearly every shot, a revelation. I was thunderstruck by this man, as his films were technical and intellectual marvels. I couldn't get enough and it all culminated in my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was an ordinary weekend evening and I was looking for something to watch. 2001 had been on my list of things to see for weeks, but it wasn't something I'd thought of very often or planned on seeing too soon. However, I was in the mood for science fiction and knowing the film's reputation, I figured that it was probably the best thing I could hope for. The musical interlude began...then "Also Sprach Zarathustra"...and then there was the moon in shadows. The bright blue orb of the Earth rose above it and behind it was the Sun. The camera rose with the Sun and left the moon out of frame. The music peaked, the title appeared and my life was changed forever.

No other film has the kind of effect on me that 2001 has. There are movies that I watch more often and there are movies that I have more fun with, but there is no film more special to me than this one. In high school, I wrote two papers and did a project based around it and it was eventually the subject of my college essay. I attribute my dream of becoming a filmmaker and really, my overall passion for cinema to this film. It gives me a feeling of mental and emotional stimulation that I have found in nothing else. You wouldn't be wrong to call it my personal nirvana.

Something with as much power as I describe must be treated delicately and so the film has become a bit of a sacred object for me and every viewing is a healing session. This is why I watch it so infrequently. When it ends, I feel like a man on fire (in a good way). It kickstarts my creative juices and makes me believe that I can do anything I set out to accomplish. I come out of it refreshed and with renewed confidence in my abilities.

The setting is the same every time. I turn off the lights and remove myself from all distractions. The laptop is closed. The phone is turned off. I have no food or drink. The film runs uninterrupted- no pauses, rewinds or fast forwards. From the intro music to the outro music, it's just me and the film. This time was no different than the other viewings in the way that I noticed new things and was completely floored by the conclusion. It is a whole film of splendid sounds and visuals, but there are specific moments that stand out.

At the first note of the musical overture, a rush of excitement ran through me. I closed my eyes and listened in the dark to the ominous confluence of sounds and the atmosphere began to sink in. Soon, it started to quiet down and then it was silent. It was about to begin. After the first alignment of celestial bodies and after the introduction of the apes, there is the first appearance of the monolith. The apes see it before we do. One of them awakens to the sight of the mysterious object and growls. The others stir and quickly leap from their places, shrieking and jumping about, keeping their distance. We get the full shot of it. The object towers above the apes and is lit in such a way that gives it an entirely otherworldly essence. There's no CGI, but it's startling how different it looks from its surroundings. It's unnatural, the deep black (not wooden, not quite metallic) contrasting harshly with the burnt sienna color of the rock structures beyond. We get a low angle shot of the monolith, Sun and moon. From this thing, the apes derive some vague enlightenment. A nonspecific amount of time later, they learn to work with tools. The tools quickly become weapons and we witness what must be the first murder in the history of man. Seeds of conflict and survival are planted in this early scene- nuggets of ideas that come into full bloom later on.

After the most famous jump cut in cinema, we are treated to a magnificent space sequence that evokes all the wonder and beauty that we like to associate with a trip to the stars. The "Blue Danube Waltz" accompanies a rotating space station and a shuttle that gently moves toward it. The scene is one of my favorite sequences in the film. It joyously celebrates human ingenuity and technological strides with an event that in any other film would be simple and to the point. The shuttle would zip by the camera and dock in the station. Instead of this, Kubrick treats it as a ballet or a parade. There's definite calculation and a feeling of pinpoint accuracy to the affair, but the musical choice is so bombastic and exuberant, that it's impossible not to be swept up in the triumphant nature of it. What bolsters the scene even more is the stark contrast it has with the way space is represented later in the film. When Frank Poole ventures outside the Discovery One in a pod, the experience is no longer joyous. It's desolate and frightening. We aren't within Earth's orbit anymore, we're in foreign territory. The first shot of Discovery One is accompanied by the lonesome sounds of the Gayane Ballet Suite, but it is the only instance of music in this section of the film. For all other scenes outside the ship, there is only the sound of breathing and nothing else. Inhale, exhale. An orange dot against the vast black of space. Humanity dwarfed in the playground of higher beings.

In a film with so many stunning moments, 2001: A Space Odyssey manages to have one enormous showstopper and it is of course, the stargate sequence. Not until after HAL has his falling out with the crew does this occur. In a series of events that call to mind the conflict of the apes at the beginning of the film, man and machine go head to head. People have come so far that it is now our perhaps soon-to-be-self-aware technology that we find ourselves at odds with. Evolution is the game and only one can survive to further itself. In Dave's triumph over HAL, there is the triumph of all mankind and the innate drive to grow, to continue, to endure. Kubrick's optimism in this respect is part of what makes the film so inspirational to me. There's one last journey to make, though, and it comes in the form of the monolith, showing up for a third time over Jupiter. The monstrous planet proves to be the site where we meet our destiny, as both Dave and the audience experience the mind-altering passage through the stargate.

The sequence has a hypnotic effect on me. From the second that first shred of red light passes me by, I'm in another world. My eyes go wide and my whole body is still. I focus intensely on the center of the screen and the room around me fades away. My brain emits a series of sporadic indescribable sensations. It sounds crazy, but I'm so focused on the film and so still that I feel almost completely transported- like I forgot where I am or what I'm doing. Dave sees new landscapes. Neon seas and fiery red canyons. My mouth has been hanging open for who knows how long and I just noticed it. I can't feel my toes. I don't remember when the last time I breathed was. My heart is racing. Close up on Dave's eye. It's neon, also. Each blink changes the color...then it's back to normal. The sequence is over. I exhale. I don't know how long it's been, but the objects in the room I'm sitting in slowly come back into focus.

That was all without the aid of narcotics, by the way (In case you were getting any ideas). This film is such a great high by itself, I need no additional stimulants.

Finally, we arrive at our destination. It's an ornately designed little room, complete with a bathroom as well as Victorian paintings and furniture. Dave watches himself age until he is an elderly man lying in bed, awaiting death. The monolith appears a fourth time, at the end of the bed. It still clashes with its surroundings and carries the same bizarre energy. Dave points to it. We enter the monolith and Dave is now gone, a glowing fetus in his place. Thus Sprach Zarathustra returns. This is it. This is the moment. The moon...the Earth...the fetus, now planetary in size comes into frame. It is the Sun. It is the hope. The star child is Kubrick's representation of humanity's next step. From apes to a literally "universal" being- we came so far.

Fade to black, then credits. I exhale once again. It's perfect. For a director who repeatedly gets pegged for being cold and detached, I find it strange that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't more often viewed as the richly optimistic, humanist work that it is. Frank's death in space is presented with disturbing indifference and perhaps the film champions transcendence in general more than humanity itself, but I personally leave the film experiencing a profound sense of uplift, so as far as I'm concerned, the humanist theory works. I might even go so far as to say that it is a vaguely spiritual film in the way that it represents man's relationship with "God" or a higher power. The extraterrestrials supposedly leaving the monoliths are never seen, but still those small pushes forward from a deceptively absent parent figure are felt- on Earth, on the moon, over Jupiter, little by little as we leave our "home" on Earth and find our place in the stars.

2001: A Space Odyssey remains my favorite film of all time. The technical aspects are beyond extraordinary and the experience is one of a kind. If you haven't seen it already, or are in need of a fresh take, I can't recommend the film enough. It's the ultimate trip.

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