2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

2001: A Space Odyssey is quite possibly the greatest landmark in film history. I remember when I first saw it at home on the television, 17 years young, barely begun with tipping my toes in the cinema universe. I knew about its legendary status, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience I was about to have; seeing 2001 was unlike anything that I had ever seen before, and also today the film remains to have this indescribable power over me.

What about you? Do you remember when and where you first saw 2001? Did you go in blank or did you go in prepared? Was the experience anything like you expected?

Let's conduct a thought experiment. If this film means as much for you as it does for me, and surely for millions of others; what would it have been like to see 2001 when it first released in 1968?

After the successes of Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, the name Stanley Kubrick had become a true brand. The releases of his films were turned into big events and were already brought into publicity years before the premiere. The same is true for 2001. Three years prior to its release it was already promised to the public that Kubrick's new film would not only take the spectators to the stars, but also into a mysterious beyond.

When the release was finally arriving, the public learned that 2001 would be screened as a Roadshow 70mm release in Cinerama. The Roadshow releases were sold for higher prices and were meant for special occasions such as family outings. In addition, Cinerama was the most spectacular format to watch film in at the time with its curved and immersing screens. It was mostly used for so-called Travelogues; documentaries that explored far away places with a lot of emphasis on movement. Within this frame also 2001 was announced as an epic drama about adventure and exploration.

Then the film itself. The ouverture begins, but the screen remains dark. The earie music by Ligeti (Atmospheres) pulls our thoughts to the wildest corners of the universe. Then, slowly the screen lights up. Ah, a point of reference; behind the moon, we see the earth popping up. Not quite yet a journey towards the stars. And what follows is even more bizarre. It is as if we are taken back into time instead of forward. For over fifteen minutes we observe a group of primates battling a rival group, meanwhile being disturbed by an incomprehensible monolith, and after our time on earth is done a sudden transition follows to our promised future; a space shuttle glides through space.

The film's separate parts can't only be seen as autonomous (at best they are loosely connected), but they also don't follow basic storytelling principles. For most part of the film, the objective is unclear and even when the main objective becomes clear; for most part of the film we never come to understand why we act towards these objectives. Luckily, for the 1968 audience, 2001 was not as confusing as I just made it out to be. First of all, the travelogues that the film stood in line with, were constructed by the same non-causal logic; in addition, during the release a folder was handed out with a guide for the viewer. This addressed the viewer as an adventurer that would go on a journey from the moon, passing intelligent life, and working towards the future of humanity.

So were you prepared better or worse?

Maybe it doesn't matter anyway. The description in the guide was exactly what 2001 is about, and also exactly what it is not. You can read anything about the film, but only after you experience it do you really know what makes 2001 into that truly unique film in the film canon.

For me it is only 7 years ago that I first admired 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I am quite sure that most people that were present during its original release remember it as clearly as I do. The film was presented as an epic journey; it turned out to be exactly that, and more; and throughout history the film only grew in its legendary scope. I am quite sure that nothing in cinema can, or will ever compare to Kubrick's absolute magnum opus.

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