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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

by on 2011/08/28

“I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is?”

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Despite having seen it in the past, I could tell you nothing of consequence about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even now, after another viewing, I can’t guarantee much better. My experience was slow, protracted, disjointed, and uneven, but it was also unexpectedly compelling, impressive, and interesting.

After three minutes of an overture on black, the first of four major sections begins the show. At the “dawn of man” we observe the effects of a mysterious black monolith on a tribe of simian creatures. Fifteen minutes of screen time passes, and we jump over 200,000 years into the future, where mankind has discovered a similar monolith in excavating our moon. Roughly half an hour later (eighteen months in the story) we join the crew of Discovery One, on a secret mission to Jupiter. The final forty minutes or so reveals the mission’s end.

It would be easy — and profoundly unfair — to criticize the decoration: a mainly Eurocentric cultural bias, a relentlessly “Sixties” interpretation of space flight, and a parade of brand names and logos bringing the quaint. As a product of its era, it’s no surprise such trappings reign. They even add legitimacy to the view. Forgiveness is easy when you’ve seen what most science fiction cinema was like in its day.

Another possible target is the deliberate, stately pace. At one point I thought of the “flyby” scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a joke, stretch it to feature-length and you’d have 2001. Still scenes, slow moves, long takes . . . you’d find it all hypnotic if the sights and sounds weren’t so provocative.

For, yes, the effects are great, audio and visual alike. A “moon’s eye view” of the Earth against the sun is more than attractive, it’s valid from the perspectives of theme and plot. Vehicles and other structures look real or, at least, plausible. The lack of conventional aerodynamic aesthetics is offset by design both utilitarian for the mind and symmetrical for the eye.

Hiccups were occasional, but not overly distracting. Natural landscapes are marred by a blurring at the edges. Similarly, early shipboard scenes are distorted by extremely wide angles. The appearance of the “dawning” men were somewhat less than convincing, as were the shots of a monolith floating in space.

The sound was also appealing, though not without concerns. I found the use of classical music ponderous and pretentious, yet I appreciated 2001’s edits set to its beats and rhythms. Mostly, I enjoyed Ligeti’s Requiem which — being unnervingly dissonant — conjured in me an eerie dread when combined with views of the stars. A lot of the audio functions on a similar primal level, with drones and hissing and breathing filling wide swathes. It can verge on tiresome overkill. I was glad for the cutoffs to silence.

As much as I may seem to nitpick, however, production was not a concern next to characterization. In short, I didn’t care about anyone. Their banality might function with the grander thematic concerns, but thinking it didn’t make me feel differently. Without question, the spectacle is hallucinatory, surreal, but also oddly sterile, with human characters even blander than the shipboard computer, HAL.

In fact, other than the aforementioned moments of musically prompted dread, my strongest emotional reaction was prompted by HAL, which was strange, not just because “he” wasn’t human, but because I wasn’t sure I believed he belonged.

I know there are many interpretations and, while you could argue various cases, I wondered if the whole weren’t two half-baked pieces forced together. HAL is arguably 2001’s single most memorable part, but is limited, essentially, to the third of four acts. Whose story is it? Mankind’s or mankind’s creation’s? Does one function in service to another? And what of their relationship to the mysterious monoliths?

We can’t really understand for sure. Neither the movie nor its director have supplied us enough clues. Conducting themselves with ambiguity, evasion, and truncation, we are left with abstraction and symbolism to interpret “meaning” ourselves.

To have said it’s a feast for the senses, and now relentlessly thought-provoking suggests a greater experience than I felt. More to be admired than enjoyed, 2001: A Space Odyssey is worth seeing, as intensely interesting as it is nearly boring, a cold calculation onscreen. It’s an effort ahead of its time . . . far ahead. It belongs in a post-robot-uprising age.

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / G (United States)

148 minutes

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