2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A monumental masterpiece by Kubrick

It is fascinating to see how Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” has remained a timeless masterpiece which dared to explore and present our endless sense of awe and curiosity toward the space out there. Although it has been nearly 55 years since it came out, the movie seldom feels old or dated at all mainly thanks to Kubrick’s sheer technical perfectionism coupled with his bold and peerless artistic ambition, and you will still be amazed and curious about how the hell it could be made at that time, even though you may often scratch your head about many questions raised from the movie itself.

Most of those questions revolve around that spotlessly smooth black monolith which appears more than once throughout the film. While the movie does not show or tell much about its alien origin at all, we come to gather that this alien object is a sort of facilitator for the next big step of evolution for the humanity as shown from the first act of the movie, which is incidentally set at in the middle of some prehistoric time. Although there is not any dialogue here during this part, Kubrick holds our attention nonetheless via his succinct but undeniably compelling visual storytelling, and we come to observe and then understand how a bunch of primitives have been quite desperate due to food and hunger before the monolith suddenly appears right in front of them at one night.

As watching the primitives getting scared at first and then finding themselves somehow being under the uncanny influence of the monolith, you naturally wonder what is really going on, but Kubrick’s sublime mix of visual and sound firmly commands your full attention. With the unsettling chorus performance from “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” by György Ligeti on the soundtrack, everything during this scene eventually culminates to a striking moment of precise alignment, which resonates with the similar composition of the opening scene accompanied with Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”.

Thanks to the monolith, the primitives can jump onto the next of their evolution, and this subsequently leads to one of the greatest flash forward moments in the movie history. We are suddenly thrust into the middle of an advanced space exploration era which is still beyond our reach even at present, and then the movie gives us another mesmerizing scene as playing Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack. As Strauss’s classic music swells, a spaceship from the Earth is slowly but beautifully heading toward the landing space in the middle of a big space station, and you will be surprised more how everything looks quite realistic detail by detail. The special effects in the film may look and feel old-fashioned at times, but they are flawlessly and realistically mixed into the screen due to the painstaking efforts of Kubrick and his crew members including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and, not so surprisingly, Kubrick received his only Oscar for the special effects of his film.

While the movie has been well-known for its effective utilization of various pieces of classic music including the aforementioned ones, Kubrick actually hired Alex North, who has been regarded as one of the great Hollywood film composers, to write the original score at first. While North’s score, which has been available thanks to the 1993 re-recording version from his colleague/friend Jerry Goldsmith as well as the original recording version released in 2007, is not bad at all, it is easy to see why Kubrick eventually chose to throw away North’s score. While sounding considerably impressive on its own, North’s rejected score, which would be later utilized in his two Oscar-nominated scores (“The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968) and “Dragonslayer” (1981)) often tries to illustrate or dictate what we should feel, and that is naturally bound to clash with Kubrick’s cold and detached storytelling. Having those various pieces of classic music under his total artistic control, Kubrick powerfully pushes his film onto the level of sheer transcendence, and it is no wonder that “The Blue Danube” and several other pieces of classic music have been inseparable from each own specific moment in the film since it came out.

After its second act ends with another striking moment with the monolith at a certain spot on the Moon, Kubrick and Clarke’s screenplay jumps onto its most dramatic act, though its narrative pacing is still slow and leisurely as establishing the three main characters in a big spaceship being sent to Jupiter. While their three fellow human crews members are put into cryogenic hibernation, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) serve as the pilots of the spaceship, but almost everything in the spaceship is controlled by HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), an artificial intelligence computer who eventually becomes murderous after trying to struggle with a little but significant logical matter put upon it right from the beginning of the space journey (“Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error.”).

The resulting tension between HAL 9000 and the pilots of the ship is subtly but effectively presented by Kubrick. With its flat and monotonous voice, HAL 9000 becomes more and more ominous behind his cool confidence, and there is a wordlessly intense moment when it smartly detects what Dr. Bowman and Dr. Poole are planning at one point. While Dr. Bowman and Dr. Poole are careful enough to shut off the microphones when they have a private conversation inside an extravehicular activity (EVA) pod, HAL 9000 happens to be able to read their lips via the window of the pod, and Kubrick trusts us enough to let us gather everything in that silent moment and then get more disturbed by that red “eye” of HAL 9000.

While it is one of the most infamous movie villains of all time, HAL 9000 ironically comes to show more “feelings” compared to any of those human crew members in the spaceship. When it is being eventually shut off by Dr. Bowman, who manages to survive alone and then does what should be done for his survival and continuing his mission, it repeatedly begs for its life while sounding as flat as usual in his electronic voice, and that is the most poignant moment in the entire film. Yes, HAL 9000 surely had it coming, but, like many movie monsters such as Dr. Hannibal Lector or Norman Bates, it simply follows its own twisted logics while trying to do the right thing, and you will surely feel sorry for it as observing its poignant last moment.

In case of the last act of the film, this part still dazzled and confounded me when I watched it at a big screening room yesterday (The movie was recently released in South Korean theaters along with Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), by the way). While this may be nothing but a series of showy lightshows unfolded onto the screen, you will still admire what Kubrick and his special effects technicians including Douglas Trumbull tried to achieve here – even when you are baffled a lot by what Dr. Bowman experiences at the end of his overwhelming journey across space and time.

As a matter of fact, Kubrick actually considered showing alien entities around that point, but he wisely chose not to do that. After all, it is highly likely that, if they really exist out there somewhere in our universe, alien entities are quite different from whatever we have imagined in one way or another for many years, and, as indirectly suggested in the film, their existence and intelligence may actually be beyond our meager perception.

On the whole, I cannot possibly say that I can understand and explain everything in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but it has been one of my top favorite films since I watched it for the first time in 1996. At that time, I struggled to understand what it was all about (I feel a little sympathy toward Rock Hudson, who complained “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” at the Los Angeles premiere of the film in 1968), but, just like many of Kubrick’s works, it gradually grew on me during next several years, and I always watched it whenever I came across a chance to watch it at movie theater. Like many of memorable space films ranging from to Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” (1997) to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” (2013), the movie makes us muse more and more on our tiny existence in the awe-inspiring vastness of the space out there, and that is certainly an achievement to be admired and cherished – even though it still stands enigmatically and monumentally in the middle of the movie history like the monolith itself does in the space.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.