My continued assault on the classics in my DVD collection brings me to a film which I have been dying to see for about two years now. I was shown clips from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in a film class at university and assured of the film’s brilliance by the tutor, and it has played on my mind quietly ever since. Recently though, this nagging desire to explore space with Stanley Kubrick has grown louder. That’s probably why I bought ‘Gravity’ last week, but I can’t watch Sandra Bullock floating around before I watch the original lost in space masterpiece, can I? Sorry Alfonso Cuarón, but I don’t think you will even come close now that I’ve been on this journey.
That’s exactly what this film is: a journey. The storyline isn’t particularly crucial, there’s no real need for a conclusive and happy ending. This is all about the spectacle, as Kubrick guides us from the dawn of man, to the furthest depths of the universe. The film is almost three separate stories, all linked by tall, black, mysterious monoliths which oversee the evolution of mankind. The opening 20 minutes of the film, which has no dialogue (a common occurrence, believe me), depicts two groups of apes, clashing in their claim for territory, until the first of these monoliths appears and enlightens the apes, giving them a knowledge of tools and indeed, weapons. Next, we meet Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) as he heads to the moon to witness the discovery of a second monolith, which he hopes can unlock the scientific secrets of our existence. And finally, the dominant narrative introduces us to Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). The two astronauts, along with their on board super computer, HAL, face the perils of space and travel to the edge of the universe, to a dimension I can’t quite get my head around.
As I say, these narratives aren’t all that important, in terms of the viewing experience at least, which is handy because they are exceedingly enigmatic and puzzling. All you can do is sit back and look on with wonderment at the visions of space which Kubrick brings to life so magically. From the start, we are treated to a stunning palette of colours and vast, rich landscapes, from Earth and far, far beyond. To create these limitless worlds, even in one’s imagination, is incredible, but to transfer this to the big screen, back in 1968 is utter genius. Admittedly, I was watching a digitally remastered version, but that should not detract from the inch perfect quality of the aesthetics. I’ve watched remastered versions of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, and even they don’t come close to the clean and convincing look of ‘Space Odyssey’.
Visually, this was one of the most absorbing and exciting experiences of my film-viewing career. But Kubrick doesn’t stop there, not content with just pleasing the eyes with a masterclass in the use of colour. No, Kubrick weaves an aura of discomfort and fear deep into the framework of this film; a much more subtle approach than the dread that comes with watching ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The slow, deliberate movements of people and objects in space is pure torment to watch, and being in space, there is nothing to distract from the subject of the shot; we are trapped, helplessly watching as the astronauts enter the black, desolate expanse. The most excruciating aspect though is the employment of ominous, disjointed whaling and the harsh, unusual sound of Gyorgy Ligeti, forming a rather haunting cacophony. Kubrick then juxtaposes this with the likes of Johann Strauss II’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ and other iconic classical pieces, no doubt to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. The painful, uncomfortable feeling induced by ‘Space Odyssey’ was unlike anything I had ever encountered, but to get your mind working in such a way is a beautiful, awe-inspiring phenomenon.
It is this sensation which makes ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ a true masterpiece; this is the closest to art a film has ever been, in my opinion. It’s a crazy, mind-blowing and stunning ride through space and to stir my emotions in this way deserves the highest of praise. Not to mention the fact that this film has one of the most famous jump cuts in cinematic history, just another bonus. I think this film requires a certain level of patience and a very particular taste, and if you are one of those people who needs action and explosions at every turn, maybe you won’t enjoy ‘Space Odyssey’, but I urge you to give it a go. I will most definitely have to reconsider my top 10 films after this.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester