WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
thoughtsoncinema.net | Nolan Lampson
If one were to sit down and watch different one-minute clips of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, they would be left with a series of dazzling images but would wonder what it all means. What's the point? Spaceships landing with classical music? Is there even a plot?
But that is not the objective, of course. The objective is to sit down with a state of wonder and confusion beforehand, and two-and-a-half hours later, be in the same state. 2001 has no interest or concern in thrilling an audience, or feeding them with mindless characters performing mindless actions. It is a film in which one of the most audacious and brilliant of artists (Kubrick) dares to leap into our future, and discover the beyond. It is handing you broken shards of glass off a mirror, pieces of a giant puzzle, leaving you to pick up the pieces and figure out the rest. Of course, here, there truly is no right answer of what the monolith or the Stargate sequence or the Starchild itself is or means. All things considered, 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the most beautiful and thought-provoking piece of media ever conceived.
The plot is both mundane and extravagantly rich. What you might read on IMDb or the back of the Blu-ray is something along the lines of: Two astronauts set out on a mission with an evil robot trying to stop them. But the film is so much more than that. It starts at THE DAWN OF MAN and ends at JUPITER AND BEYOND THE INFINITE, according to the film's title cards, which are basically chapters for each half-hour sequence in which we jump to a new place in human evolution. We start with an African, desert landscape, where we follow a tribe, possibly two tribes of apes. They discover a tall, black, rectangular monolith. Now what is this monolith? We will see it again in the film at times where evolution is seen. The monolith is a device created by aliens to some, and a representation of human evolution and innovation to others. Given the choice, I'd say the latter is true, but I, like all 2001 viewers, am still in bewilderment as to the true explanation.
Visual beauty and impressive cinematography are invaluably important to cinema. After all, film is many things, but to put it simply, it is a creative endeavor to express visual storytelling. Directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Tim Burton, The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, responsible for BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES, to name a few), Terrence Malick, David Lean, etc. are true masters of the medium and understand what is needed visually to make a film memorable. From what I've seen, no film is more careful, aware, and awe-inspiring in its camera angles, movements, setups and placement than 2001. And from what I've seen, Stanley Kubrick is the Mount Everest of visual filmmakers, and maybe filmmakers in general, so when he creates a science fiction picture in space, it would be noted and assumed to be technically impeccable and stunning. 2001 completely embodies technical impeccability. Of course, Kubrick did the visual effects mainly alone, adding a layer of perfectionism and obsession to the filmmaking craft that might not have been achieved if Kubrick had collaborated with many other individuals.
The choice by Kubrick to include classical music rather than the originally composed score by Alex North was a truly ingenious one. 2001 has truly memorable sequences, like the "Blue Danube Waltz" sequence, which introduces the aura of space, and Johann Strauss's unforgettable mighty melody sets the tone for the endless galaxy in which we are planted. The soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey is among the most powerful and magnificent film soundtracks, not because it has to be; it isn't music composed for the film and its emotional arcs--but because it simply is. The music doesn't follow the story, or vice versa, they are two separate elements combined to create an awe-inspiring experience. And who could blame Kubrick for this decision--a film with the beauty of 2001 shouldn't try to be mimicked or succeeded by music, but rather have the two elements work together.
2001 was first met with extremely mixed reviews upon its 1968 release; some were already claiming it to be one of the best films ever made, while some could not get past the first twenty minutes. This is not uncommon with science fiction films--even some of the greatest science fiction films are met with divisive opinions. I wasn't particularly a fan of last year's Interstellar, but I recognize that in ten years I may love it. In a genre usually about the future and unknown, first impressions can't be completely solid.
2001 makes you think, and forces you to use your brain; will younger audiences, now being fed CGI-filled, fast-edited, loud-in-your-face films, be able to actually think about a film? Almost all films now require zero thought. As a movie ends, and the lights in the theater slowly get brighter, audiences walk out and think: Gee, that was okay, and they never think about the film again. Because there's no thought involved. The filmmakers do all the work, and spoon-feed the audience everything. The brilliant filmmakers, the great ones, cherish the filmmaking experience and the audience, and understand that to make a great film, the audience and patrons will walk out and research. And talk about it with others. And think about the film after they walk out. Prometheus (2012) is a great film, because director Ridley Scott understands that science fiction often has no direct answer. It raises the questions and thoughts--but no answers. That's why viewers who let out a sigh of relief when a film gives you answers will hate 2001 and the analysis that follows it. 2001 exists in a world supported by people and minds that are as brilliant as the film itself. After all these years, 2001 remains a truly epic adventure and a cornerstone of world cinema because many fans still know what good science-fiction is, and understand that the lack of understanding in a sci-fi film is completely understandable.
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