Friday, January 14, 2011

#24 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

"A movie operating on an entirely different level."

In my knowledge of monumental figures in film, there had always stood before me such directors as Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extent Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, who were directors I had heard of but never knew anything about. It is disappointing to me now to think that I didn’t know anything about, nor, to the best of my recollection, had ever so much as even heard of Stanley Kubrick. This is especially distressing, since, aside from the fact that nearly every major American-made film from the 60s and 70s was made by this legendary director, but moreover I had actually seen many of these films before. Kubrick’s presence was made apparent to me by another friend and fellow aficionado of film (does that come off as pompous as it sounds in my head?), and now that I know who he is, I see him all over the place. The movie I am about to talk about, 2001: A Space Odyssey, not only has the benefit of being made by Stanley Kubrick, but is also one of those films off of this list which I was very aware of, and referenced rather often, usually without realizing I was referencing this movie specifically (It’s amazing how well versed in movie references and plots you can be just by watching a lot of cartoons as a kid). Anyway, after finally deciding to watch this epic, I can firmly say that this film is one of the most spectacular I have seen. It is, truly, a movie on another plane above many of the films I’ve watched already.

Alright, so let’s get down to business. The film starts off very peculiarly; nothing but black screen for a good 3 minutes. At first I actually thought the DVD was broken, but then the music starts off, and you’re left staring at a black screen with very eerie, discordant music playing in the background. Finally, after what seems like ages, you are given the film credits. I really like the way in which this is presented, and it really sets the standard of Kubrick’s directing style for this film, which I’ll get into in a lot greater detail later in this review. So anyway, after the credits are finished, we see our first picture in the film: the classic music of this film rolls, and we are presented with a space image of Earth, which the camera moves over, gradually revealing the sun. Finally, we’re taken down to Earth for “The Dawn of Man”. In these scenes, we are presented with ape-looking men, costume designs that reminded me very much of the ape-suits from Planet of the Apes, which I reviewed earlier this week. These scenes are typified by a lot of spectacular long shots. One thing I found very fascinating about these scenes was that although no dialogue, no actual human characters or human-like characters, and no discernable story was happening in these Dawn of Man scenes, which take up a good 15 minutes of the film, I am absolutely enthralled. The spectacular cinematography, coupled with the excellent pacing and compelling reactions made by the humans was very engaging, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Eventually the human-apes are presented with this black monolith which appears rather suddenly before the creatures. The apes prance about trying to touch it and discern what it is. The next scene, probably one of the most iconic in film, features one of the human-apes – who had touched the monolith – discovering how to use a bone as a club. The thing about this scene, is that it has been so thoroughly satirized in film – History of the World, part 1, comes to mind, certainly – meant that I wasn’t so sure whether I should be in awe of how cool the scene was, or laugh because that theme music and the way it was presented has been in so many comedies that it would probably be impossible to list them all off.

Eventually, through a course of a very cool segue; we are taken away from the everyday lives of primitive man, and to Heywood Floyd, an American scientist who, we learn, is on a trip to the moon to deal with some pressing business. What I like about the early portions of this scene is that still no one is talking. I kept track, and the movie goes through over 25 minutes of film without anyone so much as uttering a word. Very cool. Floyd gets off on a space station, and then transfers to another space ship to take him to the moon. Through the course of these scenes I found myself asking hundreds of questions about the details of the world Floyd lives on, mostly nerdy things such as the state of world politics, economy, how this or that works, etc. The most interesting to me was that on both of the ships he takes to the moon, though they both appear to resemble commuter airlines akin to those we use to fly now, both ships were completely devoid of people, and I found myself wondering why that was. I should also mention that these scenes are absolutely spectacular. The flight scenes are long montages set to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”, and I found the music, and the way it was presented, to be very appropriate. Eventually Floyd lands and we are presented with his reason for coming to the moon…or not. Although on two occasions Floyd has hinted at his reasons for being here, he never explicitly states what he’s doing on the Moon. This narrative teasing on the part of Kubrick will come to be a theme in this movie. Another 20 minutes later, and we finally find out that Floyd is here for an artifact that was being recovered – a monolith just like the one the man-apes discovered.

We are cut again, to a spaceship bound for Jupiter. In this spaceship are 5 astronauts, 3 of which are in hibernation, and the other two, who are set to watch over the other two, are named David Bowman and Frank Pool. Meanwhile, the ship also has an AI named HAL. After being introduced to these characters, and HAL, we soon start to see some weird things happening on the ship – peculiar malfunctions and incongruities. We are told that both Bowman and Pool believe HAL to be behind these weird things. After some time, it is revealed that HAL is behind them, and also that he knows that Bowman and Pool suspect him. He mutinies, killing the hibernating shipmates, and then attempts to kill Pool, and locking Bowman out in space as he tried to save Pool. Bowman manages to make his way back into the ship, forcing him to leave Pool to die in the process, and eventually shuts down HAL successfully. After HAL is shut down, we learn the reason for the manned journey to Jupiter – the monolith from the moon sent a transmission directed at Jupiter, and the astronauts are here to discover who the transmission was directed at. Bowman continues on to Jupiter alone, and the ensuing scenes – the end of the movie – were some of the most peculiar I have ever seen, and I recommend you watch them yourself, as I feel like it would be impossible for me to do them proper justice. But needless to say, it is some of the most confusing, and yet mind-blowing stuff I have ever seen.

The acting in this film is not altogether spectacular. No one in my opinion really stands out. That doesn’t mean, however that anyone was particularly bad, just not particularly great either. It didn’t really have to be particularly great though, because the real show stealer in this film is the pacing and cinematography. The cinematography is simply superb. Every scene was full of elements going on, and was just so full of meaning I feel like it would be beyond my comprehension to pick up on all of it. Even the first 10 minutes of the film, you can tell that every scene, every shot, every second of film is meticulously thought out. There are no throw-away scenes, everything is relevant. It is just mind-boggling; cinematography to rival that of Welles’s Citizen Kane, to be sure. Another thing I like about this film is the pacing. Kubrick teases you, and he does it a lot. What he does is that he gets you interested, draws you in to a point where you are dying to know what this is all about. And just when it appears that he is about to tell you what the hell’s going on, granting you the release you need, he draws off, and doesn’t actually tell you. Instead he draws the scene out for another 5 to 10 minutes, leaving you in agony the whole time. Finally, after a great length of time, he finally tells you what it is all about, and it just feels like an anvil has hit you on the head. It is a brilliant piece of pacing, and it was the single most striking part of the film to me. From the first scene in which he leaves you in darkness for the first 3 minutes of film, to the very end he is constantly giving you just enough to be willing to thrash the TV to find out more, without actually letting it all out right away. It is exceedingly frustrating. The music, as I suggested before, is also spectacular in this film. It is always perfectly appropriate. Finally, I like the ambient sounds, particularly the breathing coming from Bowman’s space suit during space scenes and at the very end. Particularly at the end of the film, it really adds to the tension.

This is truly a superb film, and if I wasn’t afraid of boring readers, I feel like I could go on for 20 pages talking about this film. I know I say that every film I see off this list is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, but I absolutely mean it with this film. Everything it does, from the music, to the pacing, the building of tension, the cinematography, the sense of mystery, is just spectacular. I just absolutely adore this movie. It is just an absolutely amazing movie. Truly a movie operating on a different level, even than many of the films I’ve seen off of my list. All I can say in conclusion is that I love this movie.

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