DVD Review - 2001: A Space Odyssey (50th Anniversary)

This April marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick's science-fiction masterpiece. It is considered one of the most influential pieces of cinema in the genre and a complete classic. It was nominated for four Oscars at the 49th Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Writing, Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects. Kubrick won his one and only Oscar for this film in the category for Best Visual Effects. Filmed in 70mm, Kubrick takes us into the past and far into the future, from Africa to the vast reaches of outer space, and each scene is a wonder to behold, beyond beautiful and beyond curious. His motion picture is the absolute definition of awe-inspiring.

All that being said, it isn't a favorite of mine. The individual scenes are interesting and engaging to watch, but, as a whole, there isn't much of a story here and all of it doesn't add up to much, or conversely it adds up to too much. It isn't a narrative, as much as it is a series of ideas presented that speak to humanity or human nature or that relate to mankind's relationship to the universe, but it's lacking in characterization and empathy. Much of this film is very cold and clinical, very matter of fact. I won't say there isn't any heart here, but there is a detachment and a remove from the material that makes me think this was a project less driven by passion but rather intellectual curiosity, a light experiment rather than a deep-diving exploration.

First off, the film is too long. The theatrical version or the version on the DVD is 148 minutes. Reportedly, the initial print was over 160 minutes, but Kubrick cut it down for the wider release. I'm not sure what was trimmed, but there is so much more that could have been cut-out. The movie has an overture and an intermission, which was a standard in that time until the 1980's and the advent of multiplexes, but, even without the overture and intermission, the movie still feels overly long, most likely due to its slow and deliberate pace, which isn't a criticism in and of itself. The problem is that Kubrick drags out his sequences longer than is necessary to underline whatever point he's making.

The film can be divided into four sections. The first section is itself titled the "Dawn of Man." The second section is the arrival of Heywood Floyd and the establishment of the mystery. The third section is the involvement of HAL-9000 and the fourth section is Jupiter and the vision of the Star Child. I would like to dissect or breakdown briefly each of those four sections. I would start by saying that most of what's in those four sections is metaphor. Many of the things in them, particularly in the first and fourth sections, aren't meant to be taken literally but instead symbolically.

The first section is the dawn of man and cleverly doesn't feed into the creation myth involving alien contact, but it does suggest alien influence to the very early days of human development. Kubrick sets us at a barren or desert-like landscape where ape-like beings huddle in caves and scrounge for food, not unlike any other animal or lower life-form. A dispute arises between two tribes over a tiny pond, which seems like the only water for miles. It's an obvious question of survival by way of who controls this tiny pond.

Out of nowhere, a monolith appears. It's a long, black, rectangular, 3-D object that simply stands erect before one of the ape-like tribes. That tribe, which I'll call the monolith tribe, gather around and touch it. Later, the monolith tribe is able to use the bones of dead animals as weapons to drive the other ape-like tribe away from the tiny pond, so that the monolith tribe wins or survives. Now, this first section is a perfect metaphor for the history of human civilization for millennia, which is why Kubrick can cut to the second section in the future where man has achieved space travel with the greatest of ease, but the question is why.

One of the greatest edits in all of cinema history is the edit that Kubrick makes between the first section and the second section. We see an ape-like man using the bone weapon. He tosses the piece of bone into the air and then instantly Kubrick cuts to the image of a craft or a vehicle that looks like the piece of bone, moving not through air but in outer space, far above the Earth. It's what's called a match-cut. It's supposed to show parity between two things, no matter how disparate they are. Yet, the parity is assumed. Nothing visually that follows affirms or backs up that assumption, so the match-cut loses whatever power it could have had.

The second section is the most straight-forward. In subtle ways, it establishes that even in the future in outer space, there's still tribal rivalries not unlike the apes seen in the first section but in this regard between the Americans and the Russians, as was an obvious reflection of the Cold War attitudes at the time. Yet, Kubrick doesn't give us enough to firmly make that connection or relate it back to the first section. The third section is also pretty straight-forward. It's an outer-space tale of the evil robot trope or evil computer trope that could have been something dreamed up by Isaac Asimov, meant to reflect the failings of humanity through its electronic creations and dependency upon them. Non-coincidentally, the computer in this section has an interface, which has some similarity to the monolith.

The fourth and final section is the most metaphorical and therefore the most difficult. It features the astronaut named Dave Bowman, played by Keir Dullea, inside a white, spherical pod out in space traveling past Jupiter by way of a gateway or funnel of incredible, colorful optics, cutting back-and-forth to reverse negative images including a close-up of Dave's eye. Eventually, Dave arrives inside a mansion-like room, exquisitely decorated and illuminated entirely by fluorescent lights in the floor. Dave becomes an old man and the monolith appears. Dave reaches for it and that's when what's known as the Star Child emerges and is seen hovering next to the Earth.

The question is what does it mean. The Star Child is the visage of a baby in womb. Perhaps, it's supposed to represent the infantility of mankind in relation to the existence of the Earth, the infantility in time present and infantility in behavior. It's a guess that's not right or wrong. Kubrick most likely had something in mind of what he intended it to mean, but this is really the kind of film that lends itself to whatever interpretation one wants. Perhaps, the Star Child is supposed to represent the desire for purity and innocence, a purity and innocence that can't be found on Earth but outside it, which might be hopeful and cynical at the same time.

The vagueness of its meaning might be intriguing like looking at an abstract painting or a Rorschach test. In a film, that could be fine, but it simply wasn't so for me due to the lack of characterization and empathy, as well as the cold and clinical nature. Lastly though, the other notable actor is Gary Lockwood who plays Frank Poole. Lockwood appeared two years earlier in the series Star Trek (1966) in its first televised episode. It's ironic because a decade or so later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would borrow so heavily from Kubrick's work here, but it would craft a far better narrative with better ideas and characters who were more empathetic and compelling.

Rated G for all audiences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 28 mins.


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