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Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Premise: In a future where mankind has begun exploration of the solar system, astronauts discover an artifact on the moon and send a space crew on a mission to investigate its origins.

What Works: 2001: A Space Odyssey has influenced nearly every major science fiction and fantasy film since its release from Star Wars and Alien to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Matrix, and for that reason alone it is worth viewing by film and science fiction aficionados. Concepts like hibernation, artificial intelligence, and realistic space travel were presented in this film in ways that have been alluded to, imitated, and downright ripped off ever since. Despite featuring Kubrick’s unique auteur style, the film features a lot of sequences that have been seen in later pictures; this is especially true of extended scenes of the crew in hibernation that were duplicated in both camera style and music score in Alien and Aliens. HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the artificial intelligence computer controlling the ship, is both a terrifying and a sympathetic character, and its relationship to the crew has been highly imitated in everything from Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation to Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man. Aside from being influential, 2001 is a great piece of movie making. The special effects of ships and other spacecraft have a wonder and beauty to them that has not been equaled in a science fiction film since. The use of sound and music is interesting, including large spaces with nothing but the breathing apparatus of the astronauts. Classical music by artists such as Richard Strauss is used throughout the picture and it lends splendor to the scenes of interstellar travel and a portentous atmosphere to scenes of danger. 2001 represents an honest attempt to make an intelligent, pure science fiction film and the picture is able to reach into the possibilities of the genre. While many science fiction films deal with fantasies of intergalactic politics and warfare, the issue truly central to the genre is the relationship between humans, their civilization, and technology, and this is where 2001 shines. Spanning from the dawn of humanity to a future where humans take the next turn in their evolution, 2001 establishes themes of dehumanization and mechanization and uses deep and sometimes abstract symbolism to take humanity to a new level where it is reaches a new beginning. 

What Doesn’t: 2001 has a reputation as a challenging film and it’s well deserved. The picture includes very little dialogue and there are many spaces with little or no sound. The purpose is to create a vacuous audio environment that simulates the empty space that the film takes place in, and it’s unsettling. The story does not conform to a typical three-act narrative and that may frustrate viewers. Its parts add up but only with some thinking on the part of the audience.

DVD extras: The two-disc special edition includes a commentary track, trailer, documentary and featurettes, and an audio-only interview with Stanley Kubrick.

Bottom Line: 2001: A Space Odyssey demands a lot from its viewers and those who are willing to engage the film will be rewarded. It may take a second or third viewing to understand the film and even those who have viewed it multiple times debate the picture’s ultimate meaning. But what 2001 proves is that film can be a medium for serious intellectual and entertaining expression.

Episode: #183 (March 23, 2008)