Classics Corner: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

12 09 2010

Gut reaction to Stanley Kubirick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” – WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?!?

I just had to put that out there.  From my past experiences with Kubrick, which only include “Spartacus,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket,” I was definitely expecting a head-scratcher.  But I can honestly say that in my nearly 18 years of watching movies, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so cryptic.  I feel like I’m going to be left baffled for the rest of my life, and somehow I feel like Kubrick is grinning mischievously down at me from the afterlife, sniveling “I’ve got him just where I want him!”

Honestly, how did they discuss this movie in the 1960s?  Without the Internet to bounce ideas and theories off each other, did people just accept the fact that they couldn’t understand it since they didn’t have access to the geniuses who post things on the Web?  I can’t even fathom how dinner conversations might have gone in discussing such an innovative movie.

As you can see from the poster, the movie is advertised as the ultimate trip.  It truly is … the ultimate ACID trip.  I strongly advise anyone who might be under the influence of certain influences to stay away from this movie, not because of the content, but because the style might cause you to have some kind of seizure, stroke, or spasm. But what makes this movie a classic?  I can tell just from my first viewing that it has had an enormous influence on filmmaking in the 42 years since its release.  I felt a particularly urgent desire to watch “2001” now because Christopher Nolan named it as an influence of “Inception.”  Here are the specifics according to The New York Times:

The influence of the director of ”2001: A Space Odyssey” is readily apparent in a ”dream-gravity” sequence during ”Inception” that tracks Joseph Gordon-Levitt through an environment of rotating rooms followed by a period of total weightlessness. ”Kubrick to me always had a wonderful sense of calm and specificity in everything he did,” Mr. Nolan said. ”Every detail had a specific meaning and purpose. That’s something I always try to aim for in my filmmaking. It’s not a specific thing. It’s an approach of saying: ‘Why is this thing here? What are we doing with this detail, this element?'”

I can definitely feel a sense of overarching purpose in both the works of Nolan and Kubrick. The former, however, is much more forward while the latter is more subtle, really requiring us to trust in his directorial abilities.  In 2010, a time where Kubrick has been given God-like status among filmmakers, it’s very easy to do that.  But in 1968, I can imagine I might have been a little more skeptical.

The movie is packed with all sorts of themes, imagism, motifs, and symbols, many of which I have absolutely no idea how to interpret.  And I’m not even going to try (to quote “A Serious Man” despite the fact that I despise it, “accept the mystery”).  On the surface, the most accessible thematic element is that of artificial intelligence.  We build computers to be smart, even machines like the HAL-9000 that can supposedly make no errors, but when will come the time that they become smarter than us?  This idea has definitely been echoed quite a bit ever since, often times in a more paranoid tone (see “The Matrix”).

There’s also the ground-breaking special effects, which wow me even in 2010.  Crowd reaction must have been like “Avatar” on steroids.  The fact that someone can watch visual effects over four decades old and not be able to laugh at them is practically unfathomable, yet here is “2001” with spectacles that are barely even dusty.  And beyond the graphics, the movie also boasts some very appealing cinematography and skilled make-up artistry.

And of course, no discussion of “2001” can be complete without discussing the music.  I swear that “Requiem” was used in “Inglourious Basterds” when the Nazis killed Shoshana’s family, but I can’t confirm it anywhere (and thus risk looking like a fool if I am refuted).  But the eccentric, or as some would say, innovative, sequences where the only thing we is hear is instrumental music are definitely incredibly influential.  Not to mention the incredibly eclectic nature of the film’s music, which often times feeling entirely out of place, that I say for sure manifests itself in today’s movies.  Look no further than Quentin Tarantino for that.

I’m not ready to crown Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” one of my favorite movies of all time, although I know many would include in their pantheon of fantastic films.  However, I am thankful that this movie was made because it got the ball rolling for the future masters of science-fiction and fantasy to further expand the possibilities for the genre.  I think it’s a topic to debate whether this still reigns supreme or if any of the movies it has inspired have eclipsed it.

*NOTE: I wrote this entire review without consulting any source that would attempt to explain the mystery that is the movie to me.  That has to count for something.