WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: The evolution of pre-historic man is advanced by contact with an alien black monolith. Four million years later, Dr Haywood Floyd makes a similar discovery hidden under the surface of the Moon. This time the monolith points Man towards Jupiter, where astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole travel to meet their respective, divergent destinies under the infallible guidance of a super-computer called HAL.
It may be allowing Kubrick too much leeway, but it is almost impossible – and certainly redundant – to assess 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same fashion as most other films. For, in terms of what makes other films work, or not, it is completely lacking in pace, characterisation, drama or anything which might traditionally draw the viewer in. What it offers instead, however, is a unique experience with little in common with watching a ‘movie’, approaching (for better or worse) the realms of cinema as art.
The story, such as it is, begins with Richard Strauss, ancient Earth and two tribes of ape-like creatures who live in a state of equilibrium in their squabbles over the water pool; that is, until one of the groups sees and tentatively touches a tall, smooth black monolith rising out of the ground (accompanied by Ligeti’s eerie, ethereal music). One of the apes then considers and picks up a bone, which he subsequently uses as a weapon to kill both animals (poor tapirs!) and members of the opposing tribe. This violent act signifies that the age of Man has begun.
Then there is the famous (and actually pretty poorly aligned) jump-cut to a spacecraft, followed by a sequence of real beauty (even after forty-plus years of special effects advancement) as Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube leads the camera dancing through the twin wheels of an entirely believable space station. The visitor to the station is Dr Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester), visiting a Moon settlement which has been sealed off on the pretence of an epidemic of some sort, although this is just a ruse to put off the Russians (including Leonard Rossiter). The real reason, as Floyd knows, is that a monolith has been found on the Moon. A party travels to the monolith and as they start to film it, it sends out a signal pointing towards Jupiter. A ship is dispatched with five astronauts aboard, but only two – Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) – are conscious for the trip. They do, however, have HAL-9000 for company, a computer with a perfect performance record and a polite but firm manner. When HAL appears to malfunction, Dave and Frank make the decision to switch him/it off, but HAL is more than resistant to the idea. One of the astronauts will not make it to the ‘stargate’ in Jupiter and the next stage of human evolution.
With the first and final sections completely devoid of dialogue, 2001 is not a film whose script generates much excitement. Indeed, since the film deals almost entirely in concepts rather than traditional storytelling, it fails to excite any of the senses in the way that, for example, the much-influenced Star Wars series would a decade later. Floyd’s misleading the Russians goes nowhere as a plot-line, and the astronauts’ battle with HAL is dealt with in cool, rational terms. Furthermore, while the acting of the ‘apes’ in the Dawn of Man sequence is astonishingly convincing, it is so good that the viewer loses any connection with them as humans, even proto-humans.
No, it is as a cerebral experience that 2001 stands or falls; and whether or not Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘accelerated evolution’ story convinces you, or Douglas Rains’ sinister, insecure performance as HAL manages to grab your sympathy, you surely cannot fail to be impressed by the director’s vision, brought to life with the help of photographic effects geniuses such as Douglas Trumbull. From the first frame A Space Odyssey looks phenomenal, totally convincing in pre-history, orbiting Earth, on the surface of the Moon or even (the greatest flight of fancy) travelling through the slit-scan photography of the incredibly trippy stargate. Kubrick is right to linger over his creation, beautifully allied to classical music – the Khachaturian adagio is gorgeous and the Ligeti pieces, though spooky, are simultaneously quite soothing – and large sections of the film are brilliant technical exercises which put to shame nearly every sci-fi film made since.
There is, of course, a counter-argument, which says that whilst they’ve created science fiction that is both intelligent and visually jaw-dropping, Clarke and Kubrick have left out a coherent tale that might prevent the viewer from dropping off. To an extent, the scale of the story they are telling makes this inevitable, but Kubrick’s impersonal style, allied to his enormous concepts, makes the film more interesting as a display of technical and artistic mastery than as a gripping movie. Even so, there is still much to think about: not least whether our over-reliance on technology makes us vulnerable to the likes of HAL, or whether the computer was in fact ‘set up’ and bound to fail.
So, it’s not a date movie or one for a Friday night with the mates, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is artistic, beautiful and (that most mixed of compliments) a considerable achievement, to be viewed free from the expectations of mainstream movies (and, if you can, on Blu-Ray where it looks stunning). You may very well fall asleep, but when you wake up you will be watching something astonishing.