Silence. A black screen. Then the rumblings of a strange, atmospheric music; a brief overture that spells ominousness, uncertainty. Then, more music – the thumping opening to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. On-screen, a shot of the shadowed moon. On cue perfectly, the powerful, stirring rise of the earth behind the moon, and the sun behind the earth. As the music builds to a dazzling crescendo, emphatic words are emblazoned before our eyes:
METRO-GOLDWYN MAYER PRESENTS
A STANLEY KUBRICK PRODUCTION
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Such is the opening to perhaps the greatest example of science-fiction in the history of cinema. Avant-garde, visually and aurally glorious, 2001 remains the most ambitious of Stanley Kubrick’s films; a paean to human evolution and discovery that has inspired vast hordes of filmmakers. Yet for some the film can be trying; a willingness to forsake convention is certainly required for its more protracted, uneventful sequences. Even so, despite its status as a ‘classic’ movie, the deeply modern aesthetic of 2001 surely ensures that it will continue to endure, whether or not we ever reach its optimistic predictions for the fate of the human race.
The genesis of the film lay in a creative partnership practically matchless for its genre, between director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick had just mercilessly satirised the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove and had subsequently become interested in the possibility of the existence of extra-terrestrial life. After much creative pondering, Kubrick and Clarke began to develop a story which would track humanity’s relationship with the universe, from early evolution to space colonisation, and then beyond. Clarke developed his novel at the same time Kubrick was making his film. While Clarke allows the reader a clearer telling of this vast narrative, Kubrick’s creation is more mysterious and subjective, relying on the power of imagery and suggestion – though it is by no means impenetrable.
We begin on a beautifully rendered, arid prehistoric earth, as a collection of apes live out a relatively untroubled existence – that is, until the arrival of a large, black monolith, accompanied by a terror-filled strain of music. It is this eminently alien object which reoccurs throughout the film, guiding the progress of man. Indeed, soon afterwards, one the apes soon discovers the first human tool – an animal bone – a joyous moment of advancement that marks one step closer to modern man. What comes minutes later is utterly unprecedented. Kubrick cuts from a shot of an airborne bone to one of an object in space. Millions of years of war, empire-building, human advancement and space exploration are encapsulated in a single cut. Whether or not you believe in evolution itself – I am personally sceptical – Kubrick’s cut is a breathtaking coup de théâtre.
The eternally graceful Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss suddenly fills our ears as we begin to explore the weightless precision of colonised space. We follow Heywood Floyd, one of the men behind the discovery of an artificial, buried object on the moon. But little sooner than that we again leap settings. Several astronauts, only two actually conscious, are on their way to Jupiter, though they know little about why they are going. Also on-board is the HAL 9000 computer, the mechanical patriarch of the ship. He is the pinnacle of technological advancement in that he exhibits human characteristics. After HAL begins to show some anxiety about the mission – with tense and devastating results – we arrive at Jupiter. The final movement leads us into the unknown, into a potential future for mankind as terrifying as it is unexplained.
The film thus exhibits a variety of different narratives and characters, all the more surprising considering the leisurely delivery of some of its episodes. A measure of the audacity of Kubrick’s approach can be found in the ways the director subverts film convention. The most interesting character of any turns out to be not human at all, but machine – the HAL 9000. Represented visually by a single, unmoving red dot, he is voiced with uncanny ambiguity by Douglas Rain; the transition from quiet amiability to malice is the only real character arc of the story. Many of the humans, by contrast, are curiously cold. Without wanting to spoil any of the film, it should be noted that there is one moment which casts some doubt on astronaut Dave Bowman’s sympathy for his colleague Gary Lockwood. By enacting such ventures, Kubrick poses a vital question of what it essentially means to be human, while also conjecturing the potential for technological progress. This only makes the ensuing man-machine conflict more vital and exciting.
Another technique Kubrick insists upon is the reliance on image and sound rather than dialogue. There are no spoken words for vast sections of the film, notably the entire opening and closing movements. The frenetic dogfights and swift pace that would be championed in Star Wars nine years later, and which now seem commonplace in mainstream Hollywood cinema, are entirely absent. Instead, we are given a more balletic, measured pace in keeping with a classical soundtrack; this is a slow waltz rather than a sprawling jive. This can seem ill-fitting to some who expect it to move more quickly, but this approach in reality only adds to the film’s greatness. Kubrick forces us to properly appreciate the majesty of that vast starry silence that is the solar system, rather than pass it by with a mere indifferent gaze.
The best indication of the strength of Kubrick’s cinematic derring-do, however, is to be found in his use of special effects. Even after forty-six years, virtually nothing in the film appears aged; first and foremost the scenes in space itself, Kubrick capturing its black eternity and danger brilliantly. The interior scenes too remain impressive, with the astronaut Dave Bowman appearing to jog all the way around a circular ship in an utterly seamless fashion, the imperatives of zero-gravity pinning him to both floor and ceiling. But arguably the most stunning use of effects comes right at the end, a fifteen-minute swirling neon fantasy that well and truly transcends worlds. In short, the film is utterly extraordinary from a visual perspective, and further commendable when considering how much of it was performed practically, without CGI; the influence on Christopher Nolan is transparent. Though Kubrick’s only Oscar was for the special effects in 2001, the protean visual work of Douglas Trumbull should be acknowledged; he would later be able to make his own film Silent Running in 1972. Indeed, emerging into an iridescent Leicester Square after seeing the film, my friend turned wide-eyed to me and declared: ‘That film just messed with my mind.’
For such a gaping, ambitious evocation of space life, it seems impossible to completely comprehend everything in just one viewing. I didn’t entirely ‘get’ 2001 at first; I had no problem with its pace, but did find the lack of a definite explanation a questionable inclusion. What caused the stratospheric rise in my opinion of the film? Partly, a growing interest in the aesthetics of cinematic image and a realisation that classical music is not just for upper-class Telegraph readers. But mostly, it was to do with seeing 2001 in a cinema. Only that way could I properly contend with Kubrick’s vision, could I gaze open-mouthed at the bewildering detail of its visuals and the cathartic splendour of its music. Only by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey this way could I gain a greater recognition of cinema’s ability to transform and minds through the miraculous fusion of image and sound. Finally, only be seeing the film this way has it remained so strongly in my thoughts for days afterwards – including now, as I write this, my fingers and hands trembling at the memory of the closing image, a final tribute to the exploring potential of man throughout the ages, and in the future.