2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I’m not going to overstate how important 2001: A Space Odyssey was in my developing a taste for Science-Fiction, but it’s a movie that does show up a few times in my early memories. As a kid, seeing it in the early eighties when 2001 was still in the future, I remember seeing snippets of the film, being fascinated by it, disappointed that they didn’t show more of future life on Earth and rather confused by the whole thing. (My father, for all of his benevolence in allowing me to watch the movie, wasn’t much help in trying to make sense of it.)  As a slightly older kid, I remember being told that the answers to the movie were in the Clarke novel. As a somewhat older teenager, I remember reading the book in the middle of a solid Arthur C. Clarke binge. I must have seen the movie again sometime in the early nineties because I have more recent memories than watching it as a kid, but anyway: Watching it now, nearly fifty years after its release, having read countless SF books and even written a few … is a different experience. I’m weirdly fascinated by the movie, for what it does well as for what it doesn’t, for the chances it takes and for the impact it has. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s insanely ambitious from a time when SF movies were not usually considered ambitious. (Keep in mind that 1968 is before the moon landing, before desktop computers, before CGI. The other big Science-Fiction movies of the year were Planet of the Apes and… Barbarella.)  It’s still frustratingly ambiguous in terms of narrative, although reading the novel does help quite a bit making sense of it and relaxing enough to appreciate the rest of what the movie does well. I find it fascinating that it has both moments of intense cinematic poetry, while delivering a solid hard-SF thriller in its middle section. I’m more amused than annoyed at the way 2001 doesn’t say anything about its biggest mystery, but will babble on at lengths about the nuts and bolts of its setting. I’m still astonished at the quality of the special effects, the scientific verisimilitude of its middle section or the realism of its setting—all of which remains rarely equalled even fifty years later. Stanley Kubrick was a certifiable genius, and 2001 proves it as much as any other of his movies: just take a look at the million-year cut, the long segments without dialogue, the way even small details show how much the filmmakers cared. 2001 remains a cultural fixture for a reason, having invented, codified or popularized a bunch of the clichés largely associated with Science-Fiction by the general public. I’m struck by how there’s something in this film to appeal to a wide variety of viewers, both as the very prosaic level, and at a more metaphorical one. More narrative-driven viewers will appreciate having read the book for hand-holding through the roughest patches of the narration. More trippy viewers will be happy to be taken for a ride. (And I think that having read the book is one way to watch the movie as both kinds of viewers.)  I’m not going to say that 2001 is the perfect SF film, or even among my top favourite ones. But it’s still a rich experience with a lot to offer, and that makes it almost just as good today as it had been for the past five decades. 

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