Tom Jolliffe looks back at the groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey…
There have been some key films in sci-fi cinema throughout the years. Certain films have been genre defining, or redefining. It began with Fritz Lang’s visionary masterpiece Metropolis (also a groundbreaking film), which astonished with its visual imagination and dystopian story-line. The next film of the sci-fi genre which really did something incredible and tore up cinematic rule books was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
By this point, Kubrick had become well established. He’d made high profile films like Lolita, Dr Strangelove, Paths of Glory, The Killing and Spartacus. A mix of epic, controversial, whimsical and narratively revolutionary. Still, nothing quite prepared the world for what Kubrick would deliver when he ventured into sci-fi. Visually the film was (and is still) astonishing. The sequences of the space station were unlike anything seen previously. Even now they haven’t dated. The film is segmented: three acts show three stages of human existence. The film, based loosely on the Arthur C. Clarke novel, depicts the dawn of man, the technological peak of man and then finally the next stage of consciousness. Throughout the film, shot exquisitely in widescreen, we’re treated to wide open prehistoric vistas, then dark, ominous and vacuous expanses of outer space, and the confides of a ship with two astronauts and their A.I assistant HAL. Finally a stargate trip to a realm where dreams, memories, consciousness and astral projection intertwine.
Kubrick always had an impeccable eye for detail and meticulous shot set ups. His perfectionism was in evidence with all the visual FX, including in the way they occasionally blend on set. Even in the ships interior there are impressive shots of someone walking down a corridor before then appearing to defy gravity further down the set, without breaking shot. Now it probably involved a locked camera and stepping onto a rig, but it comes out brilliantly. It’s the kind of thing only Kubrick could have done at the time. He treated audiences to a look ahead to space travel. Some of the sets and costumes look very much of the time as far as sci-fi goes, but there are still several aspects (like use of video calls etc) that have come to pass, and the atmosphere created still takes you very much into that environment.
After the film takes us through a gripping battle of man vs A.I, as HAL begins to malfunction (or becomes inexorably locked by programming paradoxes), we’re taken through a star gate to a realm beyond. A place of consciousness where time is different and existence is not as we know it. Kubrick would leave things intentionally vague and enigmatic. Pushing his audience to work in understanding or interpreting the film. Experimental art house films were already doing this, particularly in that era across Europe and Asia as filmmakers toyed with structure, meaning and told metaphorical stories over literal. What Kubrick did was blend a clearer narrative within his sections, but left the overall meaning of the film deliberately vague. He was challenging his audience to revisit. Science Fiction in cinema had historically been more about spectacle and more clear allegories. The class breakdown in Metropolis for example was an early example of dystopian cinema weaving in an underlying message, but still fairly clear.
In much the same way as Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t like to have a definitive meaning in films like The Mirror, Solaris and Stalker, and create an overall atmosphere to draw the viewer in, Kubrick was doing the same here. His first modus operandi here was to envelope the viewer into the pace of his film, wilfully slow, and engross you with its atmosphere. He did so with a mixture of his visuals, the classical music soundtrack to accompany, as well as a few open philosophical questions along the way. This combination of elements together hadn’t really been seen before. This was a film with such a clear and distinct vision, that didn’t follow conventional rules at all. It was a whole new cinematic experience and completely obliterated the expectations of its genre, which by the 60’s had seen sci-fi very much deemed a B picture genre.
The initial response was very mixed. Understandably, some critics (and viewers) just couldn’t get into the film. The playfully ambiguous end shot, following almost three hours of ponderous pacing had repelled many audience members. The technical merits of the piece however did create an overriding sense of awe in most viewers. Consequently the impact of the film whether initially positive or negative, was difficult to shake off in the viewer. Audiences often tended to like a concise closure in a film, which 2001 did not offer. A little ambiguity is something that I’ve always enjoyed in a film. Sci-Fi is of course loaded with it. Is Deckard a Replicant? Just what has happened to the girl at the end of Stalker? A giant Space baby in 2001? These all sent me invariably back to repeat viewings in (for what it’s worth) probably my top 3 sci-fi films (though one might, or indeed Tarkovsky himself may have, argue that Stalker isn’t exactly sci-fi).
There have been films occasionally compared as having passing resemblance to 2001 (Solaris was one, though Tarkovsky actually disliked 2001, and didn’t like the association) but really, nothing else since has been similar. The follow up 2010 (from Peter Hyams) was enjoyable but very much a conventional sci-fi that went for simple spectacle over art-house ambiguity. What are your thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey? Lets us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/