Catching Up with Classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you’ve stuck around for the last 11 months, you’ll understand that I’ve seen zero films…well, I’ve previously missed many of the big, blockbuster classics and cult favourites but, thanks to my film degree, I have seen lots of post-War German cinema if you’re interested.

To catch up, I’ve been watching a title a month that I think other people would deem ‘a classic’, and November’s choice is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Which has been great timing on my part after news surfaced this week that a mysterious monolith has been found in the middle of a desert in Utah

Now, I’m not saying that this discovery is my serendipitous fault, but if aliens attack I’m outta here.

November’s pick – 2001: A Space Odyssey

We open on a prehistoric African desert, watching a tribe of great apes scare off another from a watering hole. As the sun rises and sets, the apes wake up to find a monolith (much like the one found in Utah) standing in the sand before them. As they adapt to its presence, they’re influenced by its strange alien powers, and discover that they’re able to use tools made from bone. From there we see the tribe use them to hunt with, and then to fight off their rivals.

Jumping ahead in time by a few million years or so, we meet Dr Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), Chairman of the United States National Council of Astronautics, flying through space to visit Clavius Base, a US lunar outpost. During his flight he meets a group of Russian scientists who let him know that there are rumours quickly spreading that Clavius and its team are ‘incommunicado‘ (one of my favourite words, ever). Floyd refuses to confirm or deny the rumours, but when we watch him present in his team meeting he urges complete secrecy; that he’ll be travelling to a lunar crater to investigate a recently discovered artefact, buried in the surface four million years ago. As he and his crew land and approach the artefact – identical to the monkey tribe’s monolith – it’s hit by sunlight and lets out a high-pitched radio signal.

Skipping ahead by 18 months, the spacecraft Discovery One is bound for Jupiter. We slowly get to know scientists and crewmen Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), working alongside three other scientists kept in stasis, and the ship’s computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain), a HAL 9000 known for never, ever making a mistake.

One day, HAL lets Dave and Frank know that an external antenna is broken and will need fixing. Dave investigates, bringing it inside to find that there’s nothing wrong with it. HAL suggests going back outside to reattach it to fix the error, but when the men contact mission control they’re told that their twin HAL 9000 states that onboard-HAL is wrong…

Concerned that HAL is malfunctioning and may need turning off, Frank goes on a space walk to place the antenna back in place, only for HAL to disconnect his breathing tubes and set him afloat into the darkness. Shocked, Dave attempts to retrieve the body but while gone HAL turns off the life support machines for the other men onboard. As Dave approaches the ship, demanding to be let in with Frank’s body, HAL only replies, ‘I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that…‘, over and over again.

Sitting between the releases of director Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey was inspired by Kubrick’s love of and fascination with extraterrestrial life.

Filmed at England’s Shepperton Studios, the space was large enough for scenes shot of the monolith discovery and the opening sequence featuring our ape friends. Completely immersed in the world he was creating, Kubrick was involved in every decision made, from the shape and colour of the monolith to the colours and patterns used during Dave’s ‘Beyond the Infinite‘ flight sequence.

With an enormous (for the time) budget of $10 million, the film failed to make a profit during its initial release run (its successful re-release in 1971 made it so). At the time, 2001 polarised opinion; during the New York premiere, 250 people walked out. However, it’s reported that during the first few months of the film’s release, studio execs discovered that many audience members were getting high during their screenings to match the film’s high. This pushed the marketing team to print posters with the tagline ‘2001the ultimate trip!‘ Still, while some critics loved the film, others hated it, with one stating it places ‘somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring‘.

Whatever your own opinion might be, 2001: A Space Odyssey is now considered one of the greatest cinema achievements of the 20th century, regularly ranked in Top 10 lists across the globe.

Has it aged well?

Oh, 100%! It’s clear from the outset how influential 2001 has been on the science fiction genre, with it’s fantastical set pieces and models, incredibly inventive technology (moving, gravity-defying sets!) and jump cuts (looking at you, Star Wars).

I loved every minute of the ‘inside the space ship’ scenes, with its space coffee machines, space video calls, and space in-flight meals. In a way, Kubrick could see into the future and it was a joy to revel in what he thought would be the machines and inventions of the current day.

Looking into the making-of the film, there is just so much detail available online, so I would highly recommend giving it a read (there’s only so much I can fit in 1,000 words). But a special shoutout to the score, filled to the brim with classical pieces we all recognise. It gave me goosebumps.

Hindsight is 2020

I mean, looking at the cast list there’s not a single person of colour, from what I can see/remember. And the few female characters have maybe 10 lines shared between them?

With such a heavy focus on ‘white men in space’, 2001 has again influenced current space travel epics such as First Man, Ad Astra, Armageddon, etc. Hollywood loves to delve into the minds of men, in space, struggling with their emotions. Very meta.

Classy or classless classic?

Lucky for me, this is another stonker of a classic. I may not have understood the metaphorical, timey wimey ending (and definitely Googled it), but Kubrick was a film-making genius.

My Catching Up with Classics series returns in December with Die Hard.


One thought on “Catching Up with Classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  1. Pingback: The BFI Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All-Time 2022 Poll – Results Revealed! | critical popcorn

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