During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
Like so many fans of film, I consider myself a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s work. Whereas many of the films on this list thus far have been described as varying degrees of “fun”, Kubrick’s movies are rarely anything of the sort. I have looked forward to rewatching his work and seeing his movies with fresher eyes or hearing what Diane has to say as she has only seen “The Shining”. Perhaps most of all, I had looked forward to seeing 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, a Kubrick film I always managed to miss. After seeing it though, it is now my least favorite example of his work.
Some of you may recall that I enjoy reading science fiction novels. Though I have slowed dramatically in recent years, when I was a teenager, I swore I would read every Hugo Award winner for Best Novel. As such, Arthur C. Clarke (the film’s co-writer and the writer of the short story that inspired it) is not an unfamiliar name to me and I could feel his fingerprints, and the fingerprints of the sci-fi genre at the time, all over “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Married with Kubrick’s vision and imagery, it should’ve been a hit for me, but I felt even more adrift than any of the film’s many spaceships.
Since the film’s release, the only thing I knew about it was an astronaut named Dave who has to contend in some way with an artificial intelligence named HAL. Unfortunately, the peak of their conflict occurs in the back half of the film and encompasses all of about five minutes. For a film that wants to flirt with things beyond human comprehension, it spends its precious few lines of dialogue humanizing a malfunctioning AI, makes him a fixture of pop culture history forever, and instantly jets off to a literal kaleidoscope of psychedelic imagery that has not aged well.
It’s all a shame too because so much of “2001” is timeless in its execution despite being a reflection of a future of buttons and vending machines and stewardesses. The depiction of early man as yet-to-be evolved apes visited by a strange alien monolith and discovering how to make weapons was strange but a startling way to open. From there, we move to the best retro-future vision ever set to film (this is a positive: I love the future as mankind saw it in the 50’s and 60’s).
In discussing the film afterward for this review, I realized “2001: A Space Odyssey” seemed to me to be a past generation’s “The Matrix” or even “Inception”. Kubrick threw out every script we have seen before on this list and gave us all a wholly unique vision. One of the best things about older movies is I get to say, “How the hell did they do that?” For the first two acts of “2001”, I never stopped asking that question.
Unfortunately, with so much of the philosophy of the film wrapped up in depicting, but not showing, extraterrestrials too incomprehensible to show, I am reminded only of the acid burnout stories that plague so many classic science fiction writers I have read. While neat in idea and likely revolutionary and inspirational for the time, “2001: A Space Odyssey” fell victim to smoking its own self-image, a hallucinogenic thing short on substance. To me, as technically amazing and truly brave as this film was, it felt more akin to something like “Cloud Atlas” with a lot to say and no real way of saying it that felt impactful.
None of this is to say “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a bad film. It is not. It was revolutionary, but as necessary as revolutions are, I’d never ask to live in the middle of one. It would be unfair to say that I was not let down at least somewhat by what I perceived the film to be before seeing it. I expected a horror film, better than “The Shining”, about man versus machine. As I said before, that part of the film, as memorable and terrifying and tense as it was, was also too brief. The bulk of the film is spent on a soundscape both pretentious and genius, that conveys the uncaring nature of space, and fills the rest with equally uncaring humans pretending their way to an unknowable enlightenment for the benefit of no one.
Art at its best and its worse, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is an experience worth having once.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.