2001: A Space Odyssey (****)

Posted on December 3rd, 2002 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I’m astonished at the number of negative responses I’ve heard from people regarding this film. “Slow”, “Unemotional”, “Bad effects”, “Doesn’t make sense”, “Nothing happens”, etc. For those who “don’t get it”, a primer:

Slow: Movement in space takes a very long time. Astrophysics demands slow, controlled movement, which Kubrick deftly depicts. The pod return scene takes a long time; thoughtful viewers realize the astronaut is dying, and feel tension.

Unemotional: The primary characters are astronauts, who necessarily have steely nerves. Watch Dave control his anguish over his dying friend in the pod return scene. Notice the same thing when he discovers the rest of the crew have been killed by HAL while in stasis. Notice the cold-blooded, murderous efficiency with which Dave decommissions HAL, and notice the heartbreaking decay of HAL and his impassioned (for a computer) pleas to spare his ‘life’.

Effects: These effects still surpass those being done today. Flashier? Louder? No. Technically, visually, scientifically perfect? Yes. Check out the vehicle that transports Dr. Floyd to the Moon…it’s basically a prototype for the Space Shuttle which appeared over a decade later.

Doesn’t make sense: When the ape-man uses the bone as a tool, then tosses it in the air, we flash forward to a spacecraft. The genius of this is that it indicates that once ape-man learned to use tools, it was a straightforward progression to developing a space station. The meaning, purpose, and nature of the monolith are *supposed* to be unknown (and probably unknowable), to illustrate the feebleness of man’s quest to understand the true nature of existence.

Nothing happens: Um, only the evolution of man to the next level of existence (which during the final scenes, is as incomprehensible to us as our world would be to a prehistoric ape-man).

You were expecting what? Car crashes? Sound traveling through (airless) space? Histrionic astronauts? Klingon cloaking devices? Aliens gestating in stomachs? Cute, engaging robot sidekicks? Cliff’s Notes?

Slow and deep does not equal boring and ponderous. In the early stages of the film we see primitive ape-men living a precarious life, barely subsisting and in danger of losing their watering hole to a neighboring tribe/clan/group. The monolith appears and the members of our group touch the monolith in a very inscrutable scene. What’s happening? Why is it happening? What does it mean? The mystery is partially solved when we see one member of the clan idly playing with a bone. As he plays with it, it dawns on him that he could use the bone to hunt the wild pigs that live in the area. The next thing we see is our group of ape-men, looking a little fatter, and the bones of a few more pigs littering the ground.

So, apparently, the monolith has provided this group of ape-men with a heightened sense of logic and reason, through mechanisms unknown. That is, in and of itself, deep commentary on the nature of man and god. But what happens next is even more disturbing. After getting fatter and stronger by using his newfound technique, our protagonist-ape then faces off with his rivals at the watering hole. And uses his newfound learnings to kill the leader of the rival tribe and claim the watering hole. This speaks even more deeply to the nature of man, in that when ape-man acquires knowledge, he first uses it for good (survival) and then for evil (to kill).

There are some who say that they get all these deeper meanings, but still don’t care for the film. For them, I offer my condolences that this film does not bring as much awe and wonder into their lives at it does to mine. There are others (many others, in my experience) who have given up on this film halfway through, and never experienced the entire arc of the story. I would encourage these people to try it again with an open mind and no pressing distractions.

And then there are those who will someday see this film for the first time. I envy you that experience. See it on the big screen, if at all possible. If not, watch it in widescreen with no commercials. Pan and scan will obscure the glorious cinematography, and commercials will jar you out of the funky, contemplative state this movie induces. Enjoy.

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