There are events in life that are so momentous that once they occur, the world is forever changed. The release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction magnum opus, was one such event. In the space of two hours and twenty eight minutes, Stanley Kubrick changed the way we looked at science fiction, special effects, the use of music in film, and even the way stories are told. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in short, both the greatest and most important motion picture ever made.
Stanley Kubrick was a restless filmmaker. He jumped from genre to genre, rarely touching the same ground twice. When he set his sights upon science fiction, he did not like what he saw. Wave upon wave of b-movies that were essentially fantasy flicks that took place in space. There were a few good movies, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, but the science was in no way solid. Meanwhile, science fiction literature of the period was rich with stories that combined both great storytelling with credible science (often referred to as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction). Stanley Kubrick saw this discrepancy and decided to close the gap.
2001: A Space Odyssey advanced the art of filmmaking and storytelling in a way that almost no film before or since has done. Compositionally, Kubrick astounded his audiences with meticulously framed and visually dense shots that no prior film in his oeuvre would have suggested. The wide vistas of Africa, the vast blankness of space, they all come to life in magnificent 70mm. But Kubrick was not just painting pretty pictures. Through his use of editing, Kubrick changed the very language of film.
Take, for example, the famous shot where an ape, having been intellectually enhanced by coming into contact with a mysterious Monolith, throws a bone, man's first weapon, high into the air. As it comes back down, the film cuts to an arms satellite that orbits the earth, millions of years in the future. What a loaded cut! It can be taken in so many ways. First, it shows a direct path from the revelations of the Monolith straight through to our latest and most advanced technological achievements. It also suggests that for all the countless years that have passed, perhaps mankind has not evolved very far at all. This is just one point where Kubrick's visual style conveyed a series of layered meanings to the audience.
One of the great things about the film is that there is very little in the way of explanation for what we're seeing on screen. Most of the dialogue sits on the surface, dealing with mundane details. The characters themselves don't understand the significance of what they're experiencing. Even Dave, the astronaut played by Keir Dullea, has no comprehension of the journey, the odyssey on which he has embarked, until the very end. Kubrick intentionally left the film open to interpretation, which is what has allowed it such malleability that it remains popular even to this day.
The special effects in the film are astounding. 2001 was and in many ways still is a benchmark for visual effects. Kubrick's attention to detail and accuracy are to thank here. He and Arthur C. Clarke visited NASA and used their research to extrapolate how space travel would work and grow. The result is that quite often, the film stays true to actual physics, giving it an extra level of authenticity. It's done so well that watching it today, it feels completely natural. Most people forget that the film was made before the first moon landing, and before much about space travel was known. The fact that it feels authentic is a testament to the work Kubrick and his team put into it.
The use of music is equally important. Kubrick commissioned a score, but abandoned it when the temp score he used for editing worked perfectly for his purposes. Of course, there's the famous use of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" during the main and end titles, as well as the "Blue Danube" during the space docking sequence (also known as the "Space Waltz" for obvious reasons). At the time, with the exception of a few rare films by filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, movie music was used either incidentally or to punctuate the action occurring on screen. Stanley Kubrick broke those conventions through his use of music, making the score independent of the action on screen, and not emanating from something in the actual film, such as a jukebox. This had the result of allowing the audience to free associate how the music related to the visual content. Not only that, but Kubrick used pieces by the experimental composer Gyorgy Ligeti, especially for the "Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite" sequence. Now, consider that this was a massive production by a major movie studio. The fact that such compositions were able to make it into the film is nothing short of miraculous, and points to the sheer clout Kubrick wielded by that point.
All of these elements and more make 2001: A Space Odyssey the enduring masterpiece that it is. It's conceptual thrust is literally cosmic in nature, tracing man's evolution from prehistoric to, as the title card says, "beyond the infinite." The film's layers of meaning build one upon the other, bouncing off each other and reflecting upon each other, creating an organic experience that is never the same twice, and will never be replicated. 2001: A Space Odyssey is beautiful, daring, intelligent, and transcendent. It's a true work of art, of which there are too few in cinema. If someone who never had any experience with culture asked me to give him a single example of each art form that would justify the entire medium to him, my choice for film would undoubtedly be 2001. Such is the power, the sheer undeniable creative energy that the movie holds. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't just a motion picture, it's an experience, a vital cultural milestone that continues to marvel and inspire generation after generation.
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