30 July 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick) may have made monkeys out of every film critic and science fiction super-fan on earth. Regularly touted, alongside Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, as the greatest science fiction film ever committed to celluloid, Kubrick and Clarke’s meditation on space, humanity, and large shiny monoliths divides audiences even as it baffles them.

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Released in spring 1968 as the most expensive science fiction film ever made, and as a major prestige picture for MGM studios, 2001 at first seemed destined to flop. Derided by many critics as ‘pretentious’, ‘obscure’ and ‘boring’, the film appealed to the kind of audience Kubrick and MGM perhaps did not expect; young people, particularly college students who were fast becoming a force for change in American society. The older, intellectual vanguard were split between those who found the whole thing grand and hollow, and those who saw within it something majestic, even superhuman.

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Three distinct phases occur within the film. In the first, the birth of human technological reasoning is presented, as one tribe of apes conduct a warring raid on another’s territory. An ape uses a bone to bash another’s skull in; the first great leap forward is presented in eminently believable terms, but the presence of a mysterious monolith suggests that mankind’s earliest evolution has in some way been influenced by an outside force. In the two segments that follow the monolith reaches out again, first to a group of astronauts following a magnetic reading to the moon, then to one David Bowman, in the longest, and most perplexing section.

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What does it all mean? There are numerous ‘readings’ of 2001; many are based in religious terms (see Arthur C. Clarke’s brief comments here, some revolve around technology and it’s impact on mankind (a staple of Clarke’s literature before and after), and many just treat it as it’s altered tagline ran, The Ultimate Trip. The film’s plot is frustratingly oblique; but then what would you expect from a film that discusses huge issues of the cosmos and the evolution of man? Perhaps no film has ever been as ambitious, nor, from some people’s perspective, as successful at creating a kind of spectacle that is almost ‘above’ our ken.

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This is turn invites the argument that Kubrick and Clarke had no idea what they were writing, nor what they were trying to say, which in turn poses all sorts of religious questions about predestination, if you happen to be of that persuasion.

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Perhaps 2001’s most crucial characteristic is that, like Ulysses or Kubrick’s later classic The Shining, it creates in itself the capacity for so much debate, and so much soul-searching. Compared to the other suggestions offered on the Public Choice voting page, 2001 offers perhaps the greatest spectacle.

\r\n It all depends on your point of view.