2001: A Space Odyssey is a cinematic masterpiece, and when you look at lists of best Science Fiction films or indeed the best films of history it is near, or indeed at the top. However, even though I am a fan of Science Fiction and of innovative filmmaking, this is one film I had actually never gotten to see myself because it is one of those classics that just was never played on TV when I was growing up. However, this week I was given the opportunity to go see a wonderful live performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey put on by the Queensland Symphonic Orchestra, as part of World Science Week Brisbane. So after finally getting to see a masterpiece of cinema I thought it would be a good idea to look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film, its legacy, and how well it holds up today.
There is a reason people place this high on their best films lists, and that is because it truly is one of the icons of cinema. You know people throw the word ‘iconic’ around a lot, so much so that it has started to lose its meaning in many regards, however, you can’t help but use the word iconic when describing 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now we have to remember that 2001 came out in cinemas in 1968, it will be 50 years old next year, and still so much of it holds up after all that time. There is a level of detail in this film that you just don’t see very often these days, and we see that in the meticulously constructed sets. Take the orbital space station, the way the set is curved to give the impression of a rotating space station which is part of the movies, show don’t tell philosophy. Even the chairs bring something to the scene, they pop out from their surroundings yet also locate the film in its futuristic setting. We see this with Discovery One, the spaceship they use on the trip to Jupiter, and the Aries Ib transport. There is something tangible about the sets, they feel real, they feel lived in and functional, which is a real achievement.
We can’t talk about 2001: A Space Odyssey without talking of the visionary direction of Stanley Kubrick and the fascinating cinematography that is still as mesmerising today as it was in 1968. There is one thing to intellectually know that the sets are on built on centrifuges, but seeing it you marvel at just how in the world did they get that shot. From the flight attendant walking up the side of the wall to get to a different compartment, or how one of the crew goes for a jog seamlessly throughout the ship, it is one of the most impressive scenes I have ever seen but on film. It would be a technical achievement to pull that off today but to imagine getting it to work in 1968 is phenomenal. Or how they work in the technical limitations of showing zero-g whilst filming on Earth. For example, all the flight attendants are wearing covers over their hair, which of course means you don’t have to work out how to make hair react like it is in zero-g, but also it is a practical thing that people use in space to stop hair going everywhere. Another area is the special effects and sure a lot of them might not hold up today fifty years later, but the ending stargate sequence is extraordinary especially considering the time it was made. Physically manipulating the film to get those effects is something we don’t have to do any more thanks to computers but when it is done as well as this, well it simply shines.
An area you have to talk about is 2001: A Space Odyssey’s music for unlike films of the time, or indeed today, most of the film is actually unscored and when music is there it is usually classical compositions. Now this is something was probably highlighted by the fact that I saw the score performed live, and at this point, I have to give complete and utter praise for the Queensland Symphonic Orchestra for their wonderful performance. However, when you think about how iconic the music is, indeed when you listen to The Blue Danube or Also sprach Zarathustra it immediately draws you back into those moments of the film, it’s surprising to realise none of it is new. But it is this use of silence that highlights the music when it is there, and it is a powerful narrative technique to draw the audience into the scene, of course silence is also used during the films more climatic sequences which once again gives them a lot more power than they would have had otherwise. This technique also highlights the ambient sound like breathing into a space suit, which makes those moments feel most claustrophobic than they would have been otherwise.
Now we can’t talk about 2001: A Space Odyssey without talking about the impact it has made on both the Science Fiction genre and filmmaking in general. On the one hand you can’t deny the impact 2001: A Space Odyssey has had on the pop culture sphere with references from Mass Effect to Community, to Cowboy Bebop, to the Simpsons who have parodied just about every aspect of the film during its twenty-eight season run, indeed these are only scratching the surface of the parodies, tributes, homages that have been made over the years. However, what struck me more when watching the film was the extent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s DNA we see in films today. Take for example last year’s really quite fantastic Arrival, we see that similar use of no music and amplified ambient sounds to create that feeling of claustrophobia inside space suits and to increase tension. In The Martian, we see that DNA in the construction of Aries 1 from nods in the design of the ship but also in the construction and filming of the interior sets. You see it in the use of music in films, how zero-g is filmed like in Inception, even down to the way people think about AIs in the modern world has been shaped by 2001: A Space Odyssey. There have been many Science Fiction films made in the world but I doubt any have had the same cultural impact, and indeed impact of filmmaking than 2001: A Space Odyssey has.
One of the interesting things is to look at how well 2001: A Space Odyssey holds up today, given that it is this amazing work of fiction hovering over the genre and the industry in general. One thing is clear is that I think you would have struggled to get the film made today given how severely risk adverse the industry has gotten in recent years. Could you imagine Kubrick trying to pitch this to a modern film studio executive, ‘and the first fifteen minutes is prehistoric human ancestors learning to kill each other while a monolith watches on’ you would have had to have made a billion dollar profit with your last film to try and get financing for that. As well as this, I think it is a film that might be difficult for modern audiences to engage with because of its pacing. Many movies today feel the need to cut every second or indeed multiple times a second … Resident Evil … and one of 2001: A Space Odyssey highlights is its amazing long single takes. However, the issue is more pacing with the entire film, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a slow build, even by slow build standards. It takes such a long time to get onto the ship to Jupiter that once they are there it feels almost like there is a rush to the end. Finally, the big thing I noticed about 2001: A Space Odyssey, that dates it more than its Pan Am product placement, and that is the entire cast is white. Now there is a chance I missed something, but from what I saw even the supporting cast and extras were all white. This is one area where 2001: A Space Odyssey really does not age well, and it also is an interesting reminder of just how far we have come since 1968, and how far we still have to go.
So, in the end, what can we say about 2001: A Space Odyssey, well firstly if you get the chance to see the Queensland Symphonic Orchestra because they were amazing. But also if you are like me and you know a lot about 2001: A Space Odyssey but have never seen the movie itself then make the time to give it a watch. Not only to see the impacts it has had on the industry but also to see one of the greatest films ever created.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by – Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
Based on – The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke
Cinematography by – Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by – Ray Lovejoy
Starring – Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain & Daniel Richter
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: 15; USA: R