Film Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Must See

You don’t have to be a film buff to be aware of the film that Stanley Kubrick unleashed upon the world on April 2, 1968. Directed by Kubrick and written by himself and the author of the short story that inspired it Arthur C. Clarke, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ may have started out as a small seed in the form of the short story ‘The Sentinel’, but much like the evolution of the black monolith object in the story, its resonance swiftly grew and effectively changed/evolved mankind forever more. There was an existence before it’s arrival, and everything since.

In it’s purest and most simplistic premise, the story deals with the possibility of the evolution of Man being catalysed by unknown external forces, aspects of which are introduced from the outset with a group of the earliest primates waking up to find a new block on the block. One of the greatest cinematic segues later and Man is now meandering around outer space as a norm, and behold, a brand new block, or possibly the same one has been (re)discovered. What is to happen to Man? Is this the calling card of an Intergalactic Finishing School? Why has it returned now? Suffice to say, pretty much none of these questions and so much more won’t be answered, and that’s what contributes to it being one of the greatest (if not the greatest) movie of all time.

The movie deals with multiple subjects that are utterly timeless since Man became self aware. Evolution, existentialism, fears of technology, are we alone in the Universe and even though ‘The Sentinel’ was written in 1948, it’s quite pertinent to modern times in regards the use of artificial intelligence in our every day lives. It deals with topics that were old, new, in the present, in the future and the possibilities of what could be beyond, especially beyond our current spectrums of awareness.

Kubrick was renowned as a phenomenal creative force, with a hyper acute, fanatical attention to detail and profound expectation, aspiration for excellence. Deliberately or not, 50 years later it is very clear to see that he introduced the plurality of time coexisting as one in the actual creation of the film. Utilising traditional techniques, with ground breaking technology for it’s time, inventing technology and equipment, filming it in Super Panavision 70 (actually a 65mm negative) which to all extents future proofed it’s purity in quality of capturing the original image that was being passed through the lense. Because this was the era before CGI effects, it also captured the practical effects that actually happened on set, harking back to the earliest forms of theatre.

It was his obsessive perfectionism and intense level of attention to detail that contributed it becoming what is effectively a timeless piece of art. Admittedly the primate costumes haven’t aged too well, and it’s a great pity that the God of movement that is Andy Serkis wasn’t around at the time to portray the apes, but that is a dust speck on an otherwise flawless work, and if anything, such specks are what humanises what could have been a very sterile experience.

All this craft, mastery, ambition, genius and collaboration of the creative and performance forces of every single person involved in the movie contributed to a young kid, who after seeing it with his dad in a 70mm screening in Leicester Square, London, germinating his own career into the movie industry, then went on to contribute to the evolution and protection of film itself. That kid’s name is Christopher Nolan.

A hugely respected director in his own right, Nolan has always had a palpable awareness not only of the art of story telling, the quality of the work, but like Kubrick the importance of how the finished product is experienced to the viewer, ie not on a bloody iPhone. It is that understandable reverence to the beautiful subversive experience of cinema that he aspired to replicate the very same sensations he experienced as a child, but for a modern audience. It was quiet apt that it is also the 50th Anniversary of the film too.

Nolan in collaboration with Christiane Kubrick (Stanley’s widow), family and friends, worked tirelessly to create a new unrestored print from original 70mm negatives. This means it’s the purest and closest it could possibly be to the original print that Stanley would have overseen and presented to the world. In addition to that, Nolan has made sure that the screening experience of how the film was to be presented in the cinema auditorium was just as it had been back in 1968. And what an experience it is.

As mentioned above, there are aspects of this creation that genuinely transcend film. In many ways (and to it’s eternal credit) it raises more questions than it answers. There is bravado and confidence in that aspiration, and when it works, it’s sublime. There is who you are before seeing the movie, and who you are after. Admittedly it’s not for everyone, but you won’t know till you’ve seen/experienced it. And that is key to it all, this is more an experience that a straight forward movie.

From the moment you enter the auditorium, there are elements of the soundtrack that are playing in the dimly lit room. The screen curtains are drawn, a very simple touch that immediately creates expectation, the forthcoming great reveal. The music itself is quiet unnerving, taken from a certain point in the movie that itself is unsettling, but it all builds to a sense of unease, yet palpable excitement.

The music dissipates, the curtains drift open and the movie begins.

I had never seen a film in 70mm, never mind one of my favourite films of all time, so it was quite wonderfully overwhelming to my very over excited mind. To say it is gorgeous is a huge understatement, but it also initially caused slight unease. The reason being that given we live in a world of such technical purity and predominately digital projections, there is a tactile aspect to the film that is absent in most modern screenings. There are dust marks, blips, scratches and elements of general noise that are embedded in the negative in the initial sequences of the movie. My mind was itself sparking non stop as these slight impurities peppered the screen, and I got worried that I wasn’t going to enjoy this at all. But you swiftly acclimatise, and indeed, it only exists in the early segments.

Projecting into the world of 70mm is a truly beautiful sensation. There is a deep richness, an organic comforting, soothing texture, a embracing warmth and innate heritage that I’ve never experienced with any movie previously. I’ve seen this movie a great many times, and once in a restored digital screening that was magnificent, but this is a whole new galaxy of an experience and feels like I’d never seen it before. The detail is sublime, to the extent that you can quickly drift off into just admiring the minute moments, lighting, set design, models etc, which is somewhat encouraged by the lack of dialogue for great periods, and the mesmerising use of classical music throughout. If anything the movie deliberately encourages something akin to lucid dreaming.

It’s immediately apparent that this is indeed the ONLY way to see this movie, and that Kubrick and all the talent that helped create it knew this was the only way it should be seen, as they pro actively aimed for it. To an extent the movie was designed to be beyond our capacity, just like the arrival of the monolith itself. There is an awe, wonder, excitement and mild fear of the unknown, an unease that exists in any moment before a leap of faith. To truly ‘understand’ this movie it requires that leap, that trust. It was designed to take you on a journey, your own journey. It won’t tell you were it’s taking you, as it can’t. Everyone who sees it will have a different experience, and different explanation, if indeed there is one. It’s as though Kubrick and Clarke were aiming to replicate the shamanic rituals that are part of tribal cultures, where the ceremonies enable and encourage the transition of the youth into adulthood, awareness or enlightenment.

Despite all the overt levels of details, skill and intellect involved, this is by no means a ponderous movie at all. It is utterly gorgeous, mesmerising and awe inspiring in effectively every scene, but it’s also got some very lovely comedy moments in it too. They aren’t sign posted, but are there for the attentive. It also brings in a beautiful balance of purity and flaw, in that a movie about potentially the greatest questions we can ever ask, or have yet to ask, can still have a truly human moment where someone has lost their blue cashmere sweater.

10/10 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey (50th Anniversary Screening)’ presented in 70mm is screening at the BFI IMAX London and on selected release across the UK now, check local venues for details, or