Science fiction and fantasy                                            

2001: A Space Odyssey

directed by Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey poster  
There's a fine line between being enigmatic and being incomprehensible. Stanley Kubrick skirts that line by doing without a narrator to explain 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead he favours uncluttered and often quiet scenes that allow viewers to work things out for themselves.

The first section of the film is entitled "Dawn of Man", and it follows a group of man-apes who huddle together and try to scratch out a living. They're in danger from leopards and in competition with other groups of monkeys. They're supposed to be our ancestors, although they do look too large to be anything other than people in monkey suits. When a curiously regular monolith arrives, smooth and black in sharp contrast with everything that would have been seen on Earth before, everything changes. Their consciousness is awakened as they take the first steps towards civilisation.

The film uses music to great effect, the mix of classical music and the signature theme enhancing the story. The story cuts abruptly forward into the space age, where Dr Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is travelling to the moon. Floyd himself isn't the most captivating of characters, but he certainly travels in style. The spacecraft and space station is clean, white and shiny, containing a mass of technology. Of course video phone-links and voice identification aren't as impressive today as they were in 1968, but the message is clear: look how far mankind has evolved. The film lingers on the movements of the spacecraft, and within it, a smooth and precise dance to the tune of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz.

Dr Floyd's mission to the moon is top-secret, an investigation of a magnetic anomaly that was buried on the moon in the distant past. The monolith emits screeches and beeps that are unpleasant to listen to, so it's not a bad idea to watch this part with a finger on the mute button.

18 months later, a mission to Jupiter is under way in a similarly white and shiny spaceship. The ship is run by a Hal 9000 computer, an incredibly advanced machine with a certain kind of artificial intelligence. Although Hal doesn't have a face, the red dot of his all-seeing camera projects a subtle menace that complements the tone of his too-calm voice.

By modern standards 2001: A Space Odyssey seems quite slow-paced, perhaps because space travel is less extraordinary than it was in the late 60s, so the details of it are no longer a novelty. That said, this movie is still full of suspense, as Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) struggles on in the isolation and danger of deep space.

The movie ends in a very atmospheric way, without going a long way towards explaining what has happened. For anyone who finds the film baffling there's always the book, which explains the events far better than this movie does, even though the stories differ in a few of their details.

This film tends to be a little ponderous, arty, and under-explained. But its best scenes are iconic, and the restrained use of music can be very moving. Even though the characters don't stand out as individuals their stories are compelling. Apart from being an astronaut Dave Bowman could be anyone, and in a way he stands for the whole of the human race. This strange, thoughtful movie is both uplifting and entertaining, and still makes rewarding viewing.

Film Details

Decade: 1960s

Categories: Films

  Kids     Science fiction

Classification: U

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson