OK, feet up, sit comfortably, get yourself a drink, this is going to be a long one!
I will preface this review with a bold statement. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is in my opinion, the greatest sci-fi work ever commited to celluloid. These words may very well ruffle a few feathers out there, but I will try to explain in the following (completely inadequate) sentences exactly why I feel this way. If this statement already has you sweaty and red-faced, I suggest you stop reading now, as this review may very well come across as no more than passionate ramblings of a rabid fanboy.
How exactly do you begin to review a movie which is still causing debate 40 years on? A movie which leaves so much open to personal interpretation? A movie which encompasses such themes as Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Consciousness, human evolution, alien life and the relationship between Man and his technological tools? A movie which draws parallels to Nietzsche's incredibly deep and complex "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"? A movie which has been endlesly parodied, referenced and studied? It is for this reason I believe that there are not yet any reviews for 2001 on WTM, it is a challenging movie to write about. I say this humbly and without arrogance, as I have no doubt in my mind that this review will not even begin to touch on many of the things that people love or hate about the quintessential sci-fi movie. It is also for this reason that this review will certainly be very long :)
I will not try to explain the plot, as to not spoil anything for the few people that have not yet experienced this movie. I am sure a more gifted writer than myself can tackle an additional plot synopsis, this review is long enough already :)
To review the movie itself, I guess it is easiest to start on the tactile, easily observed cinematic elements, such as the visuals and sound. This is especially important when considering this film as Kubrick sought to tell a story in purely visual terms, something which his masterful touch seemed to handle effortlessly.
The models of the spacecraft still look incredibly realistic, stylistic, and detailed, far surpassing the digital fakery of today's standard computer models. The sets on Earth at the start of the Dawn of Man Act - while technically crude - are still extremely beautiful, and the recent BluRay release shows the 70mm print can still impress with sublime colours and incredible projected vistas. The set built for the Discovery One is, in a word, flawless. A giant rotating centrifuge was built enabling the crew to appear to traverse the entire circumference, upside down to a static camera. In this environment, Kubrick's mix of static shots and his trademark dolly tracking do a perfect job in fully realising the scenario, and look totally believable, you fully believe this is a world of false gravity caused by centrifugal force.
Glimpses of other craft reveal Kubrick's flair for interior design, with retro 60's chic chairs and tables, and bright colours. The world of 2001 appears sterile while managing to remain stylistic and avoid being cliche sci-fi - no mean feat in itself. The incredible vista's of space are also jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the zero-g flight of initial protagonist Dr Heywood Floyd is entirely believable.
The science behind the film is very plausible too, and while much of this can be attributed to Arthur C Clarke's intellect, directorial choices made show that Kubrick was more than capable of understanding the consequences and situtions of space travel. Take for example a now famous scene, where astronaut Dave Bowman blows the pod bay doors. A lesser director may have been tempted to include a dramatic explosive noise to accompany the gaseous blast on screen. Kubrick wisely opted for a completely silent explosion, in contrast to the violent thrashings you are seeing, aware of the consequences of the vacuum of space. The entirely plausible and believable science is another factor that raises this above most sci-fi.
Next up is the sound and music of the movie, which given the minimal-dialogue approach Kubrick took, is incredibly important in a film of such epic proportions. The music, subtly applied, is suitably grandiose, using to great effect classical pieces such as Johann Strauss' Blue Danube (in a balletic zero G environment) and Also Sprach Zarathustra, another reference to Nietzsche's works. The unsettling choral chants will make you squirm in your seats every time "The Monoloith" is revealed. In terms of ambience, much of the film is very subtly enveloped in a gentle hum of the Discovery One, perforated by the gentle voices of Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman) and Douglas Rain (the now iconic voice of the HAL9000 computer). Spacewalk and vacuum scenes are kept deliberately claustrophic with only the sounds of Dr Bowman's breathing apparatus. In my opinion the minimal approach to sound, music and dialogue is another mood-affecting example of the artistic genius of this movie.
To review the movie, I also feel it is prudent to mention Arthur C Clarke's novel, written simultaneously. While the book is an excellent sci-f novel, it approaches the subject matter in a completely different way. As is fairly typical for Clarke and other excellent sci-fi authors, he offers up explanations for the reader, while Kubrick opts to works with the thematic elements of the story in a purely visual way, leaving the main plot and themes open for discussion and interpretation. If another director took a hold of the book, I am sure it would have been an average movie, in much the same way as the *ahem* sequel 2010 was, however Kubrick took it to another level and made it his own. To flagrantly steal one of Kubrick's own quotes:
"You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film — and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level — but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point"
It is this air of enigma, of thought provocation and uncertainty that Kubrick handles so deftly, and further raises the sci-fi bar (or should I say h-bar? - joke for fellow physics nerds included gratis :) ) . Handled badly, the movie could have been a confusing mess, but in Kubrick's expert hands the film is delicately balanced between the known and the unknown, and the strong themes suggest more and more to you with every viewing.
Arguably the most significant and apparent theme is one of mankind's evolution. At key stages of the film, a matte black monolith appears, and in some way coincides with a step forward in evolution. When the primitive apes in the Dawn Of Man act see the monolith, an ape learns how to use a bone as a weapon/tool, giving him an advantage over rival primates. Did the monolith trigger the step forward? Or was it there to signal to an alien intelligence that life had made a step forward on Earth? As the bone is thrown upwards to the sky, one of the most famous match-cuts in history shows a leap forward thousands of years to a nuclear weapons launcher orbiting the Earth, another "tool" of mankind. Again, another monolith appears on the moon, apparently buried thousands of years earlier by an unknown force. Mankind touches the monolith and is painfully deafened. Was this a way of showing mankind was not ready for the next step in evolution? Or was the evolution now in Man's tools - the now intelligent, conscious HAL9000 computer? The monolith is next revealed to Dr David Bowman in the final act. Dave symbolically sheds the use of his tools by shutting down HAL, and is thrown into the huge monolith, and begins his famous psychadelic evolutionary transformation into the starchild. Was the monolith ready to reveal the next step to Mankind now he had shed his use for technology? Were intelligent lifeforms showing us the way or were they merely observing through the monolith our self-provoked evolution to children of the stars?
It is not explained, merely left up to you to decide, which is the stunning beauty of this movie. The film is an experience like no other, and it's magic lies in its unexplained philosophy. If a new memoir of Stanley Kubrick's were found tomorrow, which totally explained every point in the film, I would try my utmost not to read it, and I would urge all of you to approach this movie in the same way. Watch it, experience it, think about it, talk about it with others, and watch it again.
If you have read this far I would like to thank you for your patience and perseverance. Please leave a shout below or on my profile if you agree or disagree with anything I have said, I love to discuss this movie and would appreciate your opinions.
I feel I have touched but 1/1000000th of the scale and ideas of this movie, and would love to hear other's reviews. Now, go rest your eyes and take a break from the screen, sorry to take up so much of your time :)