The late 60s were quite the era for game-changing “dramatic presentations;” first Star Trek, now 2001, a fantastic classic. I bought this film on Blu-ray and watched it for this project, and I can attest that it holds up as a brilliant and haunting spectacle. There’s no question that this is one of my favorite films, though its long dialogue-free scenes keep it from being a particularly accessible film (there is no dialogue for the first half-hour).
Based on a short story by sf legend Arthur C. Clarke (and later expanded into a novelization with 3 sequels), 2001 takes place in the distant future year of 2001 AD. There are two main threads. 1) There’s an alien black monolith that seems to have played a role in shaping human evolution. The film begins at the “dawn of man” and shows several apelike creatures learning to use tools after interacting with the monolith. Later, in that futuristic space age future of 2001 AD, humans investigate another monolith that they have uncovered on the lunar surface. 2) the spaceship Discovery makes a long trip to Jupiter to investigate yet another monolith. Along the way, they experience problems with their artificially intelligent shipboard computer, HAL 9000.
2001 is all about visual spectacle. It was originally shown in Cinerama, a giant wraparound format using multiple projectors that was designed to differentiate the theater-going experience from the increasingly dominant television. The use of color is brilliant. The special effects are fantastic and hold-up next to anything produced for at least the next 10 years. I’m usually not a fan of the psychedelic, but the surreal final sequence really is sublime, even if you’re not high. 2001 is also the first real entrance of hard sf onto the silver-screen. Kubrick, Clarke and the producers attempted to remain as accurate as possible in their depiction of near-future space age technology (the vacuum of space is actually silent – an obvious but rarely seen point of accuracy). Obviously, as futurism, the film fails. But it’s still one of the realest visions of the future you’ll see. And, there’s no denying this films influence on everything from the look of the startships of Star Wars to the claustrophobic feeling of Alien, not to mention the dozens of parodies of the opening sequence or HAL that have appeared over the years.
Things do move slowly, and Kurbick’s not afraid to let scenes unfold for minutes and minutes within almost total silence (though usually there’s a relaxed piece of classical music playing on the soundtrack). The film is designed for the viewer to sit back and drink in the spectacle (or feel a maddening sense of tension in some of the later scenes). If you’re not prepared for that, you may very well hate this film. If you are patient though, it’s an amazing experience.