Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review - 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Twenty years ago I would have a hard time finding a science fiction nerd who hadn't watched all of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Before I wrote this I made an unofficial poll of three fellow office nerds and none of them had watched the movie.

Which of course didn't mean that they weren't familiar with its iconic moments and scenes:

If that doesn't stir you then please get yourself to a mortician because you are probably dead.

The plot, for those of you who only know the film by its big moments, is that in the distant year of 2001 an alien artifact has been found on the moon. An artifact identical to it (perhaps even the same one) was present at the moment a primate started down the road to being a cro-magnon. Shortly after humans dug it up it transmitted a radio signal to Jupiter and so our first mission to Jupiter is sent with the intentions of finding what it transmitted to. Great secrecy surrounds the artifact and those secrets cause complications for the crew of that mission as the "infallible" AI cannot handle the secrets and works to eliminate the crew.

The movie is gently paced. A less charitable person than myself might say it was "slow and boring", but my feeling is that it misses a large point of the movie which was to capture the wonders of the early days of man stepping away from the Earth. So there's lots of extended shots of spacecraft over Strauss music and many shots of people working mundane jobs.

The real star of the film is the cinematography. Kubrick regardless of whatever else one might think of him was a master of crafting film images and 2001 is his masterpiece. The movie would be sparse on dialog if it was half its length so the imagery is left to captivate you. Perhaps the only place that it fails is in some of the alien landscapes toward the end, but so much else has been right up to that point that I can forgive some then experimental photography that didn't work.

Arthur C. Clarke helped write the screenplay as he was writing the book which means that they are more closely related than most adaptations and that leads to some real arguments over which is better. I tend to come down on the side of the movie since I enjoy Kubrick's cinematography and think that the less blunt approach with the story is better, but I know many people who prefer the book for the more coherent ending.

The man I feel most sorry for in 2001 is Alex North. If you're not familiar with the name he is a film composer and was commissioned to write a score for the film. However when the editting was done the temporary score consisting of classical music was so powerful that it remained and North's score was discarded without informing him. Regardless of how good his score was it could not compete with "Also sprach Zarathustra" (a fine piece of music that now has the misfortune of being permanently tied to the movie).

It's kind of popular for picking on 2001's optimistic hopes for just a 33-year jump but they weren't that optimistic at the time. Kubrick didn't foresee the implosion of space exploration that occurred once the moon race had been won and forty years took use from the Wright brothers to the air war of World War II. So a handful of explorers in tin cans to people living and working in space doesn't seem that implausible in that gap.

2001: A Space Odyssey has a well deserved reputation for being a classic. It features some of the most powerful images ever used in a science fiction film. Used in any film period, really. It pulls you along through to the boggling ending. There's only one more place I have to go:

My god, it's full of stars.