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How to approach 2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“I don’t really get it, but I can tell it’s a movie for grown-ups”.

That’s what I thought of 2001 back in 1968 at the Glendale Cinerama. Sure, along with most young boys of the era I was into the space hardware, but there was something else about the movie that I’ve found eerily compelling to this day. Maybe it was the silence, the emptiness of the sets, the stark art direction or just the sheer deliberateness of it all. As a result, it has become one of my favorite films, so I thought I’d share with you some ideas that can help the average filmgoer to appreciate a movie that at first two-and-a-half-hour glance, appears quite boring and indulgent.

  1. Approach it as an essay, not a movie. Think. If you want to go to a movie without thinking that night (don’t we all), avoid this one.
  2. Kubrick and Clarke wanted to make a film about humanity’s first contact with extra-terrestrials. That’s what this movie is all about. It turns out that it’s actually about humanity’s first and second contact with extra-terrestrials, I suppose.
  3. Imagine how real adults (or your parents) would react to these situations. They wouldn’t react like Superman, Bruce Willis or Captain Kirk. They’d react like your colleagues, your teachers, your managers or University Professors. This explains why the dialogue isn’t dramatic, or actiony. If you’ve been in the corporate world, it might make more sense. As for Bowman and Poole, Doug Trumbull stated that the characters were supposed to be very cool under pressure, not suppressing wild emotions but simply being naturally calm. It would take a lot for these guys to get emotional. Though killing one of your best friends (or seeing the other one killed) might do it.
  4. Just about all other portrayals of extra-terrestrial life have been anthropomorphized, grounded in our reality or extrapolated on previous fictional incarnations. Now when we recall the big black monolith with the accompanying Ligeti music, we might think “what the hell?” This is exactly the point, and Kubrick was not being random and indulgent. Any serious portrayal of an extra-terrestrial life-form, millennia beyond us, is quite likely to be so beyond us that we have no frame of reference with which to apprehend it. In other words, Kubrick’s portrayal is just as valid as any other portrayal that doesn’t elicit a “what the hell?” response.
  5. Place this movie in context with the science fiction movies of the sixties.
  6. Sure, there are some things in the stargate sequence that might not work. But reconsider points #3 and #4 in this context.
  7. See it on Blu-Ray or 70mm in a theatre.
  8. A lot of things that would be played up are underplayed in this movie. For example, note that Dr. Floyd is alone on two undoubtedly expensive charter space flights. Why? How would an action movie play this up? Would it be realistic? Grown-up?
  9. SPOILER: The story is very simple: Early humans live hard life. Alien artifact appears, teaches them how to use tools, sets early humans on path to civilization, for better or worse. Jump cut – ancient weapon to modern weapon. Future guy involved in a bit of hush-hush. Turns out we’ve found another monolith on the moon. It sends out a signal when the sun hits it, like a burglar alarm, and we’re the burglar. Dave and Frank follow the signal to Jupiter, wacky mixups ensue. Dave goes it alone, gets taken on wacky alien ride and ends up in alien zoo. Aliens speed up his life and remake him into a new life form.
  10. Look at the weird parts of the story with point #1 in mind. What might really happen if we met extraterrestrials …? Now try to imagine it again, without thinking of every other way that such an encounter has been portrayed in science fiction.

Two friends of mine aren’t into jazz: one said she “hates jazz” and the other just said he “doesn’t get it”. It’s the same for 2001: A Space Odyssey: I’d take the latter opinion over the former. In the end, if someone just doesn’t get it, that’s fine.

But I had to try.

(Here’s Roger Ebert’s review, if You’re interested.)

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