Why 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made
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30 May 2017 - 9:12 AM  UPDATED 30 May 2017 - 9:12 AM

It’s impossible to exaggerate how overwhelming a first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey was to a young teenage mind the year it came out, in 1968. To be unashamedly personal, it was the film that, more than any other, set this viewer on the path that led to full-blown cinema love, the first film that blew me away with its mysteries and power and extraordinary use of music and unanswered questions. It was also the first time post-Walt Disney I became aware of the name of an individual filmmaker - director Stanley Kubrick - and started to wonder how that person might be able to orchestrate many different elements to create something unique and haunting.

Many older, established film critics at the time found the film’s unconventional approach to storytelling strange and frustrating, its approach to character rule-breaking to the point of alienation (there is no protagonist in the usual sense, and we don't really get to know anybody other than the computer HAL 9000). But the younger, baby-boomer audience weren’t worried by these literal-minded concerns; they flocked to the movie and embraced its metaphysical questing with enthusiasm.

Today the film’s status as one of the greatest movies made within the Hollywood system (or outside, for that matter) appears relatively secure, which is not say 2001 lacks nay-sayers. Members of later generations who had never seen it in the original 70mm widescreen cinema format, but instead via the claustrophobic confines of old-school, square-shaped tellies, often complained it was “over-rated” or marginally less vaguely, “too slow.”

This was surely, at least partly, because they had never had the chance to experience the film in the way intended, not to mention that editing rhythms sped up enormously in the digital era. The slow pace was essential to its effect. No film before had so effectively communicated the vast expanse and loneliness of space. Those who saw the film in the cinema felt swallowed up by its sense of infinity, held in awe by its mystery. The size of the screen mattered.

The experiential gap between the cinematic and the televisual may never disappear entirely, but thanks to today’s expansive digital widescreen televisions, it is possible to gain a far more vivid sense of why 2001 is so revered. Here are five reasons for its longevity and power:

Music

Famously, Hollywood composer Alex North was commissioned to write an original score but Kubrick rejected it in favour of pre-existing recordings of classical and avant-garde music by Richard Strauss, the unrelated Johann Strauss, Gyorgy Ligeti and (briefly) Aram Khachaturian. This was not the first time pre-recorded tracks had been used in a major film – Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini had employed African American gospel music and Bach in his 1964 film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Kubrick himself had used Vera Lynn’s sentimental WW2 hit We’ll Meet Again at the apocalyptic climax to his previous movie, the nuclear-age black comedy Dr Strangelove, and David Lean had employed Rachmaninov in Brief Encounter. But no major studio film had so consistently drawn on “found” music throughout and made such an impact. Richard Strauss’s magnificently dramatic and instantly memorable Also Sprach Zarathustra became indelibly associated with the film. Even today you can’t see a documentary on science fiction or the universe without hearing its instantly recognisable theme ringing out.

Withholding information

The key decision of co-writer Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick was to not show the alien life force, other than via a mysterious black monolith. And despite initially toying with the idea of covering the slab with instructional diagrams, they decided against it. They understood that what you don't see is more powerful than what you do see. The former prods the imagination, gives the audience something to carry away, discuss and think about. Kubrick, in particular, was keen to strip away conventional plotting and characterisation, preferring five linear narrative modules linked by theme rather than being cemented together by a unifying protagonist. At one point the film leaps millions of years in a single edit via the famous “match cut” from a prehistoric ape celebrating its discovery of technology in the shape of a bone weapon, to a spacecraft; an edit that appears in virtually all film textbooks for its innovative daring and clarity of vision. The final image (spoiler alert) of a gigantic human embryo floating above Earth is left for viewers to decode and debate (whereas Clarke, in his novel’s version of the story, makes an attempt at filling in some of the gaps).

The imaginative use of experimental film techniques

The eye-popping “star gate” sequence, where Keir Dullea’s astronaut, David Bowman, takes a cosmic journey beyond human comprehension was closer to the work of abstract filmmakers such as Len Lye, Jordan Belson and Stan Brakhage than that of any previous Hollywood film director. The standard line is to compare the sequence to an LSD trip. The drug was enjoying its vogue among youth, and the oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal story goes that many viewers were on acid when they viewed the film. But the film didn't require chemical enhancement to be appreciated; only an open mind and willingness to go on an experiential journey unlike any previously seen in a major blockbuster.

The film was essentially a big-budget art film

It was closer in spirit to the hauntingly open-ended abstractions of Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni (whose mid-60s films, including L’Eclisse and Blow Up, had been in vogue) than the work of a highly-regarded but relatively conventional Hollywood director such as Anthony Mann, whom Kubrick had replaced on Spartacus. Dialogue was sparse – the story progressed almost entirely via image and sound, making this a piece of pure cinema.

The film’s influence on other science fiction films

Without the example set by Douglas Trumbull’s unprecedentedly realistic, often model-based special effects, there would be no Star Wars, possibly no Alien too. George Lucas took the technology and funneled it away from art film abstraction and towards the lucrative family audience. Only recently have there been major US studio films that aim to replicate at least some of the grandeur and intelligence of 2001 - Gravity, Arrival and Interstellar prominent among them. But impressive as some of these are, none has come close to matching this masterpiece’s iconic majesty.

 

Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey now at SBS On Demand:

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