So what is there left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey that has not been said already? There have been books and documentaries, scholarly papers and entire websites devoted to deconstructing and analyzing this film’s themes and symbolism and importance to cinema. It is constantly considered one of, if not the, greatest science fiction films of all time. So what do I bring to the table that dozens of other, probably much smarter people haven’t already said?
The beauty of 2001 is that there is no one interpretation, there is no right explanation. The film is ambiguous; you bring to it your own understanding. It is unique in cinema in that it does not attempt to explain to you its meaning; the film simply lets the images speak and you the viewer needs to make what you will of them. It does this unapologetically.
For many who dislike the film this is the considered its major flaw – the film is too slow and does not explain what is happening. For those, like myself, who love the film this is its greatest asset. It is what keeps the film fresh. I personally have seen this movie, oh a dozen times or so and at different points in my life it has meant different things.
When I was really young and saw this for the first time it was just a really weird thing, fascinating but weird.
As a teenager I thought it was a psychedelic experience, something to be witnessed on the influence of something or other. A real trip.
In college I knew it to be a deconstruction of man’s dependence on machines and the removal of our primal nature to a more robotic like state that could only be changed by disconnecting ourselves from the machine.
Now as I watch it I find myself thinking it is a metaphor for a spiritual journey; albeit a humanistic not religious one but in the tradition of eastern belief. The removal of self to experience the infinite.
None of these interpretations are correct and at the same time they are exactly what the film is about. And there are many, many more interpretations to be gleaned from this film. Not to mention the one that states that the film is a tedious piece of tripe that doesn’t explain itself because there is nothing to explain; it’s just a pseudo-intellectual bore. Obviously I don’t feel that way but there are those who do and I can actually understand why. It is not an easy film to like.
Regardless of which camp you fall into it there is no denying that the film is a technical masterpiece. The visuals, the attention to detail, the music, the understated acting – everything about the film is precise and meticulous. And its influence on the genre and movie making in general is immense.
What Is It?
Way back in 1965, coming off the success of his film Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick decided to make what he said would be the first great science fiction film, believing that a great or even good scifi film had never been made. (I personally believe this is a bit of an overstatement, there were many good and even great scifi films before ’65, but Kubrick was opinionated to say the least and if that was his motivation to make a great film than who am I to argue.) Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist. He often made his actors do multiple, sometimes dozens, of takes and oversaw every aspect of the process from the planning to the cinematography all the way to the editing. By all accounts this made him difficult to work with but at the same time the results were spectacular.
This attention to detail and meticulous filmmaking came to fruition and arguably yielded its greatest result in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick spent years gathering the best special effects designers and engineers to produce breathtaking visuals that still hold up well today. He commissioned massive circular sets that distort the frame and make the scene seem off balance, never giving the viewer a sense of being grounded, as if we were tumbling through space with the actors. He brought in scientific advisers to make sure everything you see in the film realistic. It was futuristic yes, but not impractical. And he brought in renowned author Arthur C. Clarke to co-write the script based on one of his short stories.
All of these decisions make the film a real marvel in filmmaking.