The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/USA/dir. Stanley Kubrick) appeared at #54 on my original list.
What it is • The best films are often improbable. 2001: A Space Odyssey towers over the cinematic landscape fifty years later, but step back from that familiar reputation and what remains is as strange and sui generis as that smooth black monolith in the midst of the craggy desert. What can explain the existence of a film that manages to straddle both genre filmmaking and the avant-garde? A film that embraces state-of-the-art special effects alongside esoteric storytelling? A film that embodies, transcends, and transforms notions of cinema? Well, to start with, many can (and do) say the film is cold and alienating; others categorize it as an overwhelmingly powerful aesthetic experience. It's a film with what seems to be a humanist message but its approach is anything but humanist; as many have noted, the most likable character is a murderous computer. This quintessential "future" film (which from today's standpoint, of course, is set in an alternate past) begins millions of years ago with apes developing their first "technology": a bone wielded as a weapon to defend against predators, vanquish prey, and attack one another. Flash forward to 2001, and we have, actually, an anthology of sci-fi stories to tell; interrelated, but with different aims and often different characters (yet somehow the movie feels all of a piece). The overarching thread involves a sleek monolith, like the one that triggered the apes' breakthrough, discovered on the moon, while another has been detected further out in the solar system, with two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) assigned to make contact with it. The most memorable section of the film is, superficially at least, a sidenote to the rest of the story - the breakdown of HAL-9000, a placid-toned, deeply neurotic machine that refuses to believe in its own vulnerability. Finally, our interstellar journey that began in a prehistoric desert ends in a timeless white room, proving that images which initially seem incongruous end up lingering in memory, and becoming the most iconic images of all.
Why I like it •
Stanley Kubrick's work invites all sorts of theories and interpretations, but their best justification is their visceral effect. He is a hypnotic filmmaker, cold on the surface, sure, but in a way so elevated it's thrilling. 2001 is cerebral not in the sense that it's intellectual fodder only, but in the sense that it conjures a particular emotional state. It's the highest-ranked film on this list (made in 2011) but I could see myself placing The Shining above it, and certainly Barry Lyndon is today my favorite Kubrick film. Nonetheless, 2001 retains a place of pride in my personal canon not only because it inspires awe, but because I enjoy many of the ideas in play. HAL is one of my favorite characters in the movies, more than making up for the cold fish performances Kubrick coaxed from Dullea and Lockwood. It's also a marvelous conceit to immerse us in the day-to-day lives of our ancestors on an earthly landscape so desolate it looks lunar. And the end is thrilling with its kaleidoscopic montage and its gorgeous stateroom. I still haven't seen the sequel 2010 and while I'll eventually satisfy that minor curiosity, I imagine it will feel odd. The very idea of a sequel suggests a film that's a story first and foremost, that exists within a larger universe outside of itself. 2001 suggests a great deal but is also supremely self-contained: an artwork whose frame encloses everything you need to know or appreciate about the work. I like 2001: A Space Odyssey for its bold vision, its transporting pictures (and sound!), its admirable self-assurance, and - aside from all these grand qualities - the wacky, cockeyed fact that a film so widely celebrated is as unusual as this...and that a film as unusual as this is so widely celebrated.
How you can see it • 2001: A Space Odyssey is available as a blu-ray/DVD rental from Netflix. It can be rented or purchased digitally from these sites. And I'm sure your local library has a copy. I reviewed it in 2009 after witnessing it on the big screen, and a clip is featured at 2:41 in "There's Something Happening Here...", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
What do you think? • Is this your favorite Kubrick? Do you have a particular viewpoint on the film, or do you prefer to take it primarily as an inexplicable audiovisual experience? Did you see 2010 and if so, what did you think?
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Yesterday: Historias Extraordinarias (#55)
Tomorrow: L'Eclisse (#53)