2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Stanley Kubrick


Gary Lockwood Keir Dullea William Sylvester


Will this be the one?


Top marks for craftsmanship is an understatement.

In Retrospect.

There’s a malfunction in this movie which we can’t put our finger on.

Is Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 sci-fi really the space opera to end all space operas?

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is A Great Movie which still towers, monolith-like, out on the high planes of the oh-so-verdant film landscape, its illusive majesty continuing to inspire awe and – perhaps more gratifyingly for the late SK – hard-wired confusion. Which modern film directors would we send out now to do battle with Kubrick? Terrence Malick could be a tasty option if he decided to become traceable. But the hard fact is, we’d likely have to round up a band of 100 of our best and brightest (led by David Fincher) to troubleshoot their way through every implacable shot of this celestial beast from 1968.

Yet there’s also something ineffably alienating about 2001. Alienating is possibly too strong a term for it, but it’s maybe ever so slightly… off. Every time I revisit the film, I hope to be intellectually body-slammed into submission, my emotional maturation and residual ingesting of #LifeExperience hopefully lifting me and allowing me to glance directly into its cycloptic red eye.

Like a very enjoyable date which ultimately yields no long-term romantic fruit, at the end of each viewing, it’s hard not to scroll the through the credits with a, “it’s not you, it’s me” grimace. And the reason is very dull. It’s the irony that a film about man’s place within the cosmos and the charting of two crucial tipping points in the human evolutionary process could feel so bereft of pulse. It’s an old and haggard refrain, but Kubrick’s inhumanity is there for all to see.

The sequence which always tips it is the bit where Gary Lockward’s Dr Frank Poole is lying down, shirtless, on a reclining table as the on-board computer, HAL-9000, politely informs him he has an incoming call. Recalling a quaint, classical master-servant relationship, Poole reels off orders to HAL, asking him to tilt shelves and panels until he resembles a braying courtier stretched out on a chaise lounge. He then watches a video message from his parents and they wish him a happy birthday. The video itself is a grotesque decimation of the ’60s consumerist scourge, and his jabbering parents appear as Central Casting stooges. It’s hateful stuff. You couldn’t/wouldn’t dismiss it as a tonal mistake, because every shot in this film is a paragon of pristine perfection.

There is a proto-FaceTime video message earlier in the film too, when William Sylvester’s Dr Floyd speaks to his young daughter, explaining that he not going to be around for her birthday party. The way in which the young girl is filmed feels entirely out of synch with the starched Kubrick style, where the human characters are little more than ornaments within the frame. There’s an almost vérité looseness to the girl’s interaction with her father, even though the sequence doesn’t manage to infer that there’s a meaningful relationship between the actors.

These are the film’s two lone postcards from home, a summation of where we came from and what we’ll soon be leaving behind: a John Waters-esque parody of lobotomised middle-American parents, and a father who’s on call to the universe and, as such, can’t spare any time for his daughter. The forced birth of a glimmering bug-eyed space baby can’t come soon enough reckons Kubrick. But what if it, too, sires an equivalent contingent of moronic, selfish, venal and violent offspring?

The purported sentience of HAL-9000 is an aspect that folds into this loose thesis. Just as man is depicted as leapfrogging the evolutionary stratum after being reborn via a space pod / exploding bolt (ooh er!) / padded air lock conception procedure, HAL too is making its own revolutionary uprising from mono-tone techno doormat to mass-murdering nursery rhyme chanteuse. As he explains to Keir Dullea’s angular, emotion tundra, Dave Bowman, he’s only protecting the mission and his curt actions have been taken on the back of highly rational calculations.

One of the film’s big non-production coups is that Kubrick manages to make HAL the only “human” character that we care about and are sad to see go. With a garbled, valedictory departing speech, HAL out-humans the humans in actually being able to channel sincere sentimentality. And it’s funny that HAL seems more “human” within the world of the film before he starts singing. Yet, as with the apes during the first chapter of the film, who acquire the wiles to use boar bones as clubs for killin’, Kubrick’s definition of sentience is the uncontrollable urge to destroy. And if not destroy, then using the threat of violence as a way to impose control over other, lesser beings.

It’s puzzling to me that 2001 is a film about the process of transcendence, but one which staunchly refuses to comment on why we as a race would deserve transcendence. In its uniquely closeted, cornered off, undemonstrative and aloof way, this brilliant albeit maddening film manages to jettison subtext in favour of cinematic spectacle. Interpretations of the film can only be formed within its own set of pre-determined strictures – we’re left to squabble over what it’s about rather than what it says. And where’s the fun in that?

Published 28 Nov 2014

Tags: Stanley Kubrick


Will this be the one?


Top marks for craftsmanship is an understatement.

In Retrospect.

There’s a malfunction in this movie which we can’t put our finger on.

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