What is there to say about a movie like 2001 that hasn’t been said before, and said better? Here’s a film celebrating its 50th anniversary, and even all these years later, it stands wholly unique and unlike anything else I’ve seen – a film that broke from every tradition and was never truly duplicated afterward. It’s a film that shouldn’t work in any conventional sense, but does, standing as an unparalleled example of craft, atmosphere, and immersion. But more than that, it’s a film that has been written about and analyzed to death. What can I possibly bring to the table?
Nevertheless, it’s been a week since I saw 2001 on an IMAX screen, immersing me in this film in a way that had never happened before. And even a week later, I can’t stop thinking about the experience, nor wanting to talk about it. Because, in the end, 2001 is a film that all but demands to be written about, and who am I to deny that urge?
Of course, it’s not really surprising that any reaction to 2001 finds people discussing it; famously, the film has little to no interest in explaining itself, unfolding for long stretches without any dialogue at all, and even that bit often obtuse and unfolding largely through implication. It’s a film intensely committed to its world and without any desire to clutter that world with exposition or hand-holding, right down to the fact that the central arc of the film – which seems to follow mankind’s evolution from apes all the way to post-physical forms – is never explained, clarified, or even directly mentioned, instead relying on the audience to infer the necessary information from the cinematic techniques and implications.
(I’ve always felt like 2001 isn’t as obtuse as it’s made out to be, but then I think about the fact that I read Arthur C. Clarke’s “novelization” of the film long before I saw it, thus meaning that I never got to experience the film without Clarke’s narrative already in my mind. Combine that with the way 2010 goes into explaining away the film’s murky depths, and you end up with a film that’s far less oblique and inexplicable than its reputation would suggest…but even with that being said, I can’t get behind giving someone assigned reading to understand a movie, either.)
But when the film is as well-crafted as 2001, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with relying on cinematic skill to convey a story through visual means only. That’s only more evident if you get the chance to see 2001 on the scope of an IMAX screen, where the scale of everything is undeniable, the sound intimidating, and the immersion complete. From the barren landscapes and simian wars that open the film to a dizzying (literally, on that scale) docking sequence, from a brutally brief and unsentimental death to a land beyond space and time, 2001 creates its world in such a way that it feels to extend far beyond the boundaries of your screen. Those opening images, for instance, are only still photographs, nothing more…and even so, within moments, we know the state of the world around us, the stage of development in which we are. And while the prehistoric apes we see have no dialogue, the full-body performances and framing neatly tell us all we need to know, showing us the evolution of tools all too clearly without a single line of explanation.
And yet, what’s so easy to forget is the darker core at the heart of 2001. Yes, this is a film in which we evolve to use tools – but we use them as weapons, to brutally beat a fellow creature to death. Yes, we have colonized the moon – but the paranoia and secret keeping between nations is still present. Yes, we’ve built artificial intelligence, but at the first sign of its malfunctioning, we begin to plot its slow, horrific death. It’s no accident that the film’s famous match cut goes from a bone used as a club to a satellite used as a nuclear platform – throughout our evolution, we remain violent and obsessed with being on top of our proverbial mountains.
Which brings us, inevitably, back to the moments of beauty throughout the film. Yes, we may be violent creatures, but there’s no escaping the majesty and grace of the docking sequences, which finds us surpassing human limitations to create something akin to visual poetry (as so expertly underlined with our choice of “The Blue Danube” as backdrop to the sequence). Kubrick doesn’t just immerse us in a world of space travel; he finds the transcendent in it, inviting us to realize what science could allow us to become if only we could allow it. At our finest moments, we overcome our human limitations, becoming something more – something smarter, something more capable, something more than human, depending on where in the film you are.
But what guides that evolution? Kubrick, wisely, never explains much, letting only the simplicity of the monolith stand in for whatever intelligence – be it malevolent or benevolent – that shapes our lives. How he manages to bring out such ominous tones, such unsettling power, out of something as simple as a black rectangle…well, it’s beyond me. However he did it, though, it’s impossible to come away from the film without thinking of the utterly alien, incomprehensible nature of this item, and what it’s done to us – and why. And by the time we see Dave Bowman moving “beyond the infinite”, there’s a sense that we are looking at a version of ourselves that will one day see us as every bit the primitive creature that we see the film’s apes as being.
And even with all of that, I haven’t even touched on so much about the film. Like the way its design for ships and space exploration hasn’t aged a bit, apart from some 60’s decor influences. (I spent so much of this viewing thinking about how much Ridley Scott’s Alien owes to the ships of 2001.) Or how it gives us one of the great, most compelling characters in all of cinema, and does so without giving us anything to look at but a red dot and a circle, and a calming voice to listen to. (I have somewhere in me another thousand words about the tragic, fascinating character of HAL 9000, perhaps the most complex – and ironically, the most human – character of the entire film.) Or those dizzying shots as Bowman jogs around the circular track. Or the way that every single one of these fifty-year-old effects still have every bit of the impact they ever did.
I could write for days, and never quite capture the ideas this film fills me with, or the way it reminds me of what cinema can accomplish, or the stunning beauty of its craft. All I can tell you is that seeing it again, especially on this scale, was a breathtaking, astonishing, beautiful experience on almost every imaginable level, and it left me reminded of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. And that, in of itself, apart from all the greatness and richness and complexity, is a joy all its own.