“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
Every film is a work of art. However, every piece of a film is also a work of art in its own right. Every scene, every song, every single frame is a work of art. You can judge a film as a whole, as they meant to be experienced, or you can also judge a film by its pieces as they are individually created. With my most recent watch, 2001: A Space Odyssey, this notion of film as art is something I simply couldn’t clear from my thinking. As a whole, this film is a science fiction epic which astounds and delights, proving itself a motion picture of the highest quality. However, this is also a film with many odds and ends, parts and pieces, and you simply can’t help but marvel at how beautiful each of them are.
2001: A Space Odyssey tells an epic space exploration story spanning millions of years. The film opens with the dawn of man: a strange, perfect black monolith descends from the sky and inspires a tribe of apes to use tools. We jump ahead millions of years as the human race is pioneering space travel with a manned flight to Jupiter via the Discovery One space vessel. The ship is commanded by Dr. Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. Bowman (Keir Dullea) with hundreds of other humans in cryosleep until the ship arrives at its destination. They are also joined by Hal 9000, the ship’s artificial intelligence unit built with the sole purpose of aiding the men in completing their mission. The film explores various aspects of space exploration along with other fascinating themes of evolution, humanity, and artificial intelligence, among many others.
This is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, and I’d say it’s easily the most visually stunning depiction of space travel. Kubrick shies away from dialogue and heavy action in favor of a transformative visual and auditory experience. He places trust in his ability to encapsulate his viewer through beauty of imagery, so he presents longer, reflective shots knowing that his audience will stick with him. The use of classical music is also incredibly powerful, primarily because it feels separate from the mood of the scene. While most directors would add swelling scores to enhance the wonder and scale of the visuals, Kubrick’s use of classical music seems to contradict this vision. Instead, I feel that it focuses the mind of the viewer and creates a more surreal, often unsettling experience more powerful than any conventional score would accomplish.
The thing that struck me the most about the film’s visuals is the use of radial imagery. Just about every single frame of this movie has something round in it: be it a planet, a moon, Hal 9000, the space ship – even the chairs are rounded. Then Kubrick distorts this imagery or challenges it, particularly with the broken circles and the partially round fractured edges of the final disorienting space travel sequence. Another example of this seems to be the monolith: perfectly rectangular with razor sharp edges, contrasting the otherwise complete roundness that the film puts forward. If I were to evaluate the significance of this imagery, it seems to me that circles suggested something human-like. The human eye, along with the dangerously sentient and self-aware Hal 9000, are both perfectly round. However, the monolith came separately from the human race, seemingly to evolve or transform it. While Kubrick was never outspoken about the film’s meaning, I’m definitely convinced that this round/square contrast holds meaning in terms of human life. This is a topic I’d love to evaluate in the future, perhaps in a standalone essay.
While I was completely blown away by the visuals of the film, the meaning of the story endlessly fascinates me as well. I couldn’t help but notice existential imagery or motifs throughout the film. The monolith was reminiscent to me of The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which came out roughly a decade later. It seems to be this mysterious force that holds meaning, something outside of the realm of humanity that draws humans to it, transforming them with newfound purpose. Perhaps the voyage of Discovery One is meant to symbolize the existential condition and the search for meaning, ultimately completed in the film’s final sequence.
Closer to the surface, however, the film also gave a superb evaluation of the dangers of artificial intelligence. This has been a popular subject in films during recent years, but there’s something striking about how 2001 takes on such a subject. The way Hal 9000 is always looming in the background, how you can never take your eyes off that little red light when it’s in the shot, suggests an element of surveillance and constant awareness that modern takes on the subject fail to touch on. Kubrick also humanizes his AI subject in the strangest but perhaps most effective of ways. Hal 9000 is depicted as an inhumane monster by the end of the film who deserves to be unplugged, but his death is utterly tragic. For a film so reserved in terms of dialogue, it’s terribly shocking when Hal’s final act of life is singing a simple song with lyrics indicative of the beauty of humanity. There’s quite a bit to discuss in terms of artificial intelligence, and many films have done a tremendous job exploring these themes, but I’ve never elicited such a genuine response of emotion for a piece of AI as I did with Hal 9000.
It’s always refreshing to see unique films, something harder to categorize or something that challenges conventional notions of narrative cinema, and rarely has a movie met this criteria so powerfully as in 2001. I’m convinced this is among Kubrick’s finest films, and after just one viewing, it would probably find a spot in my personal top 20. This is a film so beautiful, so tragic, and so fascinating that it leaves me contemplating it, rewatching scenes, and simply being astounded by its presence. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic piece of cinema, and there’s no doubt that this is a great work of art.
Films Left to Watch: 905