Stanley Kubrick has always been an egotistical and ambitious director, but with 2001: A Space Odyssey, his ego and ambition couldn’t have been much greater. Believing all previous sci-fi films to have been pure bunkum, Kubrick set himself the unenviable task of creating not only the first great science fiction film in history, but also one of the greatest films in history. With its title (a direct nod to The Odyssey), a grandiose classical score borrowing from Strauss and Ligeti, and a meandering plot that stretches over millennia, this was a film very much intended to be a classic.
Kubrick’s arrogance paid off, and 2001 has since been almost universally recognised as the classic it was intended to be, defying its ruthless dismissal by Pauline Kael as “a monumentally unimaginative movie.” History has proved her wrong, and its popularity seems in no danger of waning, despite existing within an unstable genre: as a sci-fi film, it lacks the contemporary or historical settings of Kubrick’s previous films, and as such remains far more vulnerable to appearing rapidly out-dated in its effects and visions of the future.
Nevertheless, 42 years after its release and 9 years after its setting, 2001 remains stunningly futuristic and frightening. In the current ADHD era of rapid editing and effects-driven plots – Transformers 2 being the current low – the film has a hypnotic authority, patiently commanding the audience’s attention with minimal dialogue and lengthy takes. The hyperactive, energetic and terminally dull direction of Michael Bay could draw a lesson or five from Kubrick’s example.
While it has something resembling a plot in the shape of HAL, the film is better described as a mediation on life, the universe and everything. Kubrick refused to provide any fixed meaning behind the monkeys, the monolith or the star child, yet its ambiguity is the key strength of the film. Its ending raises far more questions than it answers, yet its surreal and utterly brilliant climax violently rejects conventional narrative logic in a way that is still staggeringly original.
Frustratingly, any attempt to describe or explain 2001 fully would be to do it an injustice – it can only be appreciated when experienced first hand. Its original tagline of “The Ultimate Trip” is, if anything, underselling the film. This is cinema drugged up to its eyeballs: a psychedelic, hallucinatory and profound experience, powerfully administered via Kubrick’s pure, uncut genius.