Good art follows one of two paths. It either celebrates genre or redefines it. It entertains, or transcends. It displays mastery, or innovates. Great art is that which traces its way along both routes.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematographic tour de force 2001: A Space Odyssey walks a fine line between good and great. It soars to new heights, and then collapses back to the ordinary. It enchants, and bores. It encourages philosophical inquiry, but rarely does that inquiry lead to new answers.
Of course Kubrick was not looking to create a thriller. And if we look at 2001 from a different lens, a meditative one, its strengths come to bear. From the discovery by prehistoric hominids of their first tool to astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman’s trip beyond human understanding, we wonder – we ask ourselves about mankind’s place in the stars.
One of the most pivotal sequences in 2001 is its first, the transition by a clan of apes from victims to victors. With one of its members killed by a leopard, whose eyes glowed gold in the sun, and forced from their watering hole by a rival tribe, the clan’s straits seem dire. But simultaneous with the mysterious arrival of a black monolith, the clan learns to use the bones of dead animals to hunt and kill. Such marks the first development of man, from helpless prey to tool-bearing predator.
After we see our origins, Kubrick throws us forward millions of years in a single shot, to Dr. Heywood Floyd, who is preparing to embark on a voyage to the moon, and to the movie’s first dialogue, almost a half-hour in. The use of dialogue in 2001 is unique. With but a couple of exceptions, like humanizing the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, its use is nearly always to highlight the mundane: a faux-chicken sandwich, a game of chess, a character’s birthday. For Kubrick, actions speak louder than words, and the camera’s angle speaks louder than either. More is communicated in silence as we watch HAL read Bowman and fellow astronaut Dr. Frank Poole’s lips than in what either has to say.
Kubrick does make glorious use of the medium of sound through music, however. It is in no small part due to 2001’s soundtrack that the film itself has earned its place in the annals of filmmaking. Roger Ebert says it best when we writes, “The classical music,” like Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, “exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.”
The movie’s fourth and final act best encapsulates both its majesty and its flaws. Accentuated by composer György Ligeti’s oddly discordant Atmosphères, the sequence is profoundly strange: Dr. Bowman travels through a wormhole of bizarre scenes and phenomena, watches himself age in an exquisite house somewhere beyond Jupiter, and at last is transformed into a fetal creature, which gazes at Earth from afar. It is all beautifully shot, but it leaves most of the audience’s questions unanswered. The plot is abandoned for the sake of spectacle.
2001 is certainly among the great works of science fiction, and perhaps the best movie of the genre. In it, Kubrick accomplishes prodigious feats of showmanship and creates the awesome before our eyes. The film is also exceedingly ambitious, aiming for intellectual excellence and discovery on top of cinematic success. But in that pursuit, one gets the feeling that 2001 lost sight of real theater. It is a good work of art, surely. But a great one? I’m not so sure.