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Cult Films: Trying to be a cool kid (2001: A Space Odyssey)

In the interest of honesty, I’d not seen this before. I know, I know. I think I’ve said before that I wasn’t really interested in ‘old’ films growing up, so I missed out on a lot. In the last ten years I’ve taken steps to correct that, but there’s so much to cover. Kubrick is heralded as a master of his craft and this film is held in such high regard, it was an easy next choice for me in this project. By my interpretation of ‘cult’, this is on the fringes between that and being entirely mainstream but given 75% of the people at work would probably reply with ‘what?’ if I spoke of it, I think it fits into here.

At 2.5 hours, I wondered if watching this on a school night (where I typically don’t sit down to start prior to 10pm) was a good idea. In the case of this, it absolutely was. It’s 2.5 hours to get lost in the world of cinema. Utterly visually and, at times, audibly arresting, this was exactly what I needed. I’ve had almost twenty-four hours to digest it too before writing this. Once I’d got past the opening fifteen minutes was where I really felt the pay-off. It’s a bold opening though, anybody who dares to start with a black screen and just music for two minutes to set the scene has balls. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much about the opening scene and instant attention-grabbing back in the 60s that audiences virtually demand now?

It has a great score, with incredibly memorable uses of music. Some of it is incredibly tense too and certain parts of the score are unbearable. They all work though, there’s not a section I could envisage being changed or needing to be for that matter. The sounds, and the music, don’t assist in interpreting the information/visuals provided to you like with many films. They jar with it in a beautiful way. It’s either classical music or abstract noise, neither of which should fit, yet do. Actually, the thing that took me aback the most was how he allowed the film to lapse from loud noise/music to absolute silence. It felt fitting for something set in space but was eerie. Your brain expected screaming but you get silence. I assure you the latter is way more effective too, I genuinely felt unnerved the first time.

For the most part, you as the viewer are left to make your own conclusions, draw your own wrongs and rights in the on-going internal debate. This is precisely why I’m not sure I can truly try to delve into the narrative until I watch this again. For me, the narrative best worked when we had something to focus on, the astronauts, HAL and the mission. You could have made a full on film from just this section if you’d wanted to. It’s chilling and nails down the sci-fi element. Isolation and fears you’d have in space are incredibly well played on, but never overdone. HAL’s voice as he goes downhill, or his voice in general, are absolutely fantastic. I can see why it constantly makes list for best machines/AI/robots. It felt a little too close to home watching Dave try his best to resolve something bigger than him, which means it worked.

I’m still not sure what to make of the final few minutes of the film, I have some ideas, but as above, I’m not sure I want to commit to them on this single viewing. The monolith appearing at the end as it had at the beginning worked for me. The monolith itself a strange and ominous looking device. How do you make a slab of granite that appears look scary? Kubrick managed it! Of course, where the monoliths come from, who is responsible for them, remains unseen. For me, this film explores the idea of a higher power alongside evolution but never pushes a single opinion onto you. When I revisit this, I may come back and see if I can do a better job of explaining any of this.

2001: A Space Odyssey is everything I want from a sci-fi film. Intrigue, mystery, thought provoking and often mind-bending. The underlying tension, horror element always works in space due to the isolation but I thought Kubrick nailed this. With a coy look at AI and a potential future, it tapped into something that would have been terrifying at that time, but is something film makers are once again exploring now due to technological advances (see Ex Machina for a perfect example). Without this film, I’m not sure you’d have had even half of the great sci-fi that has followed.

Kubrick is a master of visuals, undoubtedly. I spent a fair bit of time thinking about the film before I could switch my brain off and sleep. It’s meticulously detailed, I admire it. Every shot is practically perfect, another film where you could take a screen cap of any given moment and see the beauty. To create something so ahead of your time, but that is equally timeless feeling, yeah, I’d have no clue where to start. The vision he has here, with significantly less resource of all kinds than a director would today, yet making something directors will aspire to, and may never achieve, for their whole careers.
Having watched this two days after revisiting Citizen Kane, it gave me some food for thought and the chance to compare the two. Obviously the subject matter, genre, technology available etc. are completely different, but both films have inspired countless film professionals and wowed fans of cinema for years. Personally, I came away feeling more impressed by 2001. I consider when it was made and how it holds up so, so well, it’s ridiculous. There are films from the 90s that haven’t aged well, yet this film, getting close to its 40th release anniversary, still looks this good.

I understand why this isn’t for everybody. It’s slow to the point of a snail’s pace in terms of narrative and even when you get the story, it’s not particularly cohesive and there are themes thrown in that appear to be there for no reason and don’t get revisited. If the beauty of cinema, and gorgeous cinematography and use of sound don’t do it for you, you’ll probably lose patience and switch off. I worried I might too, based on the very, very beginning and my mood but it got me.

Had I watched this at a younger age, I don’t think I would have been ready for it. The way in which I watch films, appreciate films and the diverse range I watch wasn’t so developed. I fear I would have lost patience with the opening or just not appreciated that this is pure cinema. It doesn’t have to entirely make sense on a first viewing, there’s plenty of time to revisit and learn more, admire new things.

I feel a Kubrick watching binge coming on, though I doubt any of his work I’ve not yet seen will top this for me.

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