2018: A theatrical odyssey

Moonwatcher feels the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion – the urge to kill. He had taken his first step towards humanity.

When “2001: A Space Odyssey” opened in theaters in April 1968 after a four-year production, audiences and several of New York’s leading critics dismissed the film, criticizing its lack of traditional structure, slow pace and confusing ending. Famed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury wrote in a review that the film “should be run through a chopper, heartlessly.” However, after younger audiences discovered the film, it quickly rocketed to commercial success. Fifty years after its release, this Academy-Award-winning and critically acclaimed film still polarizes audience opinion. Thousands of reviews and essays have dissected different interpretations of the film’s visual techniques and themes, but they all have one thing in common: the attempt to answer the simple question of why.

Why has this film remained one of the most influential films of all time?

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke, “2001” is a four-act meditation on mankind’s relationship to the universe. Although the main story follows a crew on an expedition to Jupiter to investigate an enigmatic monolith, the film spans over 3 million years with a 2 hour 41 minute runtime. It opens on the “Dawn of Man” — a 20-minute dialogue-free sequence of a troop of apes learning to use tools for the first time — and ends in an otherworldly dimension that illustrates the cyclical nature of evolution.

Celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. Pictures, with acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, released an “unrestored” 70mm print of the sci-fi epic. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the print toured theaters across the United States over the summer, which is when I watched “2001” for the first time at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

The Genius of Kubrick
Kubrick, director of “2001” and one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history, utilizes static shots accompanied with slow pans to add to the film’s hypnotic quality. Some have criticized the prolonged pacing of the film and lack of emotional attachment toward its characters; however, its subversion of audience expectation is one of the reasons “2001” stands out among so many other films. Scenes of monotonous spacecraft procedure add to the realism and stand in stark contrast to intensely emotional scenes found later in the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the world that Kubrick has built.

In addition, the methodical pace of Kubrick’s direction calls attention to the visual language of the film: every single shot is crafted with meticulous design. Arguably the most iconic match cut in history is witnessed when Kubrick ingeniously juxtaposes a bone being thrown into the air with an orbiting satellite 3 million years later, communicating the time jump that has taken place and the drastic advancement in technology in a matter of seconds.

Visual Mastery

The cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth consists of just as visually compelling imagery, from sweeping shots of an eclipse to exploration on the moon. The 70mm photography and framing is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also infused with meaning and purpose. Through close-ups with intimate angles on both the astronauts and HAL 9000 (the spacecraft’s artificially intelligent computer), the film places its audience in shifting perspectives, visually symbolizing one of the film’s core themes: the eerily narrowing gap between man and machine. This is just one of the many ways Unsworth’s cinematography connects spectacle to narrative.

However, the creative camerawork would be nothing without, in my opinion, the most impressive aspect of the film: its innovative work in visual effects. Even in today’s oversaturated industry of blockbusters with $250 million budgets, “2001” is still the most astonishing showcase of visual effects I have ever seen.

Consisting of 205 visual effects shots that took about 16,000 steps to complete, Kubrick was able to create a visual masterpiece without sacrificing scientific accuracy. In fact, to ensure that the film was grounded in scientific realism, Kubrick hired illustrators to produce concept drawings that factored in the complex physics of space travel and took inspiration from satellite images of the outer space. (“2001” was released a year before the moon landing.)

From massive rotating sets to zero-gravity effects to the famed “Star Gate” sequence (a 10-minute surreal scene created with repeated slit-scan photography), it is certainly not a stretch to say that “2001” revolutionized filmmaking. Because computer-generated effects had not yet been invented, Kubrick, with special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, relied on intricate models to depict space travel. They built spacecraft models up to 55-feet long, filmed them and often rotoscoped the images to combine the models with background shots. “2001” also pioneered the use of front projection with retroreflective matting, a technique in which a mirror reflects a projected image in line with the camera lens to create a mirage of a background. This technique along with several others made popular with the release of “2001” launched the sci-fi genre into unmatched territory, spurring filmmakers to endeavor in even more ambitious and larger-scaled projects.

So now, after examining the film’s technical achievements, we’re back to the question of why “2001” is regarded as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.

Kubrick’s integration of themes regarding evolution and the dehumanization of the modern age are universal. Even 50 years after the film’s release, these themes are still uncannily reflective of society and, arguably, even more relevant today as technology continues to advance.

No other film has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress, inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation, declared the best sci-fi film of all time by the American Film Institute, inspired the likes of filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Ridley Scott, and revolutionized filmmaking much like “2001: A Space Odyssey” has. It is and will deservedly remain a cultural icon that has shaped, not only filmmaking, but the world around us.

Watching “2001” for the first time is an experience I will never forget. I’ve tried to objectively describe exactly why this film is considered a pinnacle of cinema but doing so somewhat defeats its purpose. This film offers something so intensely subjective that it will never be the same for any two people who watch it. It continues to be part of people’s lives: people continue to speculate about the film’s ambiguous meanings and articles, just like this one, continue to be written. The personal connection that millions around the world have developed over a sci-fi film that centers around the detachment from humanity stands testament to the genius of Kubrick and the film crew. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film that, just like the monolith, has withstood time and transcended space.

In a moment of time, too short to be measured, space turned and twisted upon itself.

By Sarah Aie, Copy Editor-in-Chief
Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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