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2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's seminal sci-fi odyssey is one of those films that enjoys such a lofty reputation you almost feel intimidated into going with the flow and raving about what a great movie it is. Deep, meaningful, beautiful, great visuals, etc. But sometimes you just have to be brave and speak up…
It's not difficult to see why 2001: A Space Odyssey achieved its reputation. Back in 1968 it must have blown its audience away (I was actually a member of that audience, but I was only five so I don't recall being blown in any direction at all – I just remember liking the monkeys) with its realistic shots of space stations gliding across the screen with a stark, cold beauty as Strauss's Blue Danube blared through the speakers. How could they not have been blown away? They had never seen anything like it. The film was an event, and the excitement of the event carried them through the many slow sequences.
Today, though, we've seen it all before, and those slow sequences are now so v-e-r-r-r-r-y s-l-o-w-w-w. That's not the movie's fault, but your reaction to a film is based on
your perception of its contents, and people's perceptions change as time marches on, so just because a movie was hailed as a classic by a previous generation doesn't give it the irremovable right to be considered a classic forevermore. True, it still has a lot of champions who are no doubt inflamed by those whose opinions differ from theirs, but to me the truth is that the older 2001: A Space Odyssey gets the more undeserving it is of its exalted reputation.
That's not to say there isn't much to admire in Kubrick's film. Its storyline and enigmatic ending are actually quite easy to follow for anyone prepared – or able – to pay close attention and exercise their brain cells. Many of the effects still hold up today – although the trippy sequence looks horribly dated – and could probably now be knocked up in ten minutes by a spotty BBC apprentice while his boss is out of the room. That famous jump cut really is a truly remarkable moment, though, linking not only the past and future, but brilliantly symbolising the result of evolutionary progress kick-started by the arrival of the monolith at the dawn of man. There's a beguiling serenity about all the slow-motion space movement that is slyly undermined by some clever positioning of the camera to convey the sense of Keir Dullea (Mail Order Bride) and Gary Lockwood (The Magic Sword, They Came to Rob Las Vegas) being under constant scrutiny on the ship. There is also a mesmerising quality to the breathing of the men in their spacesuits that emphasises the eerie silence of space and creates a wonderfully chilling atmosphere. And HAL 9000 is, of course, an inspired and iconic creation.
All that goes a long way to securing the film its status in cinema history but, in addition to how the passage of time is beginning to erode its impact, there are others drawbacks, not least of which is the stilted acting style of both Lockwood and Dullea. Granted, Kubrick isn't really interested in working up any feelings on our part for the safety of these guys – he's simply intent on taking us on his journey – but is it really necessary to have such a lack of emotion? And, let's face it: there is actually very little plot here for a whole lot of minutes. Those spaceships are beautiful but, like everything else, beauty's impact fades the more we are exposed to it…
And, in many ways, the film's biggest drawback is the very real sense, as the film progresses at its stubbornly stately pace, that we are being subjected to the self-indulgence of a supremely talented but unbridled director. After a while, all those endless and never-ending shots of gliding spaceships and people walking up walls just start to get irritating.
(Reviewed 13th November 2005)