Easily eclipsing even George Pal’s still not to be despised Destination Moon of some eighteen years ago, 2001 is unquestionably the most ambitious and generally successful science-fiction film ever made. The script, the photography, the direction (constantly enlivened by such inspired touches as the choice of the “Blue Danube” waltz as a leitmotif for the space-craft gliding across the universe, or the oddly disconcerting effect produced by the silky tones of the computer’s voice) – all this is outstanding.
But it is all inevitably dwarfed by Kubrick’s astonishing special effects and gadgetry – if indeed anything on so gargantuan a scale can be so described. Everything here, from the space vehicles, the giant revolving space platform (a veritable metal city which might have been born of some Spenglerian nightmare), the complex mechanics of the computer, right down to the most minor apparatus of everyday living (plumbing, clothing, food and drink, communications and so on), is credible and, incidentally, often very funny. One recalls, for instance, the grisly humour of the complicated instructions for the use of the patent space-toilet, which travellers are recommended to study carefully, and Hal’s smug and offended insistence on the infallibility record of all the computers of his line. Indeed, the film’s achievements in terms of logistics alone are so remarkable that one feels that if Kubrick had been in charge of NASA (which co-operated on the film along with, among others, IBM and Vickers-Armstrong), man would have long since been on the moon and probably beyond.
2001 has its faults: the prehistoric episode is perhaps unduly prolonged, and the repeated, infinitely slow progressions of the various space vehicles across the interstellar vastness of the Cinerama screen sometimes becomes tedious. But these are small faults to set against the film’s major achievement, which is nothing less than to provide a new mythology for Space Age Man, one not without its echoes of an earlier epic (compare, for example, Bowman’s disabling of the one-eyed Hal with Ulysses’ encounter with Polyphemus in the original Odyssey). Similarly, the film’s enigmatic ending may seem something of an anticlimax, a bewildering speculation which provides no answers to the questions it raises. This, though, is purely as it should be; and if one is troubled by the film’s metaphysics, it might not be inappropriate to recall that the title of one of scriptwriter Arthur Clarke’s best known novels is “Childhood’s End”
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