The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Back in 1981 I was stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and most of my evenings were spent working as an usher at the Station Cinema. It was a good way to while away the time for someone like me – I love the cinema and always have (I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t) and this job gave me the opportunity to see every film that was shown there for free. As an usher, one of my tasks was to maintain order, and this took the form of keeping the hordes of kids quiet while the film was in progress and to throw out any who were persistently disruptive. It was a thankless task – the adults complained to me about the noise the kids were making and the kids hated me for throwing them out. After a few weeks of this I came up with a brilliant plan – if the kids were making too much noise I would walk down the central aisle and as I did I would give a signal to the projectionist, who would halt the film. I would then stand at the front and in my most provocative voice I would shout, “Right, if there’s any more noise I’m going to throw two of you out – I don’t care which two, I’ll chose two of you at random. You have been warned!” The projectionist would then restart the film and the kids would remain silent, not quite sure whether I meant it or if I had just issued an empty threat. It usually did the trick, though. It’s true what they say – give someone a little power and they turn into Adolf Hitler.

The early Friday evening showing was reserved for the kids and the films that were screened were generally of the science-fiction adventure variety. These included Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon and Superman II (1980). I didn’t mind the kids making a noise during these films because there were no adults in attendance. The adults usually kicked their kids out of their houses and sent them along to the cinema with some money to buy a ticket and enough sweets and sugary drinks to keep dentists in employment for years after. The adults would then be free to do whatever they did when the house was to themselves and the kids got to hoot and roar for ninety minutes or so without fear of me threatening to throw them out. It all went swimmingly until it was announced that Stanley Kubrick’s two-and-a-half hour seminal science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey was going to be shown – in the early Friday evening slot.

I knew there were lots of adults on RAF Akrotiri who wanted see this film, mainly those who had been baffled by it when it was first released in 1968 and so I thought a warning would be appropriate, explaining that it was probably not the best film for children to see when they were pumped up with sweets and sugary drinks and expecting some daft action-packed science-fiction extravaganza. In light of this I produced an A3 notice that I stuck onto the film’s poster that was displayed outside the cinema. The notice read:


I threw thirteen kids out within fifteen minutes of the film starting and the rest left of their own accord soon after.
Original poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey
I was fourteen years old when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on its initial release in 1968 and I clearly remember walking out of the cinema feeling simultaneously amazed and baffled. There’s no dialogue for the first 24 minutes and again for the final 21 minutes. But I wasn’t the only one who stepped out of a cinema with a look of puzzlement after seeing this film. 241 people walked out during its premier, including film star Rock Hudson, who was reported saying as he left, “Can someone tell me what the hell this is all about?”

Well, what the hell is it all about? Cinema-goers who went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey expected a film about space travel and it is, to a certain extent, about exactly that. But this was a Stanley Kubrick film and anyone who has watched his films will know that on the surface you get what you pay for, but it’s underneath that surface that really counts, and underneath the surface of 2001 is a story about human evolution. And you’re really not supposed to understand it – you’re expected to make your own conclusions about what it’s all about. Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick) adapted from his original short story The Sentinel, stated: “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.”

Its total length of 135 minutes is divided into four segments. The first segment is The Dawn of Man, and it follows a tribe of ape-men that are driven away from their watering hole by another, fiercer tribe. A black monolith appears when the tribe that have been evicted are sleeping and this triggers a leap in evolution and you see an ape-man putting two-and-two together as he discovers how to use a bone as the first tool. This tool, however, is used a weapon and the ape-men reclaim their watering hole, using the bone to kill the other tribe’s leader. At the end of the sequence the ape-man throws the bone up into the air at which point (using what’s known as a match-cut) the film jumps forward four million years, with the first weapon becoming the ultimate weapon – a nuclear device orbiting the earth.

The Dawn of Man is an incredibly realistic sequence and it seems astonishing now that it was totally disregarded by the judging panel for that year’s Oscars – the award for best make-up effects was given instead to John Chambers for his work on Planet of the Apes, which, despite being a brilliant film itself, still looked like it was populated by men (and women) wearing masks. Arthur C. Clarke often wondered afterwards whether 2001 had been ignored by the judges because they thought the ape-men were real.

The second part, TMA-1, starts with a fifteen minute dialogue-free sequence involving a shuttle docking with a half-completed space station, set to The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. This has no relevance to the plot or character development and is there, it seems, just for the sake of creating a visually beautiful set piece – and mesmerisingly beautiful it surely is. 2001 is a unique film in that it forced audiences to watch it in a different way in which they watched other films – they had to sit back and relax and not care whether a scene had any relevance to the plot. They had, in effect, to watch it for the sake of watching it.

We then move to the Moon, where Dr Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) and his team of scientists are inspecting a black monolith that has been buried under the surface for four million years. They have no idea of its origin or purpose and it’s known only as TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One). During their inspection the monolith emits a high pitched radio signal and the film jumps forward 18 months.

Jupiter Mission, the third segment, follows the crew of the first manned mission to Jupiter – Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and three other scientists who have been in cryogenic sleep since before the mission commenced. There’s also a sentient computer system called HAL that controls the functionality of the ship. All is going well until HAL has a breakdown and kills four of the crew, leaving Bowman alone and isolated in deep space. HAL, a highly advanced artificial intelligence whose conflicting orders lead to his malfunction, is one of cinemas great tragic villains, and his resulting paranoia and insanity have devastating and far-reaching consequences for Dave Bowman.

The final part, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, is another dialogue-free segment. I’m not going to say anything about this in case whoever’s reading this hasn’t seen this film. I will say one thing though – when you watch it, it will blow your mind.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a magnificent film and to say that it was ahead of its time is an understatement and does no justice to its influence on the development of cinematic techniques and storytelling to come. Remember, this was made before CGI and even blue and green screens even existed. Its special effects would not come anywhere close to being matched for another nine years, until Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) came along, and even that didn’t have the totally immersive effect of 2001. Its influence has not been restricted to the science fiction genre either, and it’s leisurely pace and sparse dialogue can be seen in the films of Clint Eastwood, especially Hereafter (2010), and any film directed by the great Terrence Malick.

In this age of shoot ‘em up, slam-bang, fast-cutting, brainless action movies, it’s a pleasure to watch something that appeals to the intellect and takes its time to tell its story. And if I were to give advice to someone who was about to watch 2001 for the first time, it would be this: Be patient, because the rewards are manifold.

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