Early on in one’s development as a cinephile, one will undoubtedly encounter Kubrick. A master of the cinema, he is inescapable. Often, one first hears about some of the controversies surrounding Stanley Kubrick, such as the debate over the morality of A Clockwork Orange or what the ending of 2001 means, or one hears some wide-eyed director talking about Kubrick’s influence during an interview. Usually, then, a cinephile goes through a sort of Kubrick phase, hunting down and watching whichever of his films he or she can find. And since Kubrick the perfectionist left such a small body of work, it is not too difficult to see all of his films (apart from his first two, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), that is).
I went through my own Kubrick phase at the end of high school and the beginning of university, so it had been some time since I really delved into his catalogue. For this reason, I was very excited to revisit 2001: A Space Odyssey the other night. I watched it with my wife and another couple. All three had never before experienced Kubrick’s masterpiece of science fiction, and I was eager to show it to them. Although I had not seen the movie in over five years, I remembered it well, the impressive, often magisterial, images lodged firmly in my memory. Since my first viewing, I have never forgotten the lonely prehistoric flats, the unblinking red eye of HAL 9000, or the soaring lights of beyond the infinite.
During high school, when I was rapidly expanding my film knowledge, I used to borrow a VHS copy of 2001 from the local library every few months (the widescreen version, of course) and absorb the film’s images and music. Or rather, the film absorbed me. However, despite this enthralling quality, I once told a friend I thought 2001 was boring, but that I liked that about it. Now (I hope) I am able to better articulate what I meant back then.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a very slow movie. Indeed, it could almost be described as a silent movie, as there is very little dialogue. Kubrick, an expert visual storyteller, relates most of the story with simple images and the straightforward editing of those images together.
Consider, for example, the beginning segment, “The Dawn of Man.” Around twenty minutes long and devoid of dialogue, the segment very slowly, carefully, and visually tells the story of an early human discovering how to use a bone as a tool and very soon as a weapon. At the end of the segment comes the famous match cut, in which the bone, tossed high into the air, switches to an orbiting satellite, possibly one armed with nuclear weapons. Placing these two images side by side, Kubrick delivers a clear message: the one tool led to the other. In a way, the bone club was humanity’s first step into space. However, this seemingly uncomplicated match cut contains other layers of meaning. For instance, the association of the bone with the satellite points to the close, and troubling, relationship between technology and weaponry throughout human history.
Kubrick constructs and assembles his shots cleanly and patiently, and, as a result, the film is slow enough that we can begin to examine it as we take it in. Returning to my example, because Kubrick follows the transition from the bone to the satellite with a few minutes of elegantly moving spaceships, we can start to think about the match cut as we watch the movie. If we permit the distinct and thoughtful pace, if we let the images and music pour over us, if we surrender ourselves to the power of Kubrick’s direction, letting the movie absorb us, 2001 can truly be both a transfixing and stimulating experience.
That said, 2001 actually contains little action to excite us. Called, A Space Odyssey, we may expect to see heroic deeds and adventures in outer space, but the epic nature of 2001 derives not from the size or quantity of its spectacle but rather from the hugeness of its scope. The film traverses not only enormous distances, from Earth to Jupiter and beyond the infinite, but also an extraordinary breadth of time, from our distant past to our destined future. Most importantly, though, the film’s journey is within, searching out humanity’s inner space.
This grand tale of human evolution and technological progress has been a significant step in my own evolution as a film lover. 2001: A Space Odyssey showed me a different kind of movie: one that is symbolic, metaphorical, and more about thoughts and ideas than emotions. With his masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick put forward such fascinating ideas and touched upon deep-set primordial feelings. He explored the distant reaches of outer space and the inner recesses of human nature. I am sure it has been said in discussions of 2001 before, but I will repeat it: though the year of the title has passed, the world of film is still catching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey.