Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Best Film of the 1960’s

Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Well, HAL, I’m declaring 2001: A Space Odyssey the best film of the 1960’s.  Hell, HAL, it might even be the best film ever made – a perfect symphonic convergence of cutting edge technology, painterly imagery, big ideas and transcendent music, and it was all cobbled together by human hands.

From the dawn of man to the space age, it’s the tools we use and build that define us, that shape our civilization. 

It’s the tools we use to kill and to create.  And it’s the ultimate tool we build, HAL, that will be the death of us.  Working closely with Arthur C. Clarke (upon whose short story, “The Sentinel”, the film is loosely based) Kubrick crafted a vision of the future where mankind is at crossroads – a point at which we have been able to craft artificial intelligence while at the same time being flung into first contact with an alien intelligence that might have been with us, one way or another, all along.  In some ways – it’s the old “the chicken or the egg – which came first?” question.  For is that black monolith not possibly artificial intelligence created by an alien civilization far more advanced than us?  If they have been meddling with our evolution since the dawn of man, could we not possibly be an experiment in artificial intelligence?  Who the hell knows?

Part of the problem with the legacy of Kubrick’s groundbreaking work of art is how parodied it has become over the decades.  The opening “bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bummmmmmmm” of Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” has been so overused, it elicits laughter from some, while the iconic image of the “Space Baby” has been co-opted into pop-culture.

Also at issue is the argument that it wasn’t very accurate in its prophecy.  Sure, we might not have hotels in space, a permanent colony on the moon or manned missions to other planets…but we do have video phones and phone cards, highly advanced computers that will talk to us and beat us at chess or Jeopardy (though hopefully not try to kill us) and though not nearly as elegant as Kubrick’s vision, the idea of space shuttles docking at an international space station not only came to complete fruition, but is about to become a thing of the past as NASA is scrapping the current space shuttle program this year.

And for those who claim the final moments are nothing but an acid trip…apparently you aren’t familiar with symbolism.  It’s actually quite coherent and elegantly done.  Every space oddity has its place and meaning, and everything comes full circle in the end.

While it routinely comes to mind when I think of the greatest films ever made, I wasn’t prompted to revisit 2001 until after seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  As in Kubrick’s magnum opus, Douglas Trumbull (among others) worked on the special effects.  In fact, Malick practically brought him out of retirement.  Trumbull has proved that over forty years later, good old-fashioned photographic effects using creative lighting and organic materials will trump CGI and 3D any day.  Though some of the super-mod, Mad Men In Space-style costumes and set-designs date 2001 to the 1960’s, the visual effects have stood the test of time and are as breathtaking today as they were in Kubrick’s heyday.  Truly, these were SPECIAL effects, and they always will be.

In recent response to Bob Clark’s question posed over at Wonders in the Dark about what is the greatest piece of post-WWII art, I replied, “I have to go on record with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey not just for its painstaking artistry, but for its expansiveness of thought.”

It may sound cliché, but no matter how many times I see it, 2001 blows my mind.

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Here, unabridged as it originally appeared, is my first attempt at making my case for 2001 (and for Kubrick as the greatest director of all time) from the IMDB back in 2005.

In Space, Everyone can see You Dream
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

There are many movies out there so full of energy and self-conscious visionary bravado (films like Goodfellas or City of God) that they perpetuate the myth of the greatest film of all time. Then, there are movies like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 that created the myth, and simply are.

2001 is the prime example of why Stanley Kubrick is the greatest director of all time. He was able to traverse many different genres throughout his career, and in doing so created the mythic templates by which all other latter films in those genres would attempt to emulate. Prior to this film, he made the greatest satire ever in Dr. Strangelove. Following this film, he made the greatest costumed period piece in Barry Lyndon and the greatest “modern” horror film in The Shining. Throw in films like A Clockwork Orange (another biting satire) and Full Metal Jacket (the best “grunts-eye-view” of war ever made) and you have the greatest director of all time.

Here’s why 2001 is the greatest science fiction movie ever made. The amazing visual effects and the set designs with their painstaking attention to detail still hold up to today’s harshest scrutinies. I dare you to find a movie from any period that looks this good. It makes today’s CGI laden films look like visual puke. It also presents us with a prophetic and realistic look at what might happen to our society as it continues to evolve and become more dependent on technology, and the quandaries of creating Artificial Intelligence. HAL, the super computer, is without a doubt the coldest and most profoundly dangerous villain ever to grace the silver screen.

On its most simplistic level, 2001 is the most arresting combination of visuals and sound ever captured on celluloid. What make the film so transcendent are its philosophical and spiritual posturings on man’s place in the universe and just how “alien” our first contact with outside intelligent life may be. The overture and opening credits send shivers down my spine every time, and the ending gives me enough energy to fuel a thousand dreams. No other film in my mind is this innately powerful.

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Starting with the 1970’s (don’t worry, the long-delayed Network/1970’s retrospective is on its way), I have compiled Top 25 lists (with honorable mentions) for this site.  The 1960’s are the first decade going back where I do not have a full list.  The further back in time and away from one’s generation a film buff gets, the more out of depth they become.  For some reason, I’m even more out of depth with the 1960’s than I am with the 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s.  I’m not sure why this is…I guess with my proclivities towards noir and those earlier time periods in general, I have not sought out as much fodder from the 1960’s as I have with other older decades.  With that being said…here are my runners-up from the decade in chronological order:

  • The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)
  • Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Ingmar Bergman)
  • Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)
  • Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
  • The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller)
  • The Pawnbroker (1964, Sidney Lumet)
  • Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  • The Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
  • Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

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The Spin’s Previous Retrospectives:

And of course, here is my My Favorite Films Archive.

 
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11 comments on “Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Best Film of the 1960’s

  1. This is a great argument for this film even though — and I need to be careful here — I don’t really care for this one. Admittedly I haven’t seen it in many many years and I freely admit that I need to see it again, but I remember being flummoxed by it. Visually and aurally it’s stunning, but I could never wrap my head around its (as you call them) “philosophical and spiritual posturings.” All I saw was superficial posturing that doesn’t really say anything about man’s place in the universe beyond showing off what Stanley Kubrick can do.

    Part of this probably comes from a deep antipathy for Kubrick’s movies. “Paths of Glory” is fine, but obvious — one of those easy moral dilemmas that is easy to get audiences worked up about so they think they saw something deep and thoughtful. “A Clockwork Orange” has its moments, but I’m always left with a sense of pointlessness. (Which, by the way, never went away until I read the book. The last chapter explains a lot for me, though Kubrick chose not to film it.) It just reeks of exploitation for exploitation’s sake. Except for some chilling opening credits, “The Shining” is about as scary as a roll of paper towels. And “Full Metal Jacket” is uneven and wrongheaded — it’s clearly a product of World War II movies rather than Vietnam movies and, beyond the boot camp scenes, really give us much that is original. I won’t say anything about The Killing, Barry Lyndon, or Eyes Wide Shut — I either haven’t seen them or saw them so long ago I don’t remember them well.

    His only truly great movie is Dr. Strangelove, ironically one of his least visually accomplished pictures. For me, Kubrick was all about pretty pictures. He has always seemed remarkably uninterested in people and I don’t care how pretty a movie looks or sounds, I need some humanity or understanding of humanity to get excited about it. “2001” is not the greatest movie of the 1960s, nor is Kubrick the greatest director of all time. They are both overrated. Kubrick was a man who esteemed his intellect more than it warranted (a fault of many filmmakers). I wish he had figured out how to say something thoughtful with his pretty pictures rather than spoon-feed us pre-processed faux-intellectual tripe. I guess I stopped being polite. If you can’t tell I really don’t like Kubrick, though I would be curious to hear what you think I’ve got wrong. Like I said I haven’t seen a lot of these movies in a long time and will revisit them at some point.

    I now realize I have essentially written a blog post here. Maybe I should stop and save the rest for my own site. By the way, good job on getting featured on the wordpress home page. You must have had a ton of hits and a boatload of comments. Good work as always!

    Jason – I don’t know how else to respond except with a resounding “you are completely wrong.” I commend you, however, for successfully towing the line of the standard Kubrick detractor. The only thing I agree with is your description of Dr. Strangelove as “one of his least visually accomplished pictures”. I’m glad you enjoyed that at least.

    As for the WordPress press, I have no idea how an older post got “FreshPressed” but I am happy to welcome the traffic and new readers no matter what the circumstances! –DHS

  2. I didn’t realize there was a standard Kubrick detractor line, but I’m glad to know there are people out there who agree with me.

    Oh and I just thought of this. You’re from Philadelphia and you love 2001. In my mind that makes you a prime Toynbee Tiler suspect.

    Holy crap, Jason! I never even heard of these tiles, so of course I had to look it up:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toynbee_tiles

    You can bet your sweet bippy I will be heading out to 13th and Chestnut very soon to take a gander at the tile there! –DHS

  3. I like the way you pretend to have never heard of them.. probably so we won’t suspect you. Nicely played David.

    Ha ha, well, I am nothing if not a master of subterfuge. –DHS

  4. Cervix4 says:

    Full Metal Jacket a WW2 movie? More like Iraq era. Seriously, is there a more modern, relevant war movie around? It’s not about the horrors of war, it’s about modern apathy toward war. And The Shining is not scary on the surface. What’s scary is all the hidden mess-wit-yo-brain stuff in the Overlook Hotel that the audience overlooks. Once you see wots goin on below the surface it truly messes with your mind. And don’t forget his two greatest films, 2001 and Barry Lyndon. The apex of cinema right there.

    Cervix4 – I’m in full agreement with you. –DHS

    • ccyager says:

      “Full Metal Jacket” is about the Vietnam War, so not “more like Iraq era.” Has America so completely forgotten the Vietnam War? I suppose for people born after 1980, it’s the same as talking about a war hundreds of years ago, but it had a profound effect on this country. As a result, we now have a volunteer army, not a draft (18+ males should be grateful!), and when Congress gets in a snit about President Obama getting us into Libya, it’s because there’s a law on the books that was a result of the Vietnam War.

      As for Kubrick, I agree with Jason for the most part. “2001” is definitely a product of its time, especially for those who smoked weed during it, but I would not call it the best movie of the 1960’s when there are “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “West Side Story,” to name some contenders….

      Cinda

      Cinda – you make some excellent points about Vietnam. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drawing corollaries between two conflicts (Vietnam and Iraq) and the universal anti-war themes of Full Metal Jacket can speak to any generation.

      As for your Kubrick comments – I recall you not being a big fan, so I will forgive you 🙂 I must say, though, that you are completely off the mark when you say 2001 is merely a product of its time and simply dismiss it as a “trip”. The themes of discovery, exploration, and emerging technology are timeless. –DHS

  5. NOTE OF AMENDMENT: Now having seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, it certainly ranks among the best of this decade, and I have added it to the list.

  6. […] said, not since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has anyone successfully and earnestly attempted to narrate such a grand tale on the evolution of […]

  7. Jay Me says:

    2001 is easily the most timeless movie ever made. From a visual standpoint, only the odd haircut or item of clothing gives it away as being a product of the 60’s. All the props & sets are so clean, sharp, minimalistic & uncluttered. The story is told more through its visuals rather than dialogue, it wouldn’t get away with that if it wasn’t so sumptuous looking. I like that the film is an enigma, just as life & universe is.

    Ridley Scott’s upcoming Prometheus is looking more like Kubrick’s sci-fi epic in theme & visual design, apart from Giger’s creations. It’s no exaggeration to say, I haven’t looked forward to a movie this much ever.

    Jay Me – you’re not going to get an argument from me 🙂 Prometheus is hotly anticipated in these parts, and though I doubt it will reach Kubrick levels, it still looks damn entertaining. –DHS

  8. Derek says:

    Try Len Wheat’s 2000 book,Kubrick’s 2001;A Triple allegory,showing how it’s based on the Odyssey and Nietzsche’s atheisticThus Spoke zarathustra,which opens at dawn and ends with an interrupted last supper! so HAL=Cyclops AND God,made in man’s image,ie beyond the infinite =beyond the death of God.

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