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.
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
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.
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)
The Spin’s Previous Retrospectives:
- Revisiting There Will Be Blood – The Best Film of the 2000’s
- Revisiting The Sweet Hereafter – The Best Film of the 1990’s
- Revisiting Paris, Texas – The Best Film of the 1980’s
And of course, here is my My Favorite Films Archive.