Ranking: #1/ 111

Director: Stanley Kubrick (USA)   

Genre: Science Fiction Epic

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed almost entirely on studio sets, gets my vote for the greatest film made (so far), due to the exquisite visual and narrative embodiment of its central ideas and themes. It is profound in its examination of the meaning of the Space Age for humanity, including assessing the possible existence of extra-terrestrial beings, far superior in intelligence to humans, somewhere in the Universe. And its use of cinematic technologies and techniques to recreate an imaginative vision of the Space Age is masterful. On top of this, the film accurately predicted the emergence of some technologies in a future world after 1968, such as video telephony, voice biometric authentication, virtual reality, a computer beating humans at chess, space shuttles, a space station, manned lunar landings, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to prominence. This prescient approach to technology has helped to keep the film’s futuristic look and feel fresh for over five decades. In short, the film is an imaginative masterpiece, and deserves to be seen on a par with outstanding works of twentieth century art like Picasso’s Guernica, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Great movies are often made through great collaborations – Orson Welles and Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in Metropolis, Kurosawa and Mifune in Drunken Angel, Wenders and Alekan in Wings of Desire, Antonioni and Monica Vitti in Red Desert, not to mention the famous partnership between Ingmar Bergman and his favourite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. The greatness of 2001: A Space Odyssey was largely generated from the creative synergy between Kubrick, with his strong visual imagination combined with his mastery of the tools of cinema, and the prodigious science fiction writer and futurist, Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick and Clarke co-wrote the script for the movie based on Clarke’s short story The Sentinel.  The two men spent two years turning the short story into a novel and a movie script (the reworked novel was also published in 1968).

Clarke’s original short story is about an expedition to the Moon which discovers a glittering, pyramidal structure, about twelve feet high, set on a lunar plateau. This shining structure radiates a force. After studying the apparition, the conclusion is reached that it was left behind by extra-terrestrial beings looking for signs of other life while exploring the Solar System. Whenever the creatures saw a planet that held the promise of life – and therefore of intelligence – such as Earth itself, they would leave behind these sentinels waiting to be discovered. The idea is that any species intelligent enough to discover and then study the sentinel would be worth monitoring and even visiting. Once a sentinel had been taken down, the signals it emitted would cease, alerting its owners in another galaxy that an intelligent species had arisen there. In other words, Clarke conceived of the sentinels as “fire alarms”, or early warning systems and stationery satellites, for the detection of intelligent life on other places in the Universe the aliens had visited in their voyages of space discovery.

In Kubrick’s epic space drama, the sentinels have been transformed from crystalline pyramids into black monoliths, or slabs. They emit powerful radio pulses. But the idea is the same – they are part of an early warning system installed by superior beings and networked across the Universe. The monoliths in the movie monitor the awakening of intelligence on the planets the extra-terrestrials have visited, including Earth. When Clarke published a novel based on the movie script and bearing the same title, in 1968, the prehistoric monoliths in it are three million years old.

Thematically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is about the interplay of four different kinds of intelligence: animal, human, artificial and extra-terrestrial forms of intelligence, looked at on the evolutionary scale. The movie explores the origins, evolution and possible future of human intelligence ending in some kind of super-intelligence, an end state symbolised by the reborn Star Child appearing in the movie’s dramatic ending.

All along, the movie seems to be asking probing philosophical questions, like: “Of the four kinds of intelligence, which is the greatest power of all?” and “Will technology ultimately dehumanise, or superhumanise, us?” In an interview, Clarke explained the importance of intelligence to the film and to the future: “In fact, this film is about the two most important realities of the future: development of intelligent machines, and contact with higher alien intelligence.”

The script of the movie is much deeper than Clarke’s short story and it was a stroke of genius to bring in the element of machine intelligence as it impacts on human intelligence because this turned out to be a major issue once the Computer, or Information, Age arrived in full force. In fact, this is still a “futuristic” issue today. Once again, the film has managed to maintain its intellectual currency through its sheer far-reaching prescience. This Space Age motion picture would have been greatly diminished if it had just been about the presence of an extra-terrestrial intelligence in the Universe. The real climax in the film is not so much the wondrous image of the Star Child at the end (which represents the astronaut Dave Bowman being reborn as a more cosmic being of superior intelligence), or the intergalactic journey to Jupiter and beyond, but the conflict between the mission commander Dave Bowman and HAL-9000 the supercomputer onboard the space station (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”). This is the tussle we all have today between how much power machine intelligence has been given versus our own human intelligence.

The thematic brilliance of the film is strongly carried by the narrative, which is divided into five tableaux, or distinct sections. These sequences stretch out on an immense time scale from back to when apes evolved into hominids, after discovering the use of tools, through to the distant future when human intelligence has evolved to the same level shown by the superior beings who left behind the monoliths on Earth and on the Moon. At the end of Clarke’s 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Star-Child is described as “master of the world” but “not quite sure what to do next”. The astronaut Bowman has evolved into pure consciousness.

Clarke said that his 1953 story Encounter in the Dawn inspired the film’s “Dawn of Man” sequence. This prologue creates a vast sense of time which is necessary to match the vastness of space that will be explored later in the film. It is a compelling opening, especially when the apes discover the mysterious monolith and we hear the high-pitched humming of its powerful radio waves and the mournful, yet harsh, strains of György Ligeti’s Requiem.

The themes developed by Kubrick and Clarke are also given a magnificent visual and sonic representation in the film. And Kubrick pulled out all the stops to create sets and to shoot film footage that would do justice to the imaginary scale of the movie’s core ideas. Kubrick splashed out $750,000 of the budget to hire Vickers-Armstrong to build the circular, steel, rotating centrifuge set which weighed thirty tons and was forty feet across. It enabled the production team to film the astronauts in what looked like a zero-gravity spacecraft.

For the all-important monolith, so central to the story, the team developed a twelve feet high wooden slab. It was sanded multiple times and a special mixture of black paint and pencil graphite was applied for a muted, but jet-black, look. This process was repeated over and over until the block smouldered with what one commentator described as “an eerie blackness”. Clarke has spoken about Kubrick’s “ceaseless search for perfection” on the movie’s set.

And Kubrick hired the best cinematographer available in Geoffrey Unsworth. The production designer, Tony Masters, has also been credited with a lovely design of the interiors of the space vessels and the creation of some optical illusion effects using rotating cameras and inverted sets. A movie on this scale required an unprecedented level of collaboration to produce. It is a monumental movie in every sense of that word.

Michael Benson, author of Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece, states that the movie is essentially a nonverbal experience. In other words, it is “symphonic”, rather than theatrical, audio-visual rather than dialogue-driven (Benson, for example, estimates there are only 40 minutes of spoken words out of the film’s 142 minutes running time). Kubrick wanted the viewing experience to be purely cinematic, with its truths understated and implicit, while Clarke’s fiction, in general, tends to be wordy, too often over-explaining the science behind the story, occasionally becoming didactic. Their collaboration resulted in the best of both worlds – plenty of interesting truths, ideas and hard science from Clarke’s fertile imagination married to stunning cinematographic images conceived by Kubrick and welded with his supremely delicate touch to a resonant soundscape. Kubrick, an avid reader of science fiction, turned The Sentinel, a work of science fiction, into a poetic work of art which arouses our wonder in a way which few films have ever done.  Kubrick once explained that he wanted to get under the skin of his viewers with the subtlest of vibrations, sometimes aiming to get into their subconscious. You can’t get further way from a didactic approach than that!

And who can forget the opening image of the Earth, Moon and Sun in an orbital conjunction, shown on a single vertical line in the middle of the screen? It shows the majesty of the Solar System so the audience can really feel the wonder.

It was a most fortunate matter of providence that these two intellectuals, one a scientific thinker and the other a visual thinker (a former photographer turned filmmaker), decided to collaborate when they were both at the creative peak of their careers. The result is a mind-bogglingly sophisticated film.

Kubrick’s optical genius is on display throughout and, fortunately for us, it’s all viewed on the panoramic, Cinerama-style screen. For example, there is a famous “match cut”, when the Dawn of Man sequence ends with the alpha male ape Moonwatcher hitting the bone into the air, where it spirals in slow motion and then morphs into a spacecraft gliding to the dulcet sounds of Strauss’s The Blue Danube waltz. (Kubrick later explained that he listened to twenty-five different recordings of The Blue Danube before selecting one conducted by Herbert von Karajan and recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. It has been said more than once that the director was obsessive about this kind of attention to detail.) A million years of history is contained in that one flight of the bone into the air.

The sequence showing Bowman, as the sole surviving astronaut after the battle with HAL the master computer, passing through the Star Gate in the space pod is like a cross between a psychedelic vision and a Jackson Pollack painting that has come alive. As these abstract images, bursting with kaleidoscopic colours, are accelerated, using the slit-scan photography method (developed by visual effects designer on the set, Douglas Trumbull), the viewers can feel like they’re passing through a wormhole in space or some sort of time warp. On the other side of the Star Gate, Bowman arrives in his space pod into an ornate, rococo Hotel Room which we later realise is a place the aliens have constructed, almost like Virtual Reality, based on their research into human life. Here, he will undergo ageing, death and then finally a “resurrection” or “transfiguration” as a Star Child imbued with the same kind of super-intelligence possessed by the alien race. When the huge Star Child comes alongside Earth, it is also suspended in space, like the first shot of the spacecraft at the end of the Dawn of Man, suggesting that the path of evolution is towards an ever-higher level of intelligence, eventually reaching what Kubrick called in one interview “pure spirit”.  In an interview he explained that he wanted the ending to work on the “subconscious emotional” level. He intended the film to be “an intensely subjective experience”, like listening to music. And it is, indeed, experienced in a visceral way. And yet it also deliberately raises lots of philosophical questions, answering some, while leaving others open-ended.

Throughout, Kubrick succeeds in matching sound to image, as when Richard Strauss’s powerful Thus Spake Zarathustra theme is introduced to suggest man’s rise from ape to human, from animal to tool-user. For some of the scenes in outer space, a respiratory soundscape is introduced to mimic the strained breathing of the astronauts and the sound is resonant against the silence of space itself.

The famous American scientist Carl Sagan, always interested in the possibility of alien life elsewhere in the Universe, also had a significant influence on the film. He had suggested to Kubrick in a meeting that any explicit representations of aliens in the movie would look false and artificial. This was very wise advice indeed. The invisible presence of a higher intelligence is felt everywhere in the film, from the encounters with the radio-wave emitting monoliths on Earth and on the Moon, to the psychedelic Star Gate sequences and the surrealistic scenes of Bowman in the imaginary hotel room, and this is a much more subtle and satisfying viewer experience than looking at dummy models of aliens designed by make-up artists.

The invisible intelligence of the super-computer, too, is not really geolocated to the eye on the monitor, as we see when HAL is speaking, but is an increasingly intimidating presence felt throughout the space station. It is only when Bowman enters the Brain Room to disconnect HAL’s higher logic functions and circuit breakers from the massive memory terminal, that we see the source of the Artificial Intelligence controlling the Discovery spacecraft. This “death of a computer” sequence is beautifully, balletically filmed and carries a symbolic significance that still resonates today. “Dave, my mind is going, I can feel it,” HAL opines, with the cool detachment expected of a supercomputer.

The fact that both machine intelligence and extra-terrestrial intelligence are invisible presences in the film’s narrative creates subtlety, mystery, wonder and fear.

And when we see this film today, we’re still looking ahead into the future, despite the passing of half a century since it was made. It is indeed ironic that a school misfit who couldn’t get into college turned out to make the most far-sighted, visionary and technically accomplished, film of all time.

I am fairly sure that people will still be watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in another hundred years’ time.