By Bo Nicholson - Managing Director
Some films are created with the sole purpose of being entertaining; they may tell a story and that story may be of significance, but the primary function is to be a fun time. Some movies are just made to make money; frankly, these films couldn’t care much about what their script looks like, how much is spoiled during the promotion of the film, or even if it is any good. Some films are works of art; with a purpose to educate and display technical prowess and high-minded creativity. Like all great art, they inspire a sense of wonder and awe as you look at or hear it for the first time.
Think of all the travellers that have visited the Sistine Chapel and gazed upon that immortal ceiling and wondered how Michelangelo could have managed such a feat. Think of all the people that listened to Revolver by The Beatles in 1966 and were equal parts stunned at what they had just heard and excited by what was surely to follow. 2001: A Space Odyssey falls into the same category; a film that is primarily a work of art that at times can be quite slow, but overall is a film of such impressive technical and philosophical achievement that it deserves to be hailed as one of the greatest films of all time.
Once Removed from Genius
As I sat in a room full of about 300 cinephiles and science-fiction nerds, including my partner and 2 friends, my excitement was starting to build. We were there to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey to celebrate its 50th birthday and were about to have a Q&A with two of its stars. We’d already caught a glimpse of the elderly Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the actors who portrayed Dave and Frank. They were sitting down the front in comfortable chairs. Being men of around 80 years, they each cut a weary figure as they entered or left the cinema, although my friend reports that Lockwood was quite spritely and enthusiastic at the urinal when he spotted his co-star. They needn’t stay to watch the film, as Lockwood says, he’s probably seen it 693 times. But while they were there they regaled us with stories of how they learned they would be doing these roles, what they thought the film was about, some random old man stories from Lockwood and, most importantly, their experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.
It suddenly dawned on me while sharing that room with those elderly actors; there was one degree of separation between Kubrick and I in that moment. Here was a direct link to one of cinema’s greatest minds, and they couldn’t be more complimentary of him. I was once removed from genius.
Dullea and Lockwood answered their questions with the variety you might expect from two vastly different people. Dullea’s answers were thoughtful, often concise and stayed on the point. His obvious stoicism mirrored Dave, the character he played in 2001. Lockwood was boisterous, controversial at times, naturally funny and seemed more emotional. He was quick to drop a name (at one point he went on a massive tangent talking about his time on Star Trek despite the question being about the scientific accuracy of 2001) and he was also quick to repeatedly point out that he was a painter and photographer. What they both agreed on was the genius of Kubrick. He had an unparalleled eye for detail and his vision was beyond compare. It’s worth remembering that a film like 2001 is a huge risk. Not only is every scene so rigorously planned to include every detail he’d imagined, but a 2-and-a-half-hour Sci-fi epic with a largely ambiguous story and many scenes of silence or no dialogue is a tough ask for many people to endure. At first, it was largely panned for being boring and pretentious. But then it began to transform in the minds of the public and the critics; now it is known as one of the greats.
Starting with 25 minutes of silence, 2001 can be a pretty tough sell for modern audiences; perhaps a critique of us more than of the film. But more than challenging our attention spans, the theological philosophies at play will also make you marvel at its scope and ambition. Make no mistake; Kubrick’s intention is not to thrill and entertain, but more to inspire thought and contemplation.
For those cinephiles that haven’t seen this film yet, I’m not going to spoil it here. But I encourage you to watch the film before you read about all of the many theories about what the film means. Have an open mind, absorb all of the information (including the minutiae of the quieter and uneventful moments) and come to your own conclusion, before reading what others think. I deliberately say what others think, because a lot of the theories have a lot of merit but they differ greatly.
Modern films, if you will allow me to generalise, don’t allow room for the audience to think about what they are watching, and sadly modern audiences have been conditioned to expect non-stop action, suspense, humour or drama, lest they get bored. 2001 takes extra time to do things, showing in great detail all of the ins and outs of space travel, the aforementioned opening sequence at the dawn of mankind and the famed final third. Many viewers will not understand what is happening in front of them and become frustrated and bored. I understand these people, but to them I say you are missing the point; this film is not for understanding, it is for contemplation. It shows us what we know kick-started human evolution – it estimates what the near future will look like (surprisingly accurately, as I watch this in 2018) and hypothesises about the future of the human race and the existence of aliens. I think it does, anyway!
If patience and restraint aren’t things that you enjoy, then perhaps the stunning visuals are more your speed. Kubrick, a known perfectionist, has created a visual feast that is the approximate equal of any space footage you see in modern films.
The quiet and nuanced symbolism is pushed aside for the second act, where a crew of 5 astronauts are headed into deep space to follow the signal made by a mysterious monolith found on the moon. To accompany them on their journey is an AI system called HAL 9000. I won’t go into more detail for fear of spoiling, but this section of the film provides the most genuine tension and introduces us to one of cinema’s greatest villains.
All of these words and I’m still not satisfied with my ability to discuss this film (without spoilers, of course!). But I guess with some great pieces of art, words just aren’t enough. How could I ever write a piece to compare with the genius of a late 60’s Beatles album, or a Mozart opera, or a film made by Stanley Kubrick in his prime; a film that transcends its genre and medium to stand alone as a truly unique venture and a wholly individual viewpoint, while also being a truly universal film that touches on issues such as our past, our future and our theological beliefs.
When asked, early in the Q&A, about whether they felt that this film could be made now (if it were never made in 1968), the actors were quite diplomatic. Maybe some of the more talented directors could do something similar, they said. By the end of the Q&A they were asked again. This time they were resolute with their answer. No, this film could not be made without Kubrick. You know what, they’re probably right. I’m glad he made it when he did; we’re all better for it.
Bo Nicholson is a Managing Director at The Pioneer Australia. He's far from a Sci-Fi geek, so 2001: A Space Odyssey is the only film from that genre that gets five stars from him... so far!