It makes me feel so old to think that I can remember when this film by the master Stanley Kubrick represented the future. Seeing it now, as part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder series, and with it an incredible 50 years old, is a very odd experience.
It is incredibly long, and unlike the first time I saw it, they included a 5 minute intermission. It was such an incredible experience, back then, with lots of incredibly long, slow experimental films, that I am amazed I sat through it at all. And I am also amazed at how little of it I actually remember – just the ape sequence at the start and the final bits with Hal against the humans on their way to Jupiter.
I do remember not understanding most of it – I had to read the Arthur C Clarke short story it was based upon to get it, but that still doesn’t diminish the fact that the film still feels incredibly up to date which probably makes it unique. They based it on the most up-to date work by Clarke, philosopher Carl Sagan and others, but still, the special effects are incredible, and I still struggle to believe the early scenes with our ape-ancestors are actors. It failed to get best special effects as some of the voters thought they were apes. Likewise, the rotating space stations are fantastically done.
Where it does age badly is the gender stuff. Scientists are largely men, women largely relegated to stewardesses. I am now also very uncomfortable about the very premise of the film and the story it is based on, that humans evolved due to the discovery of a mysterious obelisk, which turned the ape-ancestors into murderous tool-users, then when we became space travellers were again transformed into … well, whatever it is that happens at the end. This seemed radical at the time, but now seems to echo the oft repeated arguments about the existence of god or God, in that, if they created us, who created them.
All that aside, 2001 is one of the greatest films of all time, no question about that. It is at times fantastically beautiful, with much of the action happening without dialogue, often with very little happening, giving the viewer time to revel in the incredible effects. If nothing else, it is a welcome break from the dialogue and action packed films that are so common now. And the booming classical score only adds to the amazing achievements the ape-men have managed. More than a mere film, a truly extraordinary, immersive experience, and a strain on weak bladders.