This is one of those movies that everyone knows about, but not many have seen. Its iconography has made its way into pop culture so completely that we can’t escape its influence, but its reputation as being an artsy-fartsy slow ponderous film has alienated it from a lot of contemporary viewers, which is a shame.
When you talk to film buffs, they’ll react one of two ways. They’ll dismiss it as an overrated two hours of Stanley Kubrick making out with himself, claiming that its dialogue is boring and its pacing is glacial, and A Clockwork Orange is the TRUE Kubrick masterpiece you should really see. The other response you’ll get is, “Oh, well this is an art film and you probably won’t understand it. Only real film aficionados can appreciate it,” followed by a snooty hand gesture or something. Ignore them. They’re just out to make people feel bad about themselves, and that’s super lame.
I am here to tell you that you can enjoy this film if you want. If you don’t like it, that’s cool, but don’t avoid it just because you’re intimidated by it.
In terms of story, it’s pretty straightforward (no, I mean it!). These black monolith…things have been interfering in human evolution for millennia, and when one is discovered on the moon, a ship is sent to track down the destination of a super strong radio transmission that the moon monolith (the moonolith?) sent out.
The ship is powered by a supercomputer called Hal (its official name is the HAL 9000) and Hal seems terrified of letting the crew complete their mission, even though the crew hasn’t actually been told officially what their mission is yet.
He’s sort of an Asimov-esque robot gone wrong. And so, as the psychotic computer does its best to kill off everyone on board systematically, it’s up to a dude named Bowman to stop Hal and figure out what’s really going on.
That sounds like it’s full of spoilers, but it really isn’t.
The biggest thing about this movie isn’t really the plot. It’s not necessarily a writer’s film. It’s a director’s film. It’s not fanboy hyperbole to say that this is one of the most awe-inspiring movies ever made. The effects are incredible, the sets are mind-boggling, and the music gets into your soul and stays there (both the pretty Strauss stuff and the unearthly Ligeti stuff that becomes the monolith’s theme). One thing that turns people away is the writing (Even Ray Bradbury found the writing awkward), but Kubrick wanted the film to be a mostly non-verbal experience, so the dialogue doesn’t really matter.
The script is there to give everything a sense of realism, but not really to move the story forward. You know how if you record two people talking in an everyday situation, most of it would be really boring because people blab about dumb stuff when they’re going about their day. People don’t make dramatic declamations or drown people in exposition when they’re going to get coffee.
The dialogue in this film (except for Hal’s) is pretty ordinary. It’s mostly forgettable, but it works because it conjures up the sound of a NASA control room, with everyone talking about this seal and that pump and that trajectory and so on, and it’s all important, but it’s all sort of background noise to the really awesome stuff that’s happening out in space, like the Hubble telescope taking a sweet picture of some cool nebula. When you watch the movie, the dialogue is there as background noise. And while that’s happening, you’re staring in awe at the awesome sets and the sweeping backdrops.
Another thing that scares people away is the lack of exposition. It takes about 4/5 of the way through the movie before you can really start to piece together what’s happening, and that tries a lot of people’s patience, especially once you get to the whole Hal thing and you find yourself wondering what it has to do with anything. My reaction to that is “Don’t give up on it, OMG!”
There’s a few options.
- Watch the movie, enjoy the amazing visuals and the wonderful music, and then when you get to the end, turn to a friend (or text them or whatever) and debate what you think happened at the end until the wee hours of the morning. It’s open-ended, so you can come to your own conclusions and debate what you think was going on, and that’s perfectly acceptable. That way, every time you see it, you can modify your theories as to what happened based on new details you notice in each viewing.
- Watch the movie. Scratch your head a few times. Read Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization (which he released right after the film came out, but is its own separate entity from the film’s script) and go, “OOOH!” and then watch the movie again. There’s less room for fun debate, but at least you’ll be able to sleep soundly.
- Read the book first. Be amazed at Clarke’s amazing prose and the high-concept incredible-ness of the story. Then watch the movie, free of confusion, and enjoy the cinematic magic as it unfolds, pointing out the differences between the two stories.
The biggest thing about watching this film is to not go into it expecting to be confused or made to feel dumb (because you’re totally not dumb). Go into it expecting crazy pretty visuals and thought provoking themes. You can follow it up with a Star Wars or Alien marathon if you want and point out all the visual and musical homages to 2001, or you can give Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra a read and debate the themes of man and superman with your stuffed animal collection (or friends if you have those!). Or you can go, “That was weird…” and watch Die Hard (another TOTALLY AWESOME movie that everyone needs to see).
But do watch it at some point in your life. It’s one of those crazy important films that sent shockwaves of influence all through the film industry, shockwaves we’re still feeling today (Interstellar, anyone?). It’s really important and fascinating and thought-provoking, and I love it. And I think a bunch of you might, too.
Have you seen it? Did you like it? Hate it?
Next time, I’ll be back with a review for the newest Star Trek movie which will either be terrible or…well a bit less terrible. I have super low expectations. But we’ll see…