The film that Kubrick made after Dr Strangelove was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it couldn’t be more different. Where Strangelove was character driven nuclear madness, 2001 is a celebration of film-making. Based on Arthur C. Clark’s novel The Sentinel, the story is concerned with the idea that our evolution may have been driven by some intergalactic race, as well as being about our over-reliance on technology. Though you might be forgiven for not paying too much attention to the plot because the whole film looks glorious; it’s like watching a work of art.
The most obvious topic for discussion are the visuals. As I say, it’s about as far removed from the gloomy pictures of Dr Strangelove as it could be; the images are dynamic, crisp and it essentially looks as though the crew were actually filming in space, especially the opening shot of the sun rising over the Earth and Moon. Phenomenal cinematography from Geoffrey Unsworth. Though the camera is static for most of the film (I can only specifically remember the shot of Frank Poole jogging around the circular drum of Discovery as a moving camera), Kubrick always manages to position it in such a way that he can convey elegant motion.
I think that one of the reasons it all looks so phenomenal is because the shots are long, slow and deliberate. If shots are rushed with lots of fast edits (Michael Bay) then it is possible to get away with less than perfect effects; but here everything looks spot on. For example there is a moment just after an hour into the film when Dave and Frank move from a stationary corridor into a rotating module before climbing down a ladder upwards! It’s hardly an important scene, just two characters moving about the ship, but it looks so natural and effortless. If a director has bothered to make these incidental scenes so amazing then it all adds to the magnificence. In this case it really was the director, as Stan designed as well as directed all of the special effects shots.
As well as being a treat for the eyes, 2001 is also a treat for the ears. The music is all fabulous. Most notably Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz beautifully complements the dance of the spacecraft docking with the space station, and of course Thus Spake Zarathustra which is synonymous with this film. It also features Aram Khachaturian's Gayane ballet suite, which I would never heard of if James Horner hadn’t used elements of it in the main titles of Aliens!
In complete contrast to all the music, I also love the eerie silence as Dave Bowman is trying to rescue Frank. Of course as well as being dramatic, it is scientifically accurate as sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space. To borrow the tagline from another famous Sci-Fi film “In space no-one can hear you scream”. During this sequence all we hear is the hum of the EVA pod and Dave breathing in his helmet; but only when we see Dave's point of view.
The last 15 min are a bit of an indulgence as Dave travels into the monolith "Star Gate" orbiting Jupiter. Queue lots of psychedelic images, swirls and smoke; all rather like Ellie travelling through time and space at the end of Contact, but less coherent! Or rather Contact is like 2001! In fact there were a few moments when I realised that George Lucas borrowed quite a bit from the visual design of some of the sets.
Perhaps more a work of art than a film, 2001 looks absolutely phenomenal, and is an absolute joy to experience. That statement comes with a warning though. I know that this kind of film isn’t for everyone; my wife for one finds it very boring. It’s almost two and a half hours long and no fantastic action sequences or meaty dialogues between great actors getting their thesp on! It’s an experience rather than a regular film, but I for one think it’s wonderful.