Jersey Reflections: Sci-Fi Film Epic

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 The visually stunning, dialogue-starved masterpiece first appeared as a Cinerama experience in 1968.

Fairport Convention’s 1968 British single proclaims “Time will show the wiser,” and the lyric seems to have unwittingly summarized the critical evaluation of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film epic 2001: A Space Odyssey over its 50-year existence.

Co-authored by Kubrick and sci-fi luminary Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 is an achievement like no other in its genre. Originally envisioned as a modern-day counterpart to Homer’s The Odyssey, the film’s concept spent several years transforming into the visually stunning, dialogue-starved masterpiece that first appeared in select theaters as a 70-millimeter curved-screen-Cinerama experience in 1968.

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From the start, 2001 was a challenge to sight and sound, forsaking conventional narrative and dialogue in favor of image and replacing a traditional soundtrack with classical compositions, ranging from the soothing tones of Johann Strauss to the unsettling strains of Gyorgy Ligeti. Kubrick also withheld any view of extraterrestrials, preferring instead to showcase their monolithic structures as evidence of their existence. As Dan Chiasson accurately observed in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Audiences who came to 2001 expecting a sci-fi movie got, instead, an essay on time.”     

Almost immediately, discourse on the film and its potential meaning filled countless periodicals. The reviews were not always favorable. Besides those who found the film too cryptic, there were reviewers who took issue with other concerns, such as Harper’s Pauline Kael, who found fault with Kubrick as a “big movie director” and the New York Times’ Renata Adler, who complained that 2001 was “completely absorbed in its own problems.” 

As with most of Kubrick’s cinematic releases, opinions began to swing in favor of the film within several years, acknowledging the technical and thematic accomplishments initially perceived only by a few. By 1970, the popular Signet paperback The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 was published. Over the next several decades, biographies on and analyses of the director—most notably texts by Alexander Walker, Piers Bizony and Michel Ciment—have attempted to place the film in a proper historical context. In 2001, Cinefex magazine devoted most of an issue to the technical side of the film.

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This year, to mark the half-century anniversary of the movie, Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey explores the minute details of every stage of the film’s creation through extant documents, correspondence between Kubrick and Clarke and insightful interviews with those who witnessed its evolution. The movie is rendered as a painstaking creative and technical process to achieve Kubrick’s early goal of making a “really good” sci-fi film.

What the director produced, through ceaseless research and experimentation, was a movie that, in many ways, belongs to both its era and the future. Not all of his and Clarke’s predictions were accurate or prescient, but the film’s moments in space remain stunning, particularly those involving the astronauts’ work outside the ship Discovery that were accomplished through the use of animation techniques applied to live-action sequences and an eerie absence of sound except for the in-helmet breathing.

Most people, whether they’ve seen the movie or not, will recognize several of the film’s iconic moments. One is the opening sequence involving prehistoric apes, during which the movie’s theme of survival is firmly established with the discovery of a weapon that changes the balance of power over the control of food and water. This first chapter will be echoed later during a mission to Jupiter when the onboard computer HAL commits its own acts of atrocity in the name of self-preservation. 

Another highly recognized moment is the film’s use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the stirring composition by Richard Strauss that, for non-classical music fans, has become associated exclusively with 2001

The film is available to stream from online sites like Amazon and remains in print in both DVD and Blu-Ray editions. Unfortunately, long out of print is the limited series box set of 2001: A Space Odyssey that contained a DVD of an exceptional print of the film along with a soundtrack CD that featured all the music from the movie as well as the additional material from the original 1968 vinyl soundtrack release.    

In 1984, a film version of Clarke’s sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, was directed by Peter Hyams. Featuring a standard plot, traditional dialogue and special effects now severely dated, it has been largely forgotten. Sometimes longevity belongs to the unconventional.

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