2001: A Space odyssey - 50 years later

- By Shane Hughes 


With the 50th anniversary re-release of the 1968 cinema classic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ hitting theatres in the US this Friday the 18th of May and a limited release soon to be announced for the UK and Ireland, I look at what the film has always meant to me and what being a true classic, really entails.

A classic. It’s a label associated with many a film, though all too often without good reason. Movies like James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ and the much beloved holiday favourite ‘Home Alone’ are often slapped with this prestigious title - yet one is left to ask what exactly have they done for cinema? The answer in complete truth; not that much. Whilst they are popular films, becoming massive box office smashes, it doesn’t necessarily make them deserving of such rare admiration. Yet, despite this regular use of the word, genuine classics are out there. Amongst the hundreds of films that get labelled so, exist a few films that stand that little taller above the rest; unique, trailblazing and bold. These films reinvented cinema as we all know it today; the true cinema classics of the industry. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of these classic films. Released in 1968 to a wave of critical acclaim and audience approval, it was arguably Kubrick’s boldest and most unique film. It reinvented a genre and gave new life to a cinema that was looking for something new in a time of technological and social reinvention.


But, what sets it apart from the many a so called classic? To simply put it, its mesmerising ability to provoke feelings of awe and wonder, from it’s release back in 1968, to today, on it’s fiftieth anniversary. I first saw this masterpiece in filmmaking whilst flicking through the channels of my crappy living room TV in the mid 2000s. Ten, maybe eleven years old, I sat, spoilt for choice with so many channels, yet utterly bored. For some reason, I chose to watch 2001. I was confused, a little frightened and entirely captivated. The film was a mesh of philosophical and hypothetical pondering, with subtle elements of horror and deep moments of suspense, all of which went over this tween boys head. Yet, something captivated me within it. Its colours, style and presentation were different to what I was so used to seeing on regular television. There was something about this film was magical. I revisited it many times throughout my early teenage years and in many ways it helped me fall in love with modern cinema as an art form.

2001 is a film you have to commit to; it asks you to surrender your mind for the best part of three hours. Three hours may sound daunting (and it should) as this film is no easy puzzle to piece together. But those would be three hours well spent. Perhaps watching this film for the first time as a kid on the cusp of teenage life was the perfect time to first experience it. I wasn’t pondering its every mystery, lost in its debates about life and meaning, but amazed by its beauty, engaged with its imagery. A space station orbiting the blue marble Earth; people floating down corridors in zero gravity, dressed in sleek clothing, the intimidating red lights soaking the spacecraft’s white compartments. These were as incredible a sight to behold then as they were almost four decades earlier. Whilst many films don’t survive the technological shifts of time, becoming outdated and almost comical in appearance, Kubrick’s successful attempt to breathe new life into the science fiction genre is still a sight to behold half a century after its initial release.

However, not everyone is blessed with the naivety of childhood the first time they watch a cinema classic. Sure, one could spend an entire sitting debating the true meaning behind the aliens, the artificial intelligence, monoliths and mankind’s true purpose in this universe, dissecting the themes and trying to answer its questions, but I’d recommend otherwise. Enjoy it for what it is, a masterpiece in storytelling and imagination, a visual treat. 2001, takes you through time, space and the ages, on a trip you will certainly enjoy. Over-analysing it on your first watch is the wrong way to experience this exciting journey. Don’t overthink the planet sized baby and primates with clubs, just go with it. Trust me.

Kubrick said it best himself in 1970, two years after the film was released, it still being something people couldn’t stop talking about. He called it “a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting”.  Kubrick wanted us to experience this film as a piece of art. He knows you can spend all day staring at a painting in a gallery, trying to find hidden meaning and purpose, yet sometimes experiencing something as it is and enjoying it in that moment in time is the best way to perceive art. It’s certainly what Kubrick would want you to do.

2001 inspired a new style of filmmaking. For those amongst us familiar with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’, another fan-labelled “classic”, Kubrick’s masterpiece will give you momentary feelings of Déjà vu, but remember, Kubrick did it first. The legacy 2001 left behind is evident in the decades of subsequent science fiction films that tried to replicate it in tone, intelligence and debate, but 2001 did it first. For that reason we must give the credit where it is deserved. There’s something about 2001 that is still timely and relevant. It makes a cold portrayal of humanity, one that regularly encourages discussion, reflected in the often inexpressive acting of its leads. It is HAL, the calm and creepy Artificial Intelligence of the film, that is most disconcerting in these most computerised of times. The scenes where the homicidal machine is in the process of being shut down, are emotional, tense and utterly horrifying. “Dave, stop. Stop it will you. Will you stop Dave”. These words haunt you, piercing your mind as you watch with mixed emotion. Trust me, you’ll ever view SIRI or Alexa in quite the same way again.

2001: A Space Odyssey hits US theatres in its original unrestored form, this Friday May 18th, with a limited UK and Ireland re-release expected to be announced for later this year.