2001: A Space Odyssey, the magic of pure cinema.

Section 3 of Kubrick's iconic sic fi classic.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

People often remember 2001: A Space Odyssey as being divided into three parts. It’s actually in four sections. The first part sees us in the depths of our prehistory. And it’s a pretty accurate summary of what was then known about our origins in the mid 1960s.

We began as part ape part man, gradually moving from the former to the latter, living as one amongst many animals, some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed upon us.

But our ability to fashion tools, and our understanding that this is what sets us apart from all of the other animals, begins the process which will see us come to dominate the planet. And is so doing, it introduces rivalry between us and our neighbouring clans.

Section 1: no sex please, we're (adopted) British.

Section 1: the shape of things to come.

Predictably, the one element that Kubrick leaves out of our prehistoric evolution is reproduction, because that requires sex. Despite the fact that sex is the very engine of all the best drama, Kubrick avoids it, because sex leads to emotion and Kubrick doesn’t do emotion – see my earlier review here.

The second part jump cuts, famously, to the future, where an astronaut has been sent into space to investigate an extraordinary discovery on a nearby moon. And when that goes wrong, we move further into the future for the third part, as another pair of astronauts have been sent into space two years later to investigate what happened.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

This then becomes a battle of wits between one of them, and the on-board computer, HAL. And when then the bedraggled astronaut speeds off into space for the fourth part we are flung further forward into the future and into what seems to be a new dimension.

What happens when we get there is instructive. In appearance impressively enigmatic, it’s actually fairly easy to break down. The fourth section is basically an exercise in subject displacement.

From the pod, we see him, the object. He then becomes the subject, looking over at the object, the elderly man eating at the table – that man being his older self. The dining man, now the subject, hears a noise, and turns to see the new object, an even older man lying in the bed. And that man now becomes the subject, looking over at the new object, the granite slab which stands in front of him, and which links all four sections of the film, suggesting so much yet saying so little.

Section 3: man V machine.

Section 3: man V machine.

The response to all of which might very well be, so what? It’s all wonderfully evocative, but it’s not actually about anything. Neither philosophically, intellectually nor narratively. And that goes for the whole film. The only section of the film with any actual drama in it is the third, where fairly standard fears about machines taking over the world are explored, albeit in a wonderfully tense way.

But that would be to completely miss what the film is. It’s not, and was never intended to be, a conventional, narrative film. What it is instead is a sequence of beautifully composed, imagistic tableaux, painstakingly constructed and all meticulously framed by brilliantly chosen pieces of complimentary classical music.

The enigmatic section 4.

The enigmatic section 4.

When, for instance, the spaceship docks in part 2 to the tune of the Blue Danube, for a full six minutes(!), that’s not what space looks or sounds like. That’s what we’d like it to look and sound like in our imaginations. Unfettered by the constraints of conventional narrative, Kubrick let his imagination roam. And it’s ravishing.

If all films were like this of course, none of us would ever bother watching any of them. But as a lone beacon that stands proudly in contrast to every other great film, with its dismissal of narrative and therefore of emotional engagement, and its celebration instead of pure images set to sublime music, verily its vision to behold.

It’s on general release this summer in a spanking new 70mm print. And here’s the 2001 trailer.

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