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 ani­mal amongst many , some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed on us.

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

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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