Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack
Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey online in the UK: BBC iPlayer
Regularly on critics’ list of the best movies of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey more than earns its place. Made by Stanley Kubrick at the height of his not inconsiderable powers, the 1968 film was sci-fi pre-Moon Landings and pre-Star Wars – and yet it remains one of the most impressive spectacles in cinema history. This is one movie that really should be seen on the big screen.
Even on TV, its quality is self-evident. Typically uncompromising in his vision, Kubrick took his legendary attention-to-detail into the near-future (as was) and created a convincing and – most importantly – truly breathtaking vision of the next phase of space exploration. Seen from 2019, the joy of Kubrick’s aesthetic lies in its retro-futurism. Though set in the 21st Century, everything – the haircuts, the mini-skirts, the weird chairs on the space station, even the effortlessly cool spacesuits – still screams late-1960s.
And then there’s that other hallmark of that decade: psychedelia. There’s a hallucinatory feel to the whole movie, but the final half hour is mind-bending genius; there’s a very good reason it became a rite of passage in some quarters to drop acid and let Kubrick take you for a trip.
In among all this visual brilliance, there’s also a cracking story, courtesy of science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke. Originating as his short story The Sentinel way back in 1951, he expanded on his original idea as he wrote the screenplay and – because he was a genius – also wrote the novel of the film at the same time.
Ambitious in scope, the story sets out its epic stall with its opening scene of proto-human ape-men – inspired by the appearance of an obsidian alien monolith – to become both intelligent and violent. Not only does this ‘first murder’ bring to mind Cain offing Abel in Genesis, but the weapon used – a jawbone – is a reference to another Biblical figure, Samson (“With the jawbone of an ass…I slain a thousand men.”). By tapping into our culture’s ancient legends, our minds are primed for a journey that will take us from our primeval beginnings through to the future (a world where, despite our technology, our savage nature is evident in tensions between the West and the USSR) and – beyond the stargate – to, perhaps, our next phase of existence.
Quite what actually occurs in those closing 30 minutes is anyone’s guess, but it’s generally noted that the above references to the violent and primitive Old Testament points us to the transcendental redemption of the New; is astronaut Dave at one within the womb of the multiverse? Or the new Christ? (Or just a very naughty boy?)
Along the way, we have a more conventional quest storyline. When the Monolith appears on the Moon, it transmits a radio signal towards Jupiter and the spaceship Discovery One is dispatched to investigate. On board, astronauts Dave and Frank (Gary Lockwood) are in hibernation pods (something imitated a decade later in Ridley Scott’s Alien), the ship controlled by ship’s computer HAL (his name famously created by moving the letters of IBM one letter on). In what is arguably one of the most famous sequences in human history, HAL malfunctions, his mellifluous voice (provided by Douglas Rain) chillingly asking Dave to sit down and take a stress pill. And then, of course, the computer sings ‘Daisy, Daisy…” as Dave closes him down.
There are many other equally wonderful moments of cinema history: the stewardess walking on the ceiling, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra blasting out as the star-baby is revealed, or the spaceship ballet set to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. And the legendary Leonard ‘Reggie Perrin’ Rossiter as a genial Soviet scientist.
A bona fide classic, and cultural touchstone (it’s referenced in countless movies and TV shows, from Woody Allen’s Sleeper to Pixar’s Wall-E), this is a movie you should rewatch. And if this is your first time – see it on the biggest screen possible.
2001: A Space Odyssey is available on BBC iPlayer until 27th May 2019.