(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler. In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)
The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies. Last night I watched 2001. As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end. Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip. At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence. And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles. And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie. So, let’s talk about it. You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence. But I find the rest of the film is excellent. Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making. There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people. And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic. In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities. The other characters are decidedly wooden.
But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle. The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect. The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet. The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting. I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course). It captured the essence of human ingenuity. The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.
And then there’s HAL. I hate HAL. I always have. But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster. And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty. His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep. Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.” I never shared that sadness. I guess I’m more Old-Testament.
So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks. But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers. This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion. Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution. And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.
In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence. What’s not to like? Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.