Written for the catalogue to accompany the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna. The character limit was 2000 characters (with spaces) – I have made it 2001, to echo the film’s title. The text did not appear in print because the screening was cancelled, due to a rights issue with the 70mm print.
With space exploration, videophones and voice commanded computers now commonplace, the negative potential of technological breakthroughs and extraterrestrial endeavours are still downplayed in favour of blind optimism, making Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece as vital as ever.
Working in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, taking us from 4 million years BC to an exploration of Jupiter’s moons in the early third millennium, Kubrick achieved some of the most stunning cinematic moments to date, and touched on fundamental questions.
The film set the stylistic and thematic template for much of his subsequent work. Note how 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dawn of Man sequence prefigures the gang violence of A Clockwork Orange – here as an evolutionary necessity.
Despite Kubrick’s influence on contemporary filmmakers, no inheritor has constructed similarly indelible images. The attention to sound too, as in all of Kubrick’s later films, is masterful. Not only the use of source music by Strauss, Strauss, Khachaturian and Ligeti – which spawned a thousand parodies and clichés – but also the restricted focus to breath and silence for long passages.
The invention and choreography, wonder and terror are so richly balanced, with both sensual and cerebral aspects. The Star Gate may have turned on spaced out hippies but the sense of menace and emptiness is unavoidable. Just as Kubrick posits that attempts to transcend Kantian human understanding are by definition bound to run into a big black block – with the director shrewdly avoiding little green men – the transposition of human intelligence into artificial technology is shown to intensify both man’s ingenuity and destructive capability.
Simple ideas of chronology and progress are powerfully disrupted. HAL’s final, low singsong approximates the grunts of the apes. The dawn of a new civilisation is the known writ larger. While humankind reaches forward for the ungraspable, it is brought back to the memory and trauma of its origins.