"The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death - however mutable man may be able to make them - our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." - Stanley Kubrick, September 1968
Truly great works of art defy description. You can try to put them into words - just as I’m about to - but they’ll always inevitably be inadequate. How can you ever adequately describe Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? Or Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’? Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ or Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’? You can say what you literally see in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, but what you see doesn’t capture what they mean, what you feel when you look at them. Truly great works of art speak to something deep down inside of us, something primal. You stand in their presence and you know something more about yourself, about us, why we’re here, where we may be going, what we are capable of.
It’s 2000, and I’m almost fourteen years old. My friend Chris had asked me to find him this film from my local library, and being a kid determined to please everyone, I tracked it down for him. Before I gave it to him though, I decided to watch it myself. It had an enigmatic title and I vaguely recognised the name of the director. I was staying with my grandmother, and took over one of her spare TVs. It was tiny, the screen barely bigger than a cereal box, and the VHS, while widescreen, was worn from overuse. These were the circumstances under which I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, essentially the worst circumstances in which one could possibly watch it. Even so, with my teenage face barely centimetres from the screen, my eyes wide with amazement and awe, I saw something that I couldn’t describe, felt things I’d never felt before. I felt every molecule in my mind and body shifting permanently in response to what I was seeing on that stupidly tiny screen. It felt like something deep inside of me that had lain dormant was starting to wake up.
It seems ridiculous to believe a film could do that to anyone, but ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not like any other film. In fact, it feels weird to even consider it a film. It feels like something birthed from the fabric of the universe itself, like something totally inhuman and yet deeply human at the same time. You don’t so much watch it as be consumed by it, whether it be on a tiny television or in the cosmic presence of it in 70mm. You can objectively sit back and take it apart, examine all its mechanics and movements and try (futilely) to explain their logic, but like any truly great work of art, it is a thing wholly of itself, much like its most iconic character, a man-made creation that has achieved its own sentient intelligence and imagination. You watch it, and in its overwhelming perfection, it watches you right back.
Using the most basic of narratives (the appearance of a mysterious black monolith sends a group of astronauts on a trip towards Jupiter, only for their lives to be threatened when their computer system turns against them), Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke attempted to pull back the fabric of the universe and expose what lay beneath, even before a human being had stepped on the moon. Science fiction until this point had been about fantastical concepts (the classic ‘Planet of the Apes’ was released on the same day as ‘2001’ in 1968), but what Kubrick was reaching for was something more tangible: a universe that looked like what we were seeing through our telescopes, what science and mathematics suggested may lay out there in the dark. The view of the earth that Dr Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester) sees on his gloriously mundane flight to an extraordinary spinning space station was very similar to what Apollo 11 would see a year later, but it was one that audiences had not yet seen before. The scale and poetry of Kubrick’s vision of first our world from space, and then the universe itself, still defines much of our collective popular understanding of all that lies within that dark tapestry of stars.
The canvas is immense, and much has been written about the manner of how Kubrick achieved that canvas, with special effects that even after half a century and insane developments in computer visual effects still put every film made after it to shame. What is extraordinary and overwhelming about that canvas is what he chooses to do with it. ‘2001’ erupts from the time and space of its title to present a fable on our existence as a species, beginning with the birth of cognitive thought and imagination on prehistoric Earth, an ape-like creature striking the ground with an animal bone, and ending with a sequence where the concepts of time and space are ripped apart before your eyes. Artists since the dawn of time have sought out the answer to the question of why we are here, what is our place within the universe, and Kubrick - perhaps the greatest artist in the medium of film - uses every single tool at his disposal to drive deeper and deeper to understanding that question.
It becomes clear very quickly that narrative has no place in this search, and what we have in the way of narrative and dialogue is there to serve the infernal engine of the film. As would be integral to his work following ‘2001’, Kubrick’s primary cinematic tools are image and sound, and the symphonic way in which he combines them. "A film is - or should be," he said, "more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later." Every element of the film, whether it be a sweeping special effect shot with an inspired musical accompaniment, or a startling close-up of a human face amidst deafening silence, is in service to the central conceit and theme of the film. Not a second of its two and a half hours is wasted - even the Overture is integral to the journey you’re being taken on.
It feels like something birthed from the fabric of the universe itself, like something totally inhuman and yet deeply human at the same time.
And in much the same way that the film defies words to describe it, Kubrick finds words themselves inadequate to his intention. The dialogue is sparse and direct, without embellishment of character or circumstance. It’s as lean as everything else in the film, and as a consequence, the truly great moments when words become necessary are gargantuan. The music of Kubrick’s film is extraordinary, and I don’t mean the score. Everything in the film moves as if it were a piece of music, whether a ship in motion or a body flung across the emptiness of space. So much has been said about his use of music, but all the more astounding are the film’s silences, at moments broken by nothing more than a human breath, at others complete and overwhelming.
Which is all to say that the craft of ‘2001’ is perfect, perhaps more so than any other film ever made. It’s the finest example of what cinema is and what can happen when all the technical elements that make it up are in perfect balance. It is pure cinema, pure art, pure experience, pure expression. But in taking it apart, you inevitably lose the power of it. ‘2001’ is a film you must submit to, that you must give your everything to while watching it, because if you don’t, it will offer nothing back in return. And if you do, what it will offer has all the potential to leave you changed for the better.
For me, ‘2001’ is sacred. To watch it is an experience as religious and spiritual as standing inside an enormous cathedral, reverently contemplating your place in creation. Ever since seeing it on that absurdly small television as a teenager, I’ve been trying to find any experience that makes me feel the same way I did when I first watched it. To see ‘2001’ is to hear the sound of the universe, to hear its pulse, to hear its breath. I’ve read and seen so much about how Kubrick made this film, and yet I still have no idea how something this immense and this perfect can possibly exist.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of our species. It connects us with the infinite, brings us closer to that from which we came, whether a sentient entity or the erupting chaos of the universe. It represents the pinnacle of how cinema can connect with a us, how a series of seperate elements can go beyond the sum of their parts and become something both new and primal all at once. I treasure its existence, and seek guidance from it in understanding myself as an artist and as a human being. Even calling it a masterpiece doesn’t feel adequate enough. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is fifty years old, a hundred years old, millions of years old, five minutes old, a few seconds old, born only now and in this moment. It is imagination at its grandest, ambition at its highest and cinema at its greatest.