Is there anything more frustrating than a film with honest moments of pure brilliance and a gorgeous aesthetic that is dragged down by the complete lack of a keen editorial eye? It’s become almost a recurring theme on this blog that there are movies I want to love but can’t because they are either A) excessively long (Das Boot,Inland Empire although I still love those films. Their interminable length simply kept them from receiving perfect scores) or B) prone to absurdist and pretentious flights of fancy that seem to have no place in the film (The Shop on Main Street, Stroszek man I keep talking about movies I really do love regardless of their flaws. I’m sure their are films that frustrate me like this. This review will be one of these films!). Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most beloved films in all of science fiction and considered a masterpiece by many. While it assuredly has a unique and distinct visual style with special effects that have stood the test of time and a brilliant sound track, the moments of the film that truly work are more often than not offset by the moments that make you wonder if Stanley Kubrick had ingested large amounts of acid (and not in that good Hunter S. Thompson kind of way) or had any idea what kind of story he wanted to tell while dragging the film on a good 30-40 minutes than it should have lasted.

Describing the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a little bit tricky as it is a mostly episodic affair with recurring themes and symbols tying the episodes together. Beginning with the “dawn of man,” the film chronicles early human-like ancestors exposure to a black monolith that bestows intelligence upon them. This of course leads to the discover of weapons as a tool for violence and the film suddenly fast-forwards to 2001 where man is in space. The moon (which is now some sort of colony) has been quarantined from the rest of humanity for initially unknown reasons. It turns out that another of these black monoliths has been discovered and its effects are so powerful and potentially dangerous that its existence is kept a secret from the public. The meatiest plot of the film occurs next when 18 months later, two astronauts (and three scientists in hibernation) are on a spaceship to Jupiter alongside the artificial intelligence, H.A.L. 9000, when HAL suddenly decides to kill everyone on the ship. The last segment of the film goes “beyond the infinite” and to be completely honest, I still have no clue what that section of the film was about.

The film remains an almost unparalleled visual delight. Were it not for Kubrick’s attempts to shoehorn a Arthur C. Clarke story into things, I would almost be willing to simply look at the still gorgeous effects of the film and be okay. Whether it’s the film’s soundtrack which makes expert use of many classical music tracks (“Also Sprach Zarathustra” is the most obvious example) or the stellar sound design which really draws you into the film’s world, the movie combines technical wizardry with aesthetic pleasure. Anyone who has ever seen a Stanley Kubrick film knows that he is one of the undisputed masters of style, and 2001: A Space Odyssey could very well be exhibit A for these claims. The color palette is rich and evocative, and when the vast majority of pre-Star Wars science fiction has aged so bad to the point of being absurd, Kubrick’s vision of a near future doesn’t seem that unrealistic and the effects that brought it to life will likely age far better than any of the computer graphics of today’s so called cutting edge films. To boot, the film’s transfer to Blu-Ray was simply stunning.

The film’s problems are legion however. It’s only 2 and a half hours long (which while lengthy is nowhere near the marathons that are Das Boot or Lawrence of Arabia) but it seems like it lasts an eternity. The only section of the film which can be said to contain an actual plot that progresses somewhere is the section with HAL (which is by far the most interesting section of the film and the scene where Dave [one of the astronauts on the ship] essentially murders HAL as HAL begs for his life is the best scene of the film). Too much time is spent on mind-numbingly slow sequences of little to no import of the actual story of the film. For the most part, they help to create the setting of the film and establish Kubrick’s theory that humanity has changed very little over its existence, but there have to be ways to do that and keep the film entertaining. The film’s biggest sin though is its final section, “Beyond the Infinite,” whose meaning is completely beyond me. I enjoy David Lynch mind screws but I can always theorize as to what his films are about. I have no clue what was happening there and that to me seems to be a problem. I can’t even begin to guess as to what Kubrick was trying to achieve.

Only devoted cinephiles should sit through this. The average movie-goer will be even more bored than I was because they won’t be interested in devouring the technical and aesthetic aspects of the film. However, if you are a cinephile, the odds are that you’ve already seen this film. It remains one of the most polarizing films of an already polarizing director. I’ve gotten to the point with Stanley Kubrick where I’m convinced that his only two masterpieces are A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove. With every other film, he is simply a master of style over substance, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps his most pretentious undertaking because he wants you to believe so completely that there are higher meanings to this film when it seems apparent to this viewer that those higher meanings simply aren’t there or aren’t as profound as many of this film’s fans seem to believe.

Final Score: B

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