#7 — 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick, master director and cinematic innovator with a heavy influence on countless cinematic greats who followed, won exactly one Academy Award. One. Of course, that’s more of a damnation of the selection process of the Academy than it is any reflection on Kubrick, especially since the Oscar bestowed upon him wasn’t for producing, writing or directing, all categories in which he competed over the years, but instead for the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly the film’s triumph over Ice Station Zebra, the only other nominee in the category, was a marker of sound judgment, but the Academy’s exclusion of Kubrick’s mind-blowing feature in the Best Picture race was not. (Kubrick was nominated in both the writing and directing categories that year, losing out to The Lion in Winter‘s James Goldman and Oliver!‘s Carol Reed, respectively.) It was simply one more example of the people toiling in the movie industry completely misunderstanding Kubrick in his time. The visuals in 2011 are amazing, groundbreaking, unthinkably beautiful. They’re also the least impressive part of a relentlessly challenging film.
The film is so commonly broken into its distinctive pieces in retrospective analysis and celebration–depending on whether someone wants to pirouette agog around the opening prehistoric set piece, the malevolence of technology in the conflict over whether or not some pod bay doors should be opened or the wild head trip of the conclusion (sadly, the futuristic corporate bureaucracy up on the moon is the least likely segment to be touched upon)–that the potency of the whole can be shortchanged. It is the intellectual unity of these pieces, however, that makes the film so significant and even devastating. They are shards of story, connected by the most tenuous of threads, and yet they fit together as a complete vision, a view of existence in which mankind utterly and completely lacks the primacy it is constantly claiming as a birthright of the species. The command over earth, space and self is a fiction, dashed when considered against the vast unknown of the universe. It’s common enough to look up at the sea of stars in the sky and feel like an ant. Kubrick warns that forgetting one’s proper place for even a moment makes it all the more likely that a boot will come crashing down.
Inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke story (certainly not adapted from his work in any reasonable interpretation of the term, though the revered science fiction author was an active collaborator on the film, making his contribution undeniably significant), 2001 is a film alive with possibility, both for the future and for the boundaries of filmmaking itself. Kubrick’s nonconformist tendencies never came out quite as fully as they do in this film, with narrative subsumed to what is impactful, particularly as one idea tumbles into another. The movie can shift at the speed of thought and decidedly rejects any perceived need to fill in gaps. The director was as committed to honoring his setting here as he was in any of his films in more grounded, familiar territory, plunging the audience into the gaping maw of the solar system, chilliness and uncertainty completely intact. The film questions, cajoles, marvels and even occasionally recoils from its own truths. It is as plain and perfect of an example of a director allowing for no compromise in following his instincts no matter where the might lead as can be found in conventional American cinema, at least until Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which owes a clear debt to 2001. It’s a stunning piece of work.
And the special effects are good, too.