Monday, September 8, 2008

Say it all by saying nothing - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Usually when a list is made of some of the greatest films of all time, "2001: A Space Odyssey" ends up on it.  You always see it on a list of the best sci-fi films of all time, and I've even read some reviews that declare it the greatest movie of all time: period.  I'm a fan of the film, I think it's very well made and served as inspiration for several other films from things as silly as "Mystery Science Theater: The Movie" to the Japanese animated film "Akira".

But there is a flip side to all this adulation.  I've met several people, especially when I worked at the video store, that absolutely hated the film or at the least found it to be very boring and lacking in substance.  Arguments against the film include: it's pretentious, the bookend sequences don't have anything to do with anything, there are too many shots that glorify special effects over story telling, the basic story is so simple that it could be told in 30 minutes - Kubrick stretches it over two hours, the music is too annoying to allow the viewer to focus on the film.

One of the things the movie does - and this is what splits people the most- is that it keeps everything very ambiguous.  The movie is presented primarily in visuals, sound and music. It seems to shy away from direct narrative.  By reducing the narrative to images, sounds and music the message of the film is not focused, it becomes this nebulous thing.  This accounts for the amazing variety of interpretations of the film.  I've heard people say the movie is about alien life guiding our evolution.  I've heard it's about the way man evolves because of technology.  I've heard people say it's about God's guidance of man kinds journey into space.  None of these things seems very alike.

Part of the issue is the fact that black monolith is never clearly defined.  Great importance is placed on this image, signaled by the music (which overwhelms most of the other sounds) and the way the monolith is usually filmed - it towers over the other characters, and seems to cause them to look up toward it.  But what is that monolith?  The only clues you get are related to the context of the monolith's appearance and the events that follow it's appearance.

What it comes down to is what you think of this ambiguity.  Does the fact that the director doesn't seem to take a stance mean that he is being obtuse on purpose?  And if he is being obtuse does that make him pretentious?  Or is "2001" a perfect example of sloppy film making?

When it comes to the last question, I can say that if "2001" isn't anything, it's sloppy.  It is very controlled, and the amount of detail, the editing, the selection of shots and angles shows that this a film maker who had a definite idea that he was trying to get across.  If that idea was ambiguity itself - well that's another thing all together.  I enjoy films that make you think, that don't give you all the pieces and let you decide what the narrative or even the theme are.  "2001" is one of the best films to offer that type of movie experience.  David Lynch offers his dark vision of the inner journeys of his characters (especially in "Eraserhead" and "Inland Empire") and he is often accused of being obtuse and self indulgent.

When it comes down to it, I don't think "2001" is ever going to fall off those lists.  It is a unique film and a pioneer in many ways and for that alone it deserves praise.  For those of us who enjoy the ambiguity, we'll always find ourselves returning to space and another viewing of that black monolith.

What are your thoughts on “2001” - great film or overrated critic bait? Do you think that if a director (or writer) leaves things ambiguous that it makes the pretentious or lazy? What do you think the greatest sci-fi film yet made should be?

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