SPOILER ALERT: I give away the entire plot of "2001" in this review, and with no apologies. There are some who might find this a good thing. Like Rock Hudson, who famously walked out of the premiere yelling "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?" He was one of the 217 people who walked out of the premiere of "2001." That is an exact number. Kubrick was in the audience. He counted. Then he cut the film by some 20 minutes.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) "2001"-now there's something to get excited about! I've seen it a dozen times and I have always been spell-bound and elated by it. It is, so far, Kubrick's masterpiece.* Certainly, it is the finest example of science fiction in film to date, undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the 60's and possibly of all time.** It is Stanley Kubrick's version of mankind's first contact with a life off of our planet, with the added twist that that extra-terrestrial life is out "God," which "created" us in such a way as to satisfy both Biblical and Darwinian theories of that momentous occasion (which in Kubrick's visualization, it certainly is) For anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, this is the very simple story-line:
An extra-terrestrial life visits earth in its pre-historic past and finds a stagnating man-ape community and teaches it to use a tool, a bone, for killing, for food, and that lesson boosts man-ape several rungs up the evolutionary ladder. To continue their experiment the ET's bury a signalling device on the Moon, so that they may know when their creation has reached out into space. Of course, it is discovered and that signal*** is traced to Jupiter. A team of astronauts is sent to investigate. In Kubrick's version, the man of 2001 has stagnated much like the man-apes. He has reached the point where he has recreated himself mechanically, right down to his own neuroses. He has nowhere to go as such, and so, when Man, in the form of Astronaut David Bowman, arrives at Jupiter, he finds a transport to the ET's planet, where he is kept and studied the rest of his life. When he dies, he is "reborn" by his captors into a higher form of Man, much like the man-apes were, and the film ends with this "Star-Child," this "super-man" hovering over the Earth, watching, and considering his next move.
None of this is explained out-right, you have to figure it out through the film's images. Only a third of the film has dialog, most of it unimportant as far as plot development--and the plot development comes slowly, I wouldn't be surprised if some cretins actually got bored by it.**** You never see the ET's; it would be impossible to do it believably.***** But...even if you don't understand "2001," it still succeeds as being a visual and aural experience, something to be marvelled at. I think it can safely be said that no science fiction film can help but be compared with "2001" and compared unfavorably. I don't think I can do "2001" any justice in the time allotted, but I can personally say it is one of my ten favorite films, and it is the one that sparked my own interest in film several years ago.
Another thing--this might be your last chance to see "2001" before it is shown on TV and butchered by commercials and (the restrictions of) a square screen, so...go see it...as it should be.
Nothing to add that hasn't been said here. There are worse films to have as a Film-going Rosetta Stone. I've written about "2001" so much that I fear it to be obsessive, so I try to avoid it, actually. Such a thing can be limiting. But I do think it's one of the few "pure" science fiction films, willing to make an audience try to grasp an alien (in both meanings of the term) concept, and challenge them in intellectual, if not dramatic ways. Most science fiction is some other genre with jet-propulsion added.
Finally, this is one film that necessitates being PROJECTED. It really does need to be seen BIG and WIDE, not crimped by the confines of a small TV. Okay, that's it. I've written enough. On to the asterisks.
* And now, almost a decade after Kubrick's death, it's safe to say it still is, although "Dr. Strangelove" is still in the running, as well as "Barry Lyndon," his much-maligned brilliant film of the "me" decade of the 80's...1780's.
** Obviously, I like this film. Still do.
*** It's a solar-powered alarm. When it's dug up and the sun hits it for the first time, it sends its signal out into the Universe.
**** This is terribly unfair. I know a lot of intelligent people who are bored by it, and don't mind saying so. It is paced slowly. I'm in love with the film, so I just don't notice it--for me, it moves like a bat out of hell. But then, my eyes are constantly scanning the frame of "2001" picking out the details -- and that is tough to do on video (Not long ago, an acquaintance finally saw it in a theater and expressed shock: "My God, all those little windows are filled with people!" Yeah. They are. So, if you're wondering why it takes a minute for the moon-lander to descend through the landing bay, rather than worry about it, or the next thing, take a look around Kubrick's world. It's pretty damned full.
***** Something I still believe despite the parade of Spielberg's emaciated Pillsbury dough-boys, and the pantheon of alien life exhibited in the "Star Wars" and "Trek" universes. I still never really "buy into" a representation of alien life. I keep wondering who their agent was, and what their make-up clause was like.