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Browning to screen Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, November 9, 2005

If told today that a renowned director was attempting a 140-minute, nearly-silent science fiction film that featured no stars, critics and audiences might be skeptical (and rightfully so). Yet Stanley Kubrick managed to parlay his high-risk venture into one of the most enduring and compelling films of the 1960s.

The year 2001 has come and gone, but Kubrick’s indelible vision of the then-future endures. Opening to mixed critical opinion in 1968, “2001: A Space Odyssey” has since become renowned as Kubrick’s masterpiece and a revolutionary film that stretched the boundaries of what a mainstream motion picture could be.

Arriving at a time when the rules of Hollywood were changing, “2001: A Space Odyssey” helped rearrange the notions and conventions of the science fiction genre. Previously associated with Buck Rogers-esque serials, it was rarely taken seriously, despite a few exceptions (perhaps most notably Robert Wise’s 1951 film “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). Kubrick’s magnum opus tries to envision a future as it might be.

Worked up from a short story by renowned author Arthur C. Clarke, the methodically paced film contains some 20 minutes of dialogue in a 140-minute running time. Split into several discernable Acts featuring different phases of mankind, the film is almost impenetrably elliptical in its presentation.

Tracing human evolution – in one brilliant dissolve – from ape to astronaut, “2001” is one of those rare films that is about neither character nor plot, yet still works. Kubrick’s outstanding visual sense, coupled with the film’s eerily discomforting tone, keeps “2001” compelling through its long running time.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is nominally about a team of astronauts’ journey to Jupiter to investigate a giant black monolith. A similar monolith was found buried under the surface of the moon, so a team led by David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and supplemented by the AI computer HAL 9000, journeys out to the far reaches of the solar system to investigate.

Surprisingly, it is the computer HAL, nothing more than a glowing red eye and a detached voice (supplied by Douglas Rain), who ends up being the most interesting computer.

Named the American Film Institute’s 13th greatest villain of all time, HAL (who is literally one step ahead of IBM) provides some of the film’s most disturbingly chilling moments. His cold logic, lack of a manifested form and detached demeanor made him one of the best embodiments of human fear of technology.

The film’s final act, in which David Bowman enters the monolith, is as trippily psychedelic as anything committed to celluloid. As the film reaches its obliquely ambiguous conclusion, Kubrick’s epiphanic grandiosity comes full circle in fulfillment of the director’s majestic vision.

It is only in that final shot that the audience is given a chance to understand the film in a way that transcends the trappings of most mainstream cinema.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but it’s not even Kubrick’s best film – that honor goes to the black-as-night satire “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Like that classic Cold War comedy, “2001” is both timely and timeless in equal measure.

In an indication of the film’s renown, it has been parodied endlessly, in everything from “The Simpsons” to “Zoolander.” But for anyone who only knows “2001: A Space Odyssey” from the strains of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” it is required viewing.