BBC4: Wednesday 16 December, 11pm
It’s one of the most unforgettable images in cinema. An ape in the distant past hurls a bleached bone high into the air, a tool he has learned to use as a weapon. The bone spins and spins before spiraling down… and now it’s a gleaming white spaceship, serenely cruising among the stars to the soothing strains of a Strauss waltz.
In one instant, Stanley Kubrick makes plain the point of his pessimistic visionary masterpiece: Man thinks himself significant (the film’s deliberately flat and banal dialogue mocks this sense of superiority, and the best lines are given to the ship’s computer, HAL) but will he ever evolve beyond the emotional level of the ape? Not without help from an outside agency, says Kubrick, in a science-fiction film like no other.
An unparalleled oddity that propelled his reputation into the stratosphere. Tracing human aspirations from apes transfixed by an unexplained monolith to a distant future when astronauts encounter a superior intelligence, Kubrick cleverly portrays the clash between men and the machines they have come to rely upon through the arrogant computer HAL 9000, whose chilling and dulcet tones reverberate long after the bizarre psychedelia of the ending.
HAL’s scenes ring with a muted humour – the more his ‘personality’ is revealed, the more neurotic he seems, in stark contrast to the even, methodical behaviour of his human custodians – and there’s a weird poignancy to HAL’s eventual demise. The computer’s acronym mirrors IBM, although both Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke (whose short story The Sentinel provided the film’s framework) said this was a coincidence.
But then 2001, the quintessentially cruel Kubrick film, is about nothing less than man’s relative insignificance in the scheme of things, never mind his machines. Brilliant, dazzling, daring. More mysterious than Interstellar. Heavier than Gravity. And the Best Picture is… Oliver! No doubt the Academy is still blushing. 2001 did pick up one Oscar (the only Kubrick picture to do so). It was for Best Special Effects. The young man who worked on them was Douglas Trumbull. Three years later he made his directorial debut with Silent Running.
Monty’s Rating – ★★★★★