When Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece begins, you expect something cosmically brilliant, something astronomically mind-boggling, and, in a way, you’re not disappointed. Unless you were expecting it to be quick.
The film opens during the suitably named Dawn of Man. Seeing as man was, most presumably, even more apelike than nowadays, the actors in costume do a fine job at making you wonder whether they are genuinely human beings. Their disguises can even withstand a close up. Before you wonder how Kubrick fitted a tiny person into a monkey costume, you should know that the small apes are actual small apes – of the baby chimp variety.
Kubrick’s deception doesn’t end with a collection of hairy costumes, either. Throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey he uses a myriad of techniques, including a giant, rotating Ferris wheel of a set that tricks you into seeing zero gravity in 1968. I was more than a little astounded when I discovered the year this film was made, because during that era I would still have expected to see the strings attached to the actors as they explored the solar system. Craftily shooting from beneath his subjects enabled Kubrick to create the illusion of swimming through a void. The memorable wormhole sequence also uses a stunning feat of cinematography, coupled with a shot of paint in a cloud tank to mimic said wormhole’s closing. Such methods look better than some modern CGI, which makes them all the more impressive. The production may have gone $4.5 million over budget, but it was money worth spending to build a believable realm of science fiction.
Another thing that jumped out at me was the cute, colourful and grimly realistic display of culinary evolution. Not to mention the actors’ unflinching ability to eat it. Such attention to detail again submerses you in another reality, one that most likely established the common conventions of sci-fis now.
Towards the film’s conclusion, after the aforementioned wormhole sequence, there are a series of baffling, or rather, ‘ambiguous’, scenes that make several theories spring to mind on what on Earth it’s all about. Fact is, it’s no longer centred on Earth at all and no theory you think of can really be proven, not without former knowledge of the novel this film is based on. For most audiences, this resolution might be a little dissatisfying, as you know it holds some kind of great, evolutionary significance, you just can’t comprehend what.
It’s here that you realize the part of the film you understand the most, the part with all the dialogue and the astronauts and the homicidal supercomputer, has almost dwindled into unimportance. When sandwiched between the humble beginnings of man and the cosmically confusing end, it dawns on you that the piece of space and time you currently occupy is infinitesimally tiny. Kubrick has set a benchmark with his film – one that I hope filmmakers of science-fiction recognize.
Just so long as they also note how ridiculously long some shots are.