For about 25 minutes, there’s not a single line of dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yet, Kubrick, using only a phenomenal, classical score (WHOOOO!) and striking, brutal, beautiful, and sometimes alarming visuals produces a remarkably well-told story.
As a whole, 2001 is less a film than it is an experience. Except for a couple of scenes in the middle of the film that lay out some exposition, the movie is devoid of much dialogue. Instead, the score and the imagery (even when it’s incomprehensible) wash over the audience to evoke the desired effect.
In fact, the next selection in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection is one of the most visually-striking movie I’ve ever seen.
The story is simple enough for a modern audience to understand (although it would have been more challenging for a 1968 audience that hadn’t grown up with an almost limitless canon of serious, space-based science fiction movies): some higher intelligence has provided humanity with monoliths that serve as evolutionary touchstones. The purpose is unknown, as are the designers. But 2001 tracks humanity’s attempt to discover and understand these artifacts, and, in doing so, understand itself.
I had never seen this movie in its entirety before, and I’m very glad that I waited until I was an adult to see it. The ambiguity and inscrutability of the final sequences might have frustrated me, but the sometimes-glacial pace definitely would have, had I seen 2001 when I was, say, 13 years old.
As an adult who is now familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s work, I can appreciate—and enjoy—the delightfully slow burn. Just as we in the audience are silently crying out “What is going on, here?” Kubrick gives it to us, but only in drips and drabs—and sometimes not at all. And it’s wonderful.
A few of the effects look a bit dated from the point-of-view of the CGI-drenched world in which we live today. However, for every dated effect, there are ten that made me think, “It’s amazing he could do that in 1968,” or “It’s amazing he could do that at all.”
In fact, I would go so far as to say that you could show this film to someone who wasn’t familiar with it, and that person might guess it was made at least five or ten years later than it actually was.
Nonetheless, the very-much-open-to-interpretation final sequence isn’t for everyone. Normally, I’m someone who says that a storyteller, above all else, needs to make sense. While ambiguity or a cliffhanger-style ending (think Inception) can be fine if done well, it sometimes comes off as a cop-out, or laziness, or simply a lack of talent, such that the writer or director can’t “close the deal” when it comes to finishing the narrative trajectory.
None of that applies to 2001, because the very subject it is addressing inherently contemplates man’s inability to grasp what is happening. That’s part of the point of the story, all the way back to the proto-humans millions of years ago encountering the first monolith.
Because of this, the experience that Kubrick creates for the audience is an entirely appropriately mystifying work of art.