Kubrick’s legendary sci-fi visual tour-de-force is a terrifying glimpse into our near future
The Glasgow Science Centre has been putting on an array of vintage and modern classics at their huge IMAX theatre over the last few weeks, and the opening feature was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Odyssey is widely considered one of the best films ever made, not only in the sci-fi genre, but in general.
However, I had a couple of reasons for putting off watching it. I had heard of the film’s famously beautiful shots, and I felt watching it on my laptop would not do them justice. I was also aware of the slow burn feel to the film and I was worried that I would be easily distracted by everything else in my flat. So, catching it in IMAX was the perfect chance.
It’s hard to summarise Odyssey. It’s a sci-fi epic with plenty of spaceships, planets, and deep cosmic mysteries. The most important part of the film depicts the supercomputer, the HAL-9000 or simply Hal, as it betrays its crew on a manned space mission to Jupiter. The film has a recurring “character” of an imposing black monolith, first discovered in prehistoric times by monkeys and then on the Moon more recently, that’s seemingly able to catalyse human evolution.
Odyssey is so ahead of its time, it’s hard to believe it was made before the first Moon landing. The scenes depicted are stunning, some of the most memorable I’ve ever seen. Shots such as the protagonist walking down a futuristic corridor, or the moon base’s massive door opening are deserving of their iconic status. Keir Dullea as Dr. Bowman is a compelling lead, but also Douglas Rain’s voice for Hal marries charm with unease. “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” is one of the most unsettling lines in cinema.
The plot is certainly one to make you think, with the true meaning of the obelisk and the infamous ending up for debate. I do think it takes a bit of a backseat in favour of other aspects; there’s really not much dialogue in this film. Part of me believes the massive star baby at the end was Kubrick’s way of saying, “You thought you knew what I was on about? Well, figure this out!”. The music also adds greatly to the film, combining classical pieces as the spaceships dance across the screen, and a now-legendary original score. There are some interesting artistic choices as well, including 15 minutes of purely colourful visuals akin to those music players on computers in the 2000s, if you remember. I’m not sure that would get past the studio nowadays.
Admittedly, Odyssey is slow. It’s a textbook example of a slow burn film. Some shots feel like they go on for an eternity. At some points, it feels like you are actually going through an art gallery. The scenes pictured are undeniably beautiful, but they often only barely move for a long, long time. I did love taking these parts of the film in, it gave you time to think about what you were seeing. But my TikTok-ified Gen Z brain was struggling to properly focus on them in the way I imagine the director wanted me to, without feeling the need to break out Subway Surfers, anyway.
Retrospectively, being able to appreciate Odyssey’s influence on sci-fi media and beyond was a highlight. We all will have seen, whether we realise or not, parodies of the film’s iconic scenes and characters in other media. This year’s Barbie is a great example, with a colossal Margot Robbie taking the place of the mysterious black monolith in the film’s opening. My favourite example is the Simpsons episode in which an AI, akin to HAL 9000, is brought in to run the family home, and then falls for Marge and attempts to remove Homer from the picture.
There is more than just parody, however. The depiction of spaceships as these big, grey, mechanical, and clunky vehicles reminds me of the original Star Wars, you can see where George Lucas got a lot of his inspiration from. And when you see a tranquil shot of a spinning spacecraft on a sheet of night sky, such as in Nolan’s Interstellar, there is clear influence from Kubrick.
HAL-9000, or Hal, is a harrowingly relevant character and concept. It would have been weird when the film came out as technology was advancing so quickly. It would have been a little uncomfortable ten years ago when we were realising just how reliant we are on our phones and computers. Now, it’s distressingly close to advancements in artificial intelligence. The way the crew members talk about how useful it is, its integrity to the ships’ functioning, and the human-like relationships it maintains, it’s easy to think Kubrick had a lens into the future. Many people’s fears of AI will be reflected with Hal’s betrayal and murder of the crew. I just hope ChatGPT can stick to suggesting essay plans for me.
The event itself was spectacular. This was my first time in the Science Centre IMAX, and I was very impressed. I’m a bit of a sceptic concerning the format. Oppenheimer was a three-hour drama of people talking in rooms, and that was needlessly billed as requiring IMAX for the full experience. But this completely sold it to me, I was absolutely engrossed the whole way through. The amazing audio and the all-encompassing visuals convinced me it’s the superior way to watch most films.
There are more films planned for the Science Centre, with Interstellar next, and I definitely recommend going to one of their showings. 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first weekend of Interstellar were completely packed out, so I suspect there will be more screenings to come in future for others to experience.