I had the good fortune to catch “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the theater a few weeks ago. I’d gone to see “The Hobbit” and they just so happened to be showing “2001” in XD Digital projection as a special one-day engagement. I’ve seen it before, of course. I think most nerds my age have. But it was always on cable, or VHS, or DVD, never in an actual theater. Cinemark‘s XD Digital presentations are pretty good, so switching movies wasn’t a hard decision to make. “The Hobbit” wasn’t going anywhere.
It was really something else to see Kubrick’s vision of the future again. The movie was released in 1968, a year before we’d put a man on the Moon, and here it was presenting a world where space travel was common enough that airlines (Pan Am, which doesn’t even exist anymore) had their own spaceplanes and hotel chains (a Hilton in the movie) were on space stations. It was all the more striking given the current state of spaceflight. The Space Shuttle, the “space truck” that was supposed to herald a bold new future of cheap space travel, is history now. There’s only been a handful of space stations since Apollo and certainly nothing that had anything like a Hilton onboard. With the demise of the shuttle program we’re going back to capsules with Orion. We’re still a long, long way from moonbuses.
Kubrick went to great lengths to make it as realistic as possible, but of course it’s all based on what was thought possible in the 60’s. Again, this is really interesting to see today because, in a way, this is a bit of a time capsule. We were going to the Moon and nothing was going to stop us! We had high hopes and high expectations; it was this mindset that prompted an integrated space plan that would culminate with a man on Mars by 1982 (it was in fact this plan that helped shepherd in the Space Shuttle). Heady times indeed.
Arguably the most successful space endeavor right now is Space X, an entirely private company, and it’s looking more and more likely that serious future space exploration will be primarily driven by private enterprise. There are companies with designs on mining near-Earth asteroids and more than one company that’s talking about putting people on Mars. Maybe, in this sense, Kubrick got it right. He was just a few decades early.
It was great to see Discovery One sailing past, thirty feet long on the big screen and stark white against the blackness of space, and to hear Also sprach Zarathustra thundering in true surround sound. There’s a reason “2001” is on so many “best movies of all time” lists. Kubrick went the extra mile with its special effects, with some taking more than a year to execute on film. The results can still stand toe-to-toe with some of the CGI effects of today, over 40 years later.
It’s a movie you experience as much as watch. There are long stretches at the beginning and end where there’s no dialogue at all, where we’re watching things happen in front of us without anyone talking or even (except in two cases) any sort of musical accompaniment to tell us how to feel. We’re dropped into this story with very little background and things are presented as status quo. Travel to the Moon for a meeting is as remarkable as catching a flight from New York to Miami, with in-flight meals and a movie. And once you’re there everyone’s wearing regular clothes, suits and ties, having a regular meeting where a guy stands at a podium to address people. Kubrick didn’t want flashy spaceships and uniforms and all the sci-fi trappings that were common in movies back then. He didn’t want to make fun of the future. He wanted to show it for what it was, or what it could be. Maybe people really will visit Jupiter one day. “2001” is still a great movie, but with the passage of time its sense of “what could be” has turned into “what could have been,” and that makes it a little bittersweet for me.