Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By Arthur C. Clarke.

Illustrations by Joe Wilson.

Published by The Folio Society.

All illustrations from The Folio Society edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

. © JoeWilson2016

2001: A Space Odyssey is a long film. Having experienced both it and the actual year 2001, it must be said the film seemed the longer of the two.

In summary: Music. Prehistoric ape men throwing bones into the air. Spaceships moving very slowly to classical music. Leonard Rossiter. The excellent HAL shutdown sequence. The space baby bit which nobody really understands. Many hippies came away in 1968 thinking they had seen the best film ever made. Perhaps they were right. No one had after all, seen Timecop then.

Some muse that the film proves that director Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landings the following year. This seems unlikely. Kubrick was after all a very meticulous director, famous for insisting upon multiple takes. If he had been hired to film the moon landings, they would probably still be being filmed.

This is not the film, however, it is Arthur C. Clarke’s much more palatable book, illustrated for the first time (by artist Joe Wilson). It is not a predictive text. Having cleverly predicted the moon landings would be in 1970 (he made the prediction in 1945 and was only one year out!) Clarke seems to have been about a century out at least in predicting how advanced we would be by 2001. Anyone hoping for the discovery of a giant space baby in that year would have been sorely disappointed.

But this is ultimately an enjoyable and nicely illustrated read. Scoring it out of 2,500, I would unhesitatingly give it…2001.

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Why 2001: A Space Odyssey is NOT the best sci-fi movie ever

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOH

Time Out magazine has voted on its choices for the Top 100 Science Fiction Films of All Time. It is a fine list chosen by a distinguished panel with most if not all of the best movies from the genre from Star Wars, Blade Runner and Matrix to Planet of the Apes, Gravity and Starship Troopers recognised and included. For me, however, it contains one gaping flaw: 2001: A Space Odyssey is at the top.
My criticism here may not be popular, I appreciate. Many of us have fond memories of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic. Who could forget the awesome power of the opening Abach Spach Zarathustra music (altogether now: “Dur…dur..dur…DUR DUR!”)? Or the amazing moment when the prehistoric man throws a stray animal bone into the air only for it to be replaced by a 21st century space craft in the very next shot? Or the chilling sequence in which the homicidal dysfunctional ship’s computer HAL is slowly dismantled, his mind active throughout (“Dave? Dave? What are you doing Dave?”) horrifically aware of what’s happening to him.
Great moments, yes. Indeed, I am in danger of talking myself out of the entire argument. But great moments alone do not make a great film. The fact is that taken in its entirety, 2001: A Space Odyssey is often a colossal bore.
Disagree? I suggest you watch it again before condemning me too harshly. Have you ever watched it more than once? I doubt it. It is frankly a must see, a film everyone should see once. But it is undoubtedly very hard work. And I would defy anyone not to be bored while watching it.
The prehistoric bit at the start is, for one thing, mostly quite silly. It is easy to forget that these silly men jumping around in ape costumes appeared a full year after the original and somehow more convincing simians of Planet of the Apes. The special effects are still good during the spaceship sequences, yes. But this was an age when special effects were still relentlessly shown off, taking centre stage rather than being incorporated seamlessly into the background. There are, after all, only so many minutes of spaceships moving along to classical music that most viewers can take.
And the end. If you didn’t understand the end, don’t worry! Nobody else does either. It’s a load of Sixties psychedelic bollocks. You would have to be stoned to think you understood it. And, in 1968, many viewers were.
Perhaps I am a man of lowbrow tastes but surely the primary concern of cinema is to be entertaining? And 2001 while often awe inspiring falls down when compared to Blade Runner, Aliens or Star Wars, on these grounds alone. It is impossible to be entertained when for most of the film you are bored.
Should 2001: A Space Odyssey be on this list of the 100 greatest science fiction films? Undoubtedly. Should it be at the top? Definitely not.

Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?

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Today sees the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations. But with all the questions raised by this year’s unusually strong field of contenders (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena amongst them), one question remains more tantalising than any other: could  Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity becomes the first science fiction film to secure the coveted Best Picture Oscar?

It would certainly be a first. For while sci-fi films have been the recipient of countless technical and science fiction awards, the genre despite (or perhaps because of) the big box office it has generated, has generally been viewed with lofty disdain by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences throughout its eighty five year history.

Even the advent of higher quality sci-fi at the end of the Sixties changed little. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968) went unrecognised in the Best Picture category. The latter was even based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the French author who had previously penned the source material for the multi-Oscar winning Bridge on the River Kwai. But it was all to no avail. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was nominated in 1971, although its science fiction content was generally overshadowed by controversy over its violence.

Then, in 1977, a new hope. Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. True, it was beaten for the main prize by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (a fairly unusual case of a comedy winning. This has only happened three times since). But with sci-fi entering a new period of high quality in the next decade (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminators), did this mean the genre would finally receive its due?

Alas, no. the Eighties was also a period in which the Academy went out of its way to award worthy films (Amadeus,  Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy) rather than those that were necessarily entertaining. Sigourney Weaver got a nomination for Aliens. But nothing from the genre has won since.

What has changed? Well, for one thing, 2004 saw the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King carry off the Best Picture statuette. No, that is not a science fiction film and yes, Daniel Radcliffe is right to complain none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated in the big categories for anything. But it feels like a start.

Then, in 2010, James Cameron’s blue creatured 3D space epic Avatar came tantalisingly close to Best Picture glory, only for gritty (and, frankly, overrated) Iraq drama The Hurt Locker to seize the crown.

Also, we seem to be enjoying another era of high quality sci-fi courtesy of The Huger Games films, Ender’s Game and Elysium.

And finally, Gravity has received a wealth of critical acclaim rarely bestowed on a film of the science fiction genre. Even Alien and Blade Runner never received such praise at the time of their release.

Whether Gravity ends up carrying off the greatest prize at the awards ceremony in March, or not, it has certainly struck a blow for this critically unsung genre. We shall have to wait and see.