If I say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the single most important influence in my evolution as a filmmaker, that isn’t because I think it is the greatest film ever made, or that its impact can be detected in all of my movies. I do think it is a great film, certainly Kubrick’s finest achievement. And it has influenced my films, though not as much as some, including others directed by Kubrick.
Rather, 2001 was the film that opened my eyes to the medium’s potentials beyond standard narrative. My early film tastes were an extension of my love of history. By the time I saw 2001, however, that love was giving ground to the male adolescent’s favorite genre, science fiction. Certainly it was the film’s hardware and special effects that overwhelmed me initially. (Even today, the special effects in 2001 can hold their own with the most elaborate digital fireworks.)
The influence was thus very superficial at first. Far more important and lasting than either the effects or the spare story was the purpose to which both are put. For 2001 succeeds first and foremost through its texture. Very few films of any variety immerse the viewer so thoroughly in the physical space of the action. That such immersion occurs largely in the confines of a space ship is ironic, but not surprising. For by restricting the majority of the film to the limited, cramped surroundings of the astronauts, Kubrick and his collaborators were forced to think small even if the scope of the film otherwise is literally cosmic in outlook.
Think of details like when Dave Bowman burns his fingers as he takes his prepared meal out of the oven, or the sound of his breathing as he “goes EVA” to change the “AE-35 unit,” or the processed slop that we see passing for food throughout, or the wonderful scraping sounds of the cutlery across the china in Bowman’s last meal at the end of the film. All utterly trivial moments and sensations, but so beautifully evocative, so succinctly and perfectly of the moment that we cannot help but feel present with the characters.
It is this immersion in the sensory moment which makes the film’s poetic ambiguity feasible. Smaller-than-life details combine with vistas larger than the imagination to lift the viewer out of the mundane, familiar world of standard story-telling. It is no coincidence that 2001 offers one of the most brilliant matches between imagery and music in the history of cinema. The film transforms the five-and-dime conflict between man and machine into a glimpse of a more resonant, non-verbal experience, effectively becoming music.
Thus, in both its poetic form and precise evocation of sensual experience, 2001 offers proof that film can transcend its parochial Victorian roots to stand proudly as an adult art, as rich and complex as any work in any medium. And it was that possibility which was most essential to my own development.