Made the year before Man walked on the Moon and billed at the time as “The Ultimate Trip!” as brilliant and innovative, as breathtaking and mindboggling as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (freely expanded from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 short story The Sentinel and his 1953 story Encounter In The Dawn) is, a visionary cinematic landmark, perhaps Kubrick’s masterwork, that has influenced and inspired generations of filmmakers and moviegoers alike, there’s no denying that its mix of stunning visuals and moody teenage poet cod-profundity is probably best viewed tripping your tits off after chasing a fistful of ‘shrooms with a bellyful of cheap tonic wine.

You know the story, what little there is of it, already. Unless you’ve been living with a tribe of apemen for the last half-century, you’ll find no spoilers here. Like me, you probably first watched the film one sleepy Boxing Day on BBC2 when you were about five or six and the relatives came round to consume party food and your parent’s booze, as bemused and perplexed by their behavior as you were by the movie’s psychedelic journey down the rabbit hole and up its own, and Kubrick’s, arse.

Opening in a prehistoric age, the Dawn Of Man, where warring tribes of apemen scavenge the wilderness for food (much like those aforementioned hominid relatives) and are occasionally eaten by wilder animals (I was brought up in the West of Scotland). The sudden, terrifying and inexplicable appearance however of a smooth, black monolithic alien slab, sparks one apeman’s latent primitive intelligence, prompting him to become a tool user by picking up a bone and braining a rival monkey with it, before triumphantly tossing in the air his makeshift weapon, transforming as it falls, in the most celebrated match cut of cinema history, into a space craft, the implication being that it’s some sort of orbiting weapons platform, plus ça change, as Kubrick bypasses a couple million years of human evolution to get right down to not getting to the point.

So spaceships gambol to Strauss and we marvel at how advanced the place of women in the future must seem to a primitive, largely stoned, late ‘60s audience (“Look! They get to be stewardesses…IN SPACE!) before a US government scientist on a secret mission, Floyd (William Sylvester), eventually makes it to the Moon where astronauts investigating a magnetic anomaly have dug up a monolith identical to the Promethean one from the Dawn Of Man that kick-started the apes’ intelligence and our march towards civilisation. As sunlight strikes its surface for the first time in 4 million years, it emits an eardrum-piercing radio signal aimed at Jupiter.

Another hop, skip and jump in time and it’s now 18 months later as we join the crew of the Discovery, Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and three cryogenically frozen scientists, en route to Jupiter on a mission of, well, discovery, with much of the ship’s day-to-day operations controlled by its onboard “foolproof and incapable of error” super-computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). But as Jupiter grows closer and HAL grows first erratic, then murderous, Bowman must boldly go where no man has gone before…

Before getting turned into a super-intelligent foetus!

Visually dazzling, emotionally sterile and self-indulgently pretentious, 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps not just the ultimate trip but the ultimate shaggy God story, that clichéd sub-genre of science fiction that replaces the traditional deity with an advanced alien intelligence that coolly manipulates Man’s development at key evolutionary stages (the latest example arguably being Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar), Kubrick of course being the archest manipulator of all.

For all its beauty and achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey is cold, vacuous, as cold and empty as the space that is its star. As with most of his films, Kubrick cares nothing for his human characters, so why should we? He’s enamoured of the surface sheen, the shiny gloss, the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of his intricate world, its technical wizardry, but the humans who must move through it are bland, their petty, inconsequential lives bore him. Sure, there are nods to the very real Cold War concerns of the day (that orbiting weapons platform, a nebbish, pre-Rigsby Leonard Rossiter as an inquisitive Russian scientist) but Kubrick discards the script’s (and eventual novel’s) far more pacifist, explicitly anti-nuclear climax in which Bowman returns to Earth as the reborn, godlike “Star Child” and uses his powers to destroy humanity’s space weapons in favour of, well, just turning him into a big baby. Which is why the most involving characters in the film are an ape Napolean and a neurotic computer. They’re the only ones with anything at stake in the film. It’s this omnipotent aloofness more than its glacial, slow as treacle being poured uphill, pace that may serve to alienate modern audiences from the film.

And watching 2001: A Space Odyssey is an alienating experience and one designed to be so. Depending on your level of engagement, it can be both hypnotic and soporific, simplistically obscure, its focused abstraction smug and naïve. It’s as perplexing now as it was when you were six. Or 36. It’s as profound or as pretentious as you want it to be, as you need it to be. It’s a film you simply have to surrender to, to allow it to wash over you the way it was meant to; in a dark, womblike cinema on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system.

But psilocybins help.

Movie Review: 2001 - A Space Odyssey
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