If you have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know that there is one thing in particular that sets it apart from most films. This quality is also what hinders most modern audiences from experiencing its genius: the crawling pace.
When I first saw 2001 a few years ago, the slowness drove me insane. I became bored rather quickly, and it took everything in me to finish it. Instead of reflecting, I was just waiting for it to finally end, and was ultimately disappointed. With the acclaim this film has received, I figured there had to be something of value to it, so I gave it another chance and it blew my mind. The pace was integral to the narrative, and worked brilliantly. Here’s what it added for me:
A cosmic sense of scale
Take the very first shot of the film (if you would call it a shot). The screen is completely black for an uncomfortable amount of time while the music plays. Then, a shot of earth. In the Dawn of Man sequence, there are several drawn out shots of a prehistoric, desolate landscape. We only hear the sound of wind. It takes a long time before we actually see the apes. This reminds us how minuscule human history is when compared to the life of earth, which is even smaller when compared to the life of the universe. Normally, we see history as centered on humans, and we feel bigger than we really are. In 2001, Kubrick makes us feel small, as we should. And we feel small not only in space, but in the scope of time. The cosmic time-line is so much bigger than we can comprehend.
While uncomfortable at first for most viewers, this pace forces one to slow down their thought process. The film is very meditative, which is important since it takes on such intellectual and philosophical themes. It immerses the audience in a unique way that most directors today shy away from.
Suspense to the sequence with HAL and the human crew members
This part of the movie was absolutely terrifying. The slowness gave a feeling of tremendous isolation, like we were trapped out there with a psychopathic robot. The effect of hearing the astronaut’s slow breathing from his tank was haunting. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at best, and at times claustrophobic. It also added to the idea of putting our lives in the hands of machines. The part when HAL kills one of the astronauts is incredible. The breathing stops abruptly, and several quick shots move closer and closer to HAL, and then… silence. My heart skipped a beat. Theses quick cuts are the fastest in the entire film. Because it is so slow for so long, this fast movement works very well. Suspense in cinema is like a rubber band being pulled back slowly, until it finally snaps. This is the best example I have ever seen, the breathing being the rubber band pulling back and the SNAP as the camera cuts towards HAL. Many horror movies use sound in the opposite direction, a quiet build up, with a loud explosion, to jump out and scare you. This is a cheap, overused technique for low quality, take-your-girlfriend-to slashers. This scene uses sound as the build up, and silence as the explosion. Amazing.
So the film’s core quality is considered by modern audiences to be its biggest drawback. If you have only seen it once and were underwhelmed, I don’t blame you, I felt the same way the first time. Woody Allen said he was disappointed after his first viewing, but after his second and third viewings realized that Kubrick was “much ahead” of him as an artist. So give it another shot with these things in mind. I promise you will get something out of the film with each subsequent viewing.