2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be the best film ever made. While that particular claim is open to debate, 2001 could certainly make a case for being the most influential movie of all time.

In a previous post, I mentioned how certain films redefine a genre, or at least make a genre noteworthy. In that example I referred to The Godfather defining the mafia/crime genre. However, it would be simplistic to suggest that 2001 simply redefined the Sci-Fi genre.

Released in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s film changed the way that movies could be made. It had three aspects to it that made it truly great. One, an outrageously good score, perfectly implemented at the critical moments of the movie. Also Sprach Zarathustra was deployed at the opening of the movie, during the dawn of man scene, and at the end, to highlight how the humans had progressed throughout the course of the movie.

Two, the movie had a completely ambiguous ending. Despite being nearly 50 years old, it is still unclear what the final 10-15 minutes of the movie signify. Through the use of quick cuts and magical camerawork, the ending of the film leaves the audience scrabbling for answers. But, rather than have a spinning top and not telling the viewer whether it falls or not, 2001 gives the audience all of the information they need. Any viewer can have their own interpretation of the ending, and the beautiful thing is, they’re all right.

The content of the film demonstrates the evolution of humans from “the missing link” to becoming space exploring astronauts. Bearing in mind this was made almost 50 years ago, when religion was much more important to people and people were less likely to accept evolution, this alone was a bold move by Kubrick.

Finally, the movie makes some outstanding predictions. The movie features AI, Skyping, Ipads, space travel (the year before the moon landings) and a host of other minor details that simply shouldn’t occur to someone in 1968. In the same way that 1984 is one of the most popular books ever written due to its foresight, Space Odyssey contains so many things that we could come to expect in every Sci-Fi movie now.

And that’s why the film is so influential. Rather than igniting just the Sci-Fi genre (although it did have a role in inspiring George Lucas), the movie showed the power of an emphatic score, a clever storyline and visionary directing. The jump-cut early in the film demonstrates the quality of direction in 2001, and has rightly been replicated in dozens of movies since.

Rating: 90

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Touching the Rock

The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most decorated adventure movies of all time. Quite rightly too, the first part of a remarkable trilogy, it sets up the next two movies, while also being one of the best movies in its own right. There are a number of factors that led to this movie being so well-regarded from day one. The cast are perfect, the visuals are enchanting, and of course the original score is still considered to be one of the best in cinema.

There are many moments within the 3-hour running time that stand out, including the battle with the Balrog, and the (Spoiler) death of Boromir. However, there’s always one moment that gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. While “You Shall Not Pass” will be repeated for the rest of time, and everyone remembers the Mines of Moria, there’s a brief shot, about midway through, that the film absolutely cannot do without.

Those who have watched the film will know exactly what the picture below represents, and what shot I am talking about. The Fellowship have just been banded together, and have just set off from Rivendell to take The Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it. To describe the scene, as the group leave Rivendell, the orchestra starts up, and begins to raise the atmosphere with every passing second. A number of helicopter aerial shots show the nine setting off on their journey along mountains. This lasts around 25 seconds, as the music intensifies further.

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The camera then cuts to the shot (above). This is the shot I am referring to. The camera moves upwards and forwards, slowly. This almost gives the characters a slow-motion feel, despite the fact that they move in real time. It has Gandalf at the front, striding forwards between two rocks, which symbolize a sort of gateway. The remaining eight members of The Fellowship follow him, while the exceptional music continues above.

Lasting about a minute all in all, this scene is one of the most important in the trilogy. Prior to this point, all of the characters seen here have been established, the plot has been outlined and set up, and most importantly, the difficulty of the task has been clarified. Once all three of these needs have been met, a loud, grand minute of film grabs you and tells you “sit back, get ready, and enjoy.” Simple to film, no dialogue or particular stage direction, but it works as an establishing shot. Rather than establishing the location, or who the characters are, it arrogantly establishes to the audience that the rest of this film is gonna be good.

From this point on, in this film at least, no new major characters are introduced and no major changes happen to the overall plot of the story. The scene is simply there to be an orgy of gorgeous aerial shots and a world famous score.

While, I’d argue, this sort of scene is done best here, it’s not limited to The Lord of the Rings. There are other films that utilize this kind of scene. In general, these are the sorts of movies with a linear direction of the story. Adventure movies, such as The Lord of the Rings, are the most notable for this kind of storyline. Marvel movies tend to have this type of linear arc. Within the movie there is an introduction to the characters, a layout of the plot and where it’s due to take place, and the film goes on from there. However, these Marvel films lack this “Touching the Rock” moment. There’s no shot that is purely in the movie to grab the audience and ensure they won’t take their eyes off the screen for the rest of the movie.

The closest Marvel come to this is in Avengers Assemble. Unfortunately, the scene happens way too late, although given the endless continuation of movies thereafter, it may as well be in minute one of the franchise. It’s the classic shot, just after Banner becomes Hulk and punches a huge alien ship. The music crescendo’s, explosions go off in the background, and The Avengers stand there, looking coolly up at the impending chaos, while a camera rotates slowly around them. Perfection, and is arguably the best moment in the entire Marvel Universe. It lets the audience know that they don’t have to focus on learning any new names, or any new facts, they can just sit and enjoy the explosions. As mentioned, it happens way too late in the film, although Guardians of the Galaxy does have a similar scene in the prison, very early in the movie. This goes to show how important this kind of shot is in films.

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Such a scene doesn’t necessarily require loud music and a slow camera. The best scene in The Hunger Games is the second the countdown ends to initiate the games. Disregarding all of the unnecessary shaky cam and PG violence, the music cuts to a simple, high-pitched whine, and the pandemonium grabs the audience attention. Unlike the shot in LOTR, this movie couldn’t go without this scene, for plot reasons, but the way it’s put together gives it the same effect. Unfortunately for The Hunger Games, it absolutely peaks at this moment.

Many other films use this kind of brash, over the top scene about midway through their movie. Whether its musical or sound effects, this kind of shot can be vital to an adventure/fantasy movie. The first T-Rex roar in Jurassic Park, the dance in Pulp Fiction, the lighting of the beacons in Return of the King, the walk to Candieland in Django, and of course the legend of it all, the introduction of The Good in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The impact that this kind of scene can have on a film or franchise is profound. It can turn a collection of characters and their problems into a story, and can turn that story into an audio-visual spectacle. The first hour or so of The Fellowship of the Ring is a great setup. The split second Gandalf touches that rock, it becomes a great story.

Rating: 100%

The Godfather

There’s a reason The Godfather is so frequently parodied. The reason is that it’s old. This was a film that broke the mould in 1972. Prior to this, the big movies flying around were westerns and romances. For a film to sweep in with such graphic violence, twisted storyline and frankly exceptional acting at a time like this meant it deserved to become an instant classic. Of course its dated, and the amount of parodies doesn’t help the matter. When watching it for the first time now, hearing Don Corleone talk about giving someone an “offer they can’t refuse” is not quite as emphatic as it would have been almost 45 years ago once you’ve heard it on countless cartoons and American comedies. The horse in the bed scene is one of the most chilling moments I’ve witnessed on film, but it’s also difficult to watch without imagining its Lisa Simpson doing the screaming.

None of this is the fault of Coppola and the gang who made this masterpiece. They produced an original thriller, that became the platform for almost every mafia movie to come after. The rise and fall of great Italian/American mob bosses throughout two hours of murder and betrayal. The archetype is The Godfather. It is considered one of the greatest films of all time, mainly by IMDb, but also the 3 Oscars it picked up. Best picture was a given, the story so engrossing, and at moments heart-wrenching, that no one could have ever imagined such a plot. Marlon Brando claimed best actor, and his performance has been considered one of the greatest in any movie ever. The presence he has on screen has obviously been written into the script, but there’s no way the writers could have predicted how good it would look, until they saw him commmand every piece of dialogue and facial expression perfectly. The only surprise would be that best supporting actor did not go to Al Pacino. I am yet to watch Part II, but if anything excites me about watching it, it’s about seeing him playing the same role again. He was incredible, when quietly reacting to action around him, or when playing the main event, particularly in some of the more intense scenes.

The score was obviously also a big bonus, again used in countless scripts since, in parodies and such. It does seem that whenever someone tries to copy a mafia film, The Godfather is always the go-to movie. It’s the archetype, the first, the original. The I would argue, not the best. For example, if Goodfellas had been released in 1972, and The Godfather trilogy in 1990, then there is no doubt that Goodfellas would be considered the better film. Or not, of course it’s a matter of opinion, but there’s no doubt that East Coast mafia thrillers make their own sub-genre, and there’s no doubt that Goodfellas and the Godfather are the kingpins of the organization. Coppola created the genre, but Scorsese perfected it. This is unparalleled in other genres. Star Wars really set up the Sci-Fi genre, but since then has anyone really taken it by the scruff of the neck and improved upon it? Of course not, and its these films that break the mould that become instant classics. Psycho with horror, Shakespeare with romance (all romance films are modern day Shakespeare), and The Godfather with Mafia, these stories that don’t go out to become the best of any genre, they go out and create their own genre. When’s the last time a film came out that did that?

 

Rating: 85%