By Carter B. Horsley
I went to see "2001: A Space Odyssey"
shortly after it opened in 1968 after having a couple of Zombies
at Trader Vic's in the basement of the Plaza Hotel in New York
with a colleague from work at The New York Times. In that
incredible year of Presidential politics, plannning for the first
landing on the Moon and the protests over the Vietnam War, the
film was the talk of the town for its psychedelic ending and its
My colleague apparently had one too many Zombies
and had to abruptly leave the movie theater just as the psychedelic
part was beginning. I stayed. It was as good a "trip"
as rumored. For many, the seemingly hallucinatory section of the
film was worth the very long wait for this was a film that took
its time. For others, including numerous critics, however, the
very slow pace of the film, coupled with its lack of box-office
stars, was off-putting.
It was not the first film to tinker with time.
Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" (see The
City Review article) had bedeviled audiences with its dream-like
untimeliness just a few years before, but that had a quite limited
art-house run and it was nowhere near as abstract a work of art
"2001: A Space Odyssey" was no small
production, to put it mildly. It was the most stupendous special
effect movie yet made. More importantly, however, it may well
be the most mind-expanding movie of all time. It is majestic mesmerization,
truly a work of art with little forebears, and perhaps not surprisingly
because of its brilliance, few imitators. ("Quest for Fire"
(Jean-Jacques Annauds marvelous 1981 film about three pre-historic
men searching for a new source of fire), "Koyaanisqatsi"
(Godfrey Reggios great 1983 dialogue-less film about the
environment set to a terrific score by Philip Glass), "Bladerunner"
(Ridley Scotts bleak but memorable, 1982 sci-fi film with
Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer and Sean Young set to a brilliant
score by Vangelis)(see The City Review
article) and "Terminator 2" (James Camerons
incredible liquid metal special effects film of 1991)(see The City Review article) are perhaps the
only subsequent films that begin to approach "2001: A Space
Odyssey" in visual and intellectual power.)
Director Stanley Kubrick divided this landmark
film into four sections: the discovery of weapons by apes in the
pre-human era of earth's history, some four million years ago,
a section known as "The Dawn of Man"; the discovery
of a mysterious monolith on a moon in the space-age of earth's
history, a section about a lunar expedition in the year 2000;
the voyage of a team of astronauts on a special mission, a section
known as "Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later"; and the
entry into a time-warped, psychedelic cosmos by one of the astronauts,
a section known as "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite."
In each section, a large, black, metallic, smooth monolith appears,
apparently the work of aliens, leading mankind on apparently to
a higher rung of intelligence.
The movie is based on Arthur C. Clarke's short
story, "The Sentinel," and Clarke and Kubrick wrote
the movie's script, which contains relatively little dialogue,
much of it with the HAL9000 computer that run's the spaceship
This provocative film may lack humanity and
easy answers but it abounds in extraordinary perspectives that
produce a visual poetry of great impact even if the import is
The DVD version of the film includes an interview
with Arthur C. Clarke, the co-screenwriter.
In his excellent review of the film (see hypertext
link below), Roger Ebert observed that "Alone among science-fiction
movies, 2001 is not concerned with thrilling us, but
with inspiring our awe."
"No little part of this effect,"
Ebert wrote, "comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally
commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical
recordings as a temporary track while editing film, and they worked
so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. Norths
score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film
composition, but would have been wrong for 2001 because,
like all scores, it attempts to underline the action to
give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick
exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to
be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals."
Transcendance, of course, is a key word for
this film. It moves beyond the traditional conventions of film
with its abrupt changes, its long passages without dialogue, its
unanswered questions, and its extraordinary images. Kubricks
decision to use famous and very familiar classical music is curious,
indeed, especially when one considers how fabulous Vangeliss
score for "Bladerunner" more than a decade later would
be, or in comparison with the pleasant electronic music in "Forbidden
Planet" of a few years before.
The use of part of Richard Strausss "Thus
Spake Zarathustra" is hard to challenge, however, for it
is particularly dramatic, very pretentious and quite memorable.
The use of Johann Strausss corny "Blue Danube"
waltz, however, is almost too comic for his purposes in the abrupt
transition from the first part about the apes to the space-station-docking
sequence. Yet it works very effectively because of the exquisite
"slow-motion" editing of the sequence and the need for
viewers to shift about in their seats and relax a bit after the
compelling, ferocious and long opening. Kubricks choice
of music, then, was a very daring decision for it could have been
disastrous by comforting and coddling the viewers rather than
challenging them and surprising them, but then the contradictory
sensory onslaught of the music is, in fact, a great surprise that
works only because of Kubricks brilliant direction. Ebert
correctly notes that very often classical music is "trivialized"
when "associated with popular entertainment" and that
this film "is almost unique in enhancing the
music by its association with his images."
(Ebert also recounts that Kubrick continued
to edit the film right up to its premiere and even afterwards,
cutting about 17 minutes from its original premiere length.)
The decision by Kubrick to not use famous stars
is understandable as they invariably carry their own formidable
baggage of their careers, and Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood are
excellent in their roles as astronauts David Bowman and Frank
Poole, respectively, of the crew of the spaceship Discovery, but
William J. Sylvester is horrible as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd who plays
a scientist who organizes the Discoverys expedition after
the discovery on the moon of a strange "monolith," one
that happens to be the same type discovered by the apes on earth.
Sylvesters flat, deadpan acting is so stiff that it is very
annoying especially as it comes right on the heels of the incredible
ape sequence that is so riveting. One soon hopes that some vaudevillian
will come on screen and whack Floyd over the head with some outrageous
implement, perhaps a monolith, to wake him out of his laid-back
lethargy. If Floyds character is an indication of things
to come, it is no wonder that many viewers walked out of the premiere.
Fortunately, he is not, but his sequence is much too long. One
must presume that Kubrick, a man always in total control of his
projects, wanted to use this character to convey the fact that
in the future space travel would be "matter-of-fact,"
something not really out of the ordinary, something ordinary.
The notion was a good one, but blasé Sylvester, who did
not go on to a famous career, carries it too far and almost ruins
the film and is its major flaw.
The astronauts played by Keir Dullea and Gary
Lockwood are bland professionals without much personality. Kubricks
interest here is not in individual personalities but in humanitys
intelligence and where it leads.
In his wonderful and long essay on the firm
at http:www.filmsite.org/twot.html, Tim Dirks makes the following
"Viewers are left to experience the non-verbal
vastness of the film, and to subjectively reach into their own
subconscious to speculate about its meaning. The first spoken
word is almost a half hour into the film, and theres less
than 40 minutes of dialogue in the entire film."
The first section of the film shows a group
of apes in a spectacular landscape having a difficult time surviving
until one of them by accident discovers that an animals
bone can be used as a tool and weapon. The ape-men are wonderfully
believable in their actions and expressions and this long sequence
ends with the ape who is playing with the bones of an animal suddenly
picking up a large bone and smashing, repeatedly in a slow-motion
sequence, other bones. Soon, this band of apes uses such large
bones to fend off an attack by other apes and in exultation their
leader flings a large bone into the air where it leads into the
second section of the film. It is a violent climax to the first
section, accompanied by the war-drum tunes of "Thus Spake
Zarathustra," but abruptly changing to the "Blue Danube"
waltz for the start of the section section and the dance of a
spaceship docking with an enormous space-station.
This section of the film has little talking,
most of it small talk aboard the space-station as Dr. Floyd is
questioned about reports of an epidemic at the American station
on the moon by a couple of Soviet scientists on the space-station.
Dr. Floyd declines to comment, leaves them and then makes a "picturephone"
call to his daughter, "Squirt," who is played by Vivian
Kubrick, the directors daughter. Dr. Floyd, who is the Chairman
of the National Council of Astronautics, is next seen giving a
briefing to some scientists about the recent discovery of a strange
monolith buried on the Moon and tells them that it was "deliberately
buried" four millions years ago and has sent a brief radio
signal to Jupiter and that he has authorized a manned expedition
to Jupiter to investigate.
The third section of the film takes place aboard
the spaceship Discovery where three crew members are hibernating
and two, astronauts Bowman and Poole, are exercising and whiling
away the nine-month voyage by playing chess with the spaceships
computer, the HAL9000, which runs the ship and not only is voice
recognition capable but communicates with the astronauts in a
pleasant monotone voice. The conversations between HAL and the
astronauts indicate that the computer is capable of artificial
intelligence. Hals pleasant, measured, calm voice (spoken
by Douglas Rain) reassures a BBC-TV interviewer: "My mission
responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship,
so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest
possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can
ever hope to do."
The astronauts do not the purpose of the mission,
but HAL does and at one point HAL asks Dave is he had "some
second thoughts about the mission," explaining that hes
not freed himself "of the suspicion that there are some extremely
odd things about this mission." Dave responds by asking if
HAL was "working up your crew psychology report?" "Of
course I am. Sorry about this. I know its a bit silly."
HAL then announces he has "picked up a
fault in the AE35 unit," which "he" predicts will
fail in 72 hours. Dave then makes an extravehicular inspection
and retrieves the unit and tests it and finds nothing wrong with
it, which he tells HAL, who responds, "Yes, its puzzling.
I dont think Ive ever seen anything quite like this."
Dave communicates with Mission Control in Houston
and is told that HAL is wrong in predicting the fault, based on
its twin of the supposedly infallible computer. Dave asks HAL
to account for the discrepancy between the two computers and HAL
maintains that it must be due to human error.
Dave and Frank go into a "pod" to
discuss the problem out of HALs hearing. They are not aware,
however, although Kubricks scene cutting enables the audience
to realize, that HAL "reads" their lips and understands
that theyve developed bad feelings about "him"
and are contemplating disconnecting "him."
Frank goes outside the spaceship to replace
the original unit, but HAL manipulates a pod to attack him and
cut off its life support and communication. Dave asks HAL what
has happened and HAL responds that "Im sorry Dave.
I dont have enough information." Dave takes out a pod
to rescue Frank but it is too late. He orders HAL to "Open
the pod bay doors, please, HAL," but HAL responds "Im
sorry Dave, Im afraid I cant do that," explaining
"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize
it" and that he cannot allow himself to be disconnected.
Dave, who does not have his space helmet with
him, decides to re-enter the spaceship in a dangerous maneuver
through an emergency air lock. He gets back in and proceeds to
immediately to the area of the spaceship where the computers
memory is stored. "Just what do you think youre doing,
Dave?" HAL asks, adding "I know everything hasnt
been quite right with me, but I can assure you know, very confidently,
that its going to be all right again."
Dave continues to disconnect modules. "Look,
Dave," HAL continues, "I can see youre really
upset about this
.I know Ive made some very poor decisions
.Ive still got the greatest enthusiasm and
confidence in the mission and I want to help you." HALs
voice begins to deteriorate. "Dave. Im afraid. Im
afraid. Dave. Dave, my mind is going." HAL then sings a song,
"Daisy," in increasing slow and slurred speech and becomes
silent as Dave has completed the very complex disconnection.
In the next section of the film, Dave leaves
the spaceship in a pod to pursue a monolith that has aligned with
Jupiter, the spaceship and the Sun. He quickly is drawn into a
spectacular, psychedelic warp that is a fantastic visual onslaught
of colored lights that face by and intimate a cosmic penetration
into infinite, surreal realms.
Dave next finds that the pod has stopped inside
an elegant bedroom. The next image shows Dave, who has visibly
aged, standing by the bed from inside the pod. He looks at himself
in a mirror in the bedroom and sees that he has aged. He turns
around and sees himself wearing a dressing gown eating at a table,
even older. He then turns from the table and sees himself in the
bed, older yet. The monolith appears at the foot of the bed.
The camera zooms into the monolith and the
viewer is transported out into space where Dave appears as an
embryo, or "Star-Child."
"2001: A Space Odyssey" was and is
a remarkable cinematic achievement of amazing special effects,
which are not dated, and a directorial and visionary masterpiece.
Kubrick has very knowingly and deliberately taken us into the
unknown and shown us the good and bad of life. Intelligence makes
possible the invention of weapons and tools and computers that
are not always perfect. Kubrick does not pander to convention.
The universe has mystery and man has curiosity. The movie is a
deep religious experience although religion is not espoused, or
mentioned. The ape sequence demands reverence. These are our ancestors.
Their pre-civilized world is stunning, but fearsome. The "dance"
of the spaceships is lyrical and inspiring. The conversations
with HAL are eye-opening confrontations with the prospect of "artificial"
intelligence. The "warp" sequence is magnetic, pyrotechnical,
terrifying and spell-binding. The bedroom sequence is surreal
One could argue that the film should end in
bedroom without the beatific "Star-Child" ending. Kubrick's
ending is upbeat, and optimistic. Life is in embryo. There is
the hope of growth and adventure. Without this ending, Kubrick's
intent, or mood, or vision, would be more somber, perhaps depressing.
Dave would be left at Death's door/bed, confronting the immutable
Some have compared the film to opera. Certainly,
it is grandiose and its visual "arias" are among the
greatest in film history. When one realizes that this film predates
the introduction of personal computers by more than a decade,
its achievement is astounding. It presents the inexplicable in
beautiful, magical ways. In its incredible details, it is wondrously
It is a hymn to mankind.