2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and special effects coordinated by Douglas Trumbull, color, 1968, 139 minutes.

Majestic Mesmerization

Cover of DVD edition of "2001"

Cover of DVD edition of "2001"

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 many imponderables.

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 as "2001."

"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 Annaud’s marvelous 1981 film about three pre-historic men searching for a new source of fire), "Koyaanisqatsi" (Godfrey Reggio’s great 1983 dialogue-less film about the environment set to a terrific score by Philip Glass), "Bladerunner" (Ridley Scott’s 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 Cameron’s 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 Discovery.

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 not clear.

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. North’s 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. Kubrick’s decision to use famous and very familiar classical music is curious, indeed, especially when one considers how fabulous Vangelis’s 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 Strauss’s "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is hard to challenge, however, for it is particularly dramatic, very pretentious and quite memorable. The use of Johann Strauss’s 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. Kubrick’s 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 Kubrick’s 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 Discovery’s 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. Sylvester’s 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 Floyd’s 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. Kubrick’s interest here is not in individual personalities but in humanity’s 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 observation:

"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 there’s 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 animal’s 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 director’s 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. Hal’s 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 he’s 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 it’s 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, it’s puzzling. I don’t think I’ve 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 HAL’s hearing. They are not aware, however, although Kubrick’s scene cutting enables the audience to realize, that HAL "reads" their lips and understands that they’ve 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 "I’m sorry Dave. I don’t 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 "I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t 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 computer’s memory is stored. "Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?" HAL asks, adding "I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you know, very confidently, that it’s going to be all right again."

Dave continues to disconnect modules. "Look, Dave," HAL continues, "I can see you’re really upset about this….I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently….I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission and I want to help you." HAL’s voice begins to deteriorate. "Dave. I’m afraid. I’m 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 and mystifying.

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 monolith.

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 abstract.

It is a hymn to mankind.

This film is ranked 3rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films, 53rd in the Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 poll as of December 27, 2000, and 22nd in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films.

 

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Click here to go to Roger Ebert’s review of the movie

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