Wednesday, November 14, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This isn't my choice for the greatest science fiction film ever made. For me, that honor goes to another film of the year 1968, Franklin Schaffner's Planet of the Apes. However, objectivity requires that I state my bias here and explain a little bit about my decision-making process.. Planet of the Apes is a rip-roaring, exciting, dramatic social allegory about race, war, religious fundamentalism and more, whereas Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey appeals almost entirely to the intellect...and the eyes. The film is lugubrious and steady, the mood...removed, clinical, not exciting by any conventional sense. Another way to put it: Planet of the Apes makes the blood run hot; 2001 -- chills it. So this is a personal preference for me, and yet even in acknowledging my preference as a reviewer, I would easily award 2001: A Space Odyssey the number #2 slot on that "greatest" films list, and today seek to acknowledge some of the elements of the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece that make it such an amazing and rewarding viewing experience.

Going back and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey again today, there are three elements that combine to make it a brilliant and visionary science fiction film. One: director Kubrick visually crafts a sense of "cosmic order," an order to the universe beyond that which humanity perceives, via his understanding and deployment of film language or grammar. Secondly, the film serves as a sometimes-ironic meditation on the development and drawbacks of man's technology (or tools), and thirdly, A Space Odyssey functions indeed as the "amazing experience" I noted above. Today's viewers, perhaps more interested in pace, narrative, characterization and the like may harbor little patience for a cinematic venture that pays such attention to reality, scientific accuracy, and the "details" of a futuristic journey into space. Crudely put, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't a film that you can just interface with passively. It...happens to you. In many ways, it's like you are a passenger aboard the Discovery One, or the Moonbus, or the Pan Am Clipper with the other characters, You're watching -- almost in real time -- as events occur. If you take the title literally, this is nothing more and nothing less than a chronicle of what life is like in "the space age" of the twenty first century. You aren't going to see space battles, time warps and the like, but you will get a bird's eye view of planet Earth, or an orbital space station...after the stewardess serves lunch.

Stanley Kubrick's film, often billed as "the ultimate trip," tells the story of mankind: from the beginning to the "next step." From the "Dawn of Man," to "Jupiter and the Infinite Beyond," the film charts his development as a species. Watching over mankind (with unknown intent and agenda) are the alien monoliths: black, featureless obelisks that appear almost as signposts in the development or evolution of humanity. In the distant past, a monolith appears on Earth over the home cave of a tribe of primitive apes, and - emitting a strange signal - pushes the apes to grow, change, develop. After contact with the monolith, the apes miraculously develop an understanding of technology, or tools - weaponry.

The next monolith is discovered buried deep inside the crater Tycho, not terribly long after modern man has developed the ability to travel to the moon. The monolith sends a transmission to Jupiter and it is there, in orbital space, that man will have his next rendezvous with the monolith; one that will push forward the species' development again further; evolving mankind into enigmatic "star children."

Taken as given the idea that the monoliths are far more advanced than the race they shepherd, it is crucial for filmmaker Kubrick to craft a sense of overarching order in the universe. He begins doing so from the very first shot of the film. It is a beautiful outer space landscape which depicts Earth's pocked moon in slow descent. Beyond the moon, growing visible, is Earth itself - blue and beautiful. And over the Earth, even more distant, is Sol, our sun - shining brightly. The three bodies are aligned, forming some aspect of geometric progression, a perfect one-two-three. This is the first indication of a cosmic order, but not the last.

We see this kind of geometric staging of heavenly bodies in "The Dawn of Man" sequence as well. There is shot from ground level, gazing up at the imposing monolith. The sun - high in the sky - is intersected by the monolith's apex, and here we have another viewpoint that intimates order: a direct line from the monolith to the heavens above; to the "star" people or aliens.

Late in the film (near the climax), Kubrick's camera depicts a shot of Jupiter and its myriad satellites. Once more, the heavenly bodies are lined up in symmetric, precise sequence, but then - interestingly - a black monolith intersects the line of planets and moons almost perfectly on the horizontal xis, splitting the line in two. It is almost as though we are gazing at an algebraic equation created by the planets' positions. It is at almost exactly at this moment that the "trip" into the Monolith begins, and represents another symbol of Kubrick's obsession with a sense of cosmic order. It is an order beyond mankind's understanding or comprehension since we - unlike Kubrick's omnipotent camera - can never see such a view; never act as "the eyes of the universe," as it were. We travel between worlds; in orbital space, but can we see the stars how God does? Or how the Monoliths do? In all these views, the stars are immaculate and perfect, ordered for eyes not our own.

In charting a cosmic order, Kubrick also splits his film into what I see as three distinct movements. One is natural ("The Dawn of Man"), one is technological ("18 Months Later; aboard the Discovery) and one is spiritual or supernatural, ("Beyond the Infinite"). These are the three stages of existence mankind must travel in order to evolve to the next realm of existence: the star children.

In "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick's locked-down camera reveals a sunny, barren Earth in a succession of beautifully composed static landscape shots (no fewer than eight separate shots). There is life here (and our first indication is the sight of animal bones on a bluff...), but the long, vacant emptiness of the landscape seems to reflect the life and times of the apes. They huddle at night in their cave, afraid of the dark, and by day fight inconclusive battles over territory with a nearby family group. The apes are living beings who possess intelligence, but not true self-awareness or anything beyond rudimentary instinct. The arrival of the monoliths change all that.

By the year 2001, mankind - long gone down the path established by the monolith all those aeon's ago - now dwells in a totally technological world. Whereas "the Dawn of Man" featured a wholly natural world, one of bleak landscapes, wide savannas and rocky outcroppings, everything in the year 2001 is totally and completely artificial. We do not glimpse even an iota of something "natural" (besides man himself, perhaps). Man has utilized "tools' to remake the world around him and in doing so has even left behind that very world. Once he achieves space and lands on the moon (a sign, perhaps, of a technologically advanced world...), he has reached the second threshold desired by the monolith; the threshold which will lead him, finally, to the spiritual world.

The last portion of the film, "Beyond the Infinite," depicts astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) leaving behind his technology (the star ship Discovery and the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000) for the enigmatic black monolith in Jupiter's space. He flies into the monolith and upon intersection point the film cuts to a very long, very odd montage -- a "cosmic trip" -- in which we are treated to a plethora of strange visions. Light seems to swirl by the camera, and then the viewer is left gazing for long periods at otherworldly vistas. Green oceans; mountaintops turned red. High angle views of an orange planetary surface and the like. It is distinctly as though nature (the world of "the Dawn of Man") has literally been inverted in the quest for the spiritual. Here, nature is different; the land is different.

There is no room for technology, either, in this realm and very soon David Bowman finds his pod and space suit gone as he ages (seemingly at warp speed) in an odd Victorian apartment. He spends his days (or minutes, perhaps...) waiting to die so he can achieve the next form of human evolution, which I believe the film suggests is a metaphysical form. People often ask what the Victorian sitting room represents or symbolizes and my best description of it is that it is evolution's antechamber. The body's natural death is apparently a prerequisite for the next stage of human life (otherwise, the monolith could just zap Bowman with a laser beam and send him on his way). Instead, David Bowman must grow old locked in his aging body, let his physicality fail. And in that last moment, when the astronaut is old and infirm, laying in bed, he seeks to touch the Monolith (which re-appears before him). He can't quite grasp the afterlife; can't quite touch the Monolith. But then, when he dies, his body disappears, re-formed into the glowing "star child," a baby with soulful eyes dwelling in a kind of translucent womb. This is the birth of man as a spiritual being, and Kubrick has prepared the viewer for the transition by taking man from nature, to technology, to what lays beyond...if not the dark night of the soul, than the glowing brilliance of spirituality; the soul.


In charting the development of the human race from its natural beginning to its spiritual future, Stanley Kubrick seizes on an irony. The very intelligence brought to humanity by the Monolith - the wherewithal to understand tools and technology - is the very thing that could actually destroy humanity. In "The Dawn of Man" stage of the film, the first "tool" or technology utilized by the apes is a discarded animal bone. It can be used to kill prey during a hunt and therefore assure survival for man (as we see in a montage as a giant beast falls dead after being struck...) or it can be used as a devastating weapon with which to kill enemies and hold on to territory.

The ape armed with the animal bone kills an enemy ape and in a moment of nearly orgasmic delight and triumph, tosses the bone high into the air. Up and up, Kubrick's camera tracks the ascending weapon until - boom - the greatest (and most sweeping) film transition in history. The bone becomes an orbiting satellite in the 21st century. This transition dramatizes in one shot the entire sweep of human history: he has gone from wielding animal bones in the desert to building spaceships and leaving Earth's gravity. The understanding of how to use a tool (and a weapon) has led him to create an entirely technological world around himself.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the HAL 9000, the last word in mellifluous-voiced computers. Like that animal bone in prehistory, HAL is no more than a tool or a device to make life easier for humans. But - also like the prehistoric bone - HAL is dangerous, a weapon. Worse, technology has evolved to such a point now that the "tools" mankind creates can out think him (winning at a Chess game...), and even kill him, as HAL murders the astronauts in suspended animation and cuts the air line of astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). The agenda from Kubrick, I believe here, is a word of warning. It might very well be that Kubrick saw this period -- the technological period that precedes the spiritual period - as the era when the human race is in most danger of destroying itself. 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced in the late 1960s during a war that seemed like it was going on forever (Vietnam). It was the era of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation...a time when a push of a single button (the use of technology again...) could rain death upon millions across the planet. HAL is not just Frankenstein's son, a child of a creator turning bad, but the embodiment of the technological age and inherent dangers thereof.

If man can survive his flirtation with deadly machines, with the technology he himself has forged, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to suggest, than there will be no limits for him in the universe. If he lets go of the things he made, the destructive things, the sky's the limit.

2001: A Space Odyssey runs over two hours, and yet there is barely 45 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. Kubrick tells his tale with beautiful, icily precise visuals, stunning special effects, and - often - classical music. The middle section of the film involves Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) traveling from Earth aboard a Pan Am passenger ship to a rotating space station. After a time on the station, he boards a vessel bound for the moon, and continues his journey. This part of the film serves as a travelogue, a day in the life of a commuter in the 21st century. Some people may find it interesting; others may find it dull, for it is the equivalent of one of us taking a trip across country by plane: sitting in our seat on a 747, going out to the runway, flying to another airport, boarding another plane, and so forth. There's a lot of waiting, phone-call making, and even a bathroom break.

The point of all this, I believe, is two-fold. First, Kubrick has created a drama of the near future, and hopes to dramatize what life is like in that time period. It should seem both familiar and strange at the same time, and it is. These sequences are unerringly realistic. But also, I believe Kubrick's naturalistic approach in this middle-part of the film best sells the "cosmic" order and "danger of technology" elements of the film. Mankind believes he controls the universe, as we see here, in the kitchen-sink depiction of space travel as "routine" and "ordinary." But, it is only the illusion of control, as we understand when we meet HAL later. We don't control our technology; the opposite is true. Also -- remember - we don't create the order in the universe -- it is beyond us; and all those geometrically perfect shots of planets in lines reflect that. This section of the film establishes well the illusion man has built around himself. That bubble of delusion soon gets punctured.

One of the longest and most beautiful portions of 2001: A Space Odyssey arrives in this middle section. It is the docking of the passenger flight on the station. It is a lengthy scene (far lengthier, even, than the Enterprise in drydock sequence in Star Trek: the Motion Picture [1979]) and it is cut and paced to Johann Strauss's waltz, The Blue Danube. This selection of music adds an elegance and pace to the scene, but also connotes almost a sense of whimsy. The two space vessels (the station and the ship), are performing a technological waltz of their own, aren't they? The players aren't even human, but the Blue Danube suggests that this space docking maneuver is...a dance. Emotionally, I think we respond to the use of this music in two ways. One, it is a hypnotic piece of music, and we succumb to its spell. But secondly, it is - after some fashion - a humorous or silly selection...and here I think Kubrick is sneaking in that devilish sense of irony once more. He's scoring the future...with the past. He's reducing a technological marvel to...a dance.

The kitchen sink reality of the middle-portion of the film (the travelogue, let's call it), is heightened by Floyd's tour of the space station. He makes a long distance telephone call to Earth and speaks to his daughter The phone booth he uses is adorned with a Pacific Bell logo. He walks past the station restaurant (a Howard Johnsons) and later we catch a glimpse of the billeting accommodations...A Hilton hotel. Later, en route to the Moon, Floyd has to take a potty break and - in a neat visual gag - must read the rather lengthy directions for operating a "zero gravity toilet."

Once the movie has shifted to the Discovery One, there is still this sense of the routine, of the Earthly norm, only transplanted to outer space. Frank Poole is first depicted jogging around a control room, then watching cable TV (BBC 12) while he eats his dinner from a tray. Again, all these scenes of "the routine" establish that two-fold Kubrick agenda: that we are not the masters of technology but vice versa, and that we are taken in by the illusion that we are the masters of the universe.

Why does HAL go nuts and kill the crew of the Discovery? The answer comes at us, almost invisibly, during Dave's sojourn into the Logic Memory Center to unplug the homicidal computer. A message plays revealing that HAL is the only "person" aboard Discovery who knew about the mission to contact the Monoliths. See? We have now outsourced "need to know" information to our tools...and it has driven them mad. The ultimate misapplication of technology, perhaps. The machines control the mission.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a meticulously-crafted, beautifully rendered cinematic journey. It's a film I can watch any time and become hypnotized by, even if it doesn't punch me on the gut level of Planet of the Apes, The Matrix or Star Wars. Above all, It is a splendid match of director and subject matter. One senses Kubrick behind the scenes, like those enigmatic monoliths, manipulating each and every moment. Almost forty years old, the film is as fresh and gorgeous and as open to possibilities and interpretation as it was when first created in the 1960s. Perhaps it isn't as flashy as later sci-fi epics, but it is surely one of the grandest, most thought-provoking, most carefully (and artfully) constructed visions of mankind and his future ever brought to us in the cinema.


  1. Anonymous11:44 PM

    Re-watch the scene where the thrown bone transitions into the satellite...Harlan Ellison (in a Sci-Fi Channel commentary on the "Sci-Fi Buzz" program) speculated that the "satellite"--is an orbiting BOMB!

  2. A very nice review/write up !!!