2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY A
USA Great Britain (148 mi) 1968 ‘Scope (70mm) d: Stanley Kubrick
Twentieth-century art may start with nothing, but it flourishes by virtue of its belief in itself, in the possibility of control over what seems essentially uncontrollable, in the coherence of the inchoate, and in its ability to create its own values.
—T. S. Eliot
Somebody said man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilized human beings. You might say that that is inherent in the story of 2001 too. We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Since the means to obliterate life on earth exists, it will take more than just careful planning and reasonable cooperation to avoid some eventual catastrophic event. The problem exists as long as the potential exists; and the problem is essentially a moral one and a spiritual one.
Most astronomers and other scientists interested in the whole question are strongly convinced that the universe is crawling with life; much of it, since the numbers are so staggering, (is) equal to us in intelligence, or superior, simply because human intelligence has existed for so relatively short a period.
I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content...I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does...You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film.
The debates about the ‘meaning’ of this film still go on. Surely the whole point of the film is that it is beyond meaning, that it takes its character to a place he is so incapable of understanding that a special room—sort of a hotel room—has to be prepared for him there, so that he will not go mad.
This is perhaps the film that separates Kubrick from everyone else, as despite the fact it’s nearly half a century old, it will forever remain timeless, and remains the definite portrait of human contact with other extraterrestrial life forms, one that staggers the imagination with a sense of visual awe and wonder, while challenging the viewers to contemplate the idea of superior life forms in the universe, where things beyond our capabilities to comprehend are not only possible, but probable. In seeking to unlock the secrets of the universe, in Kubrick’s hands it’s like challenging the existence of God, where we have to ask ourselves where do we come from? Science offers probabilities and facts, and even enables humans to probe other planets in the same solar system, but there are galaxies outside our comprehension where we have little knowledge. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that there are complex and sophisticated life forces in the universe that preceded man’s evolution, that have far surpassed our knowledge, and Kubrick’s film, adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story The Sentinel, imagines just such a confrontation. Basically a meditation on extraterrestrial intervention and its influence on the process of human evolution, at least initially the focus is on the history of human evolution on earth, beginning in the Paleolithic Age of prehistory that existed before humans, when only animals roamed the earth, but began to develop “human” attributes, eventually evolving from the apes into a human life form. Jumping ahead 4-million years in a single shot, man is venturing into space travel and planetary exploration, where again the focus is upon human technical accomplishments, perceived as mighty achievements, even as there are intimations of secret discoveries, such as an intentionally placed object buried on the moon by some other planetary life force that cannot be shared with the rest of the world as it cannot be scientifically explained, so scientists, and likely military advisors, are unable to determine if these discoveries are the act of friends or foe. Eventually as the viewers are taken on this incredible space journey, we travel into distant galaxies we can’t possibly understand, that are far outside our realm of knowledge, where it can feel terrifying to completely lose one’s earthly bearings and find ourselves suddenly at the mercy of some “other” intergalactic realm, where collectively as a species we arrive just as helplessly as Blanche DuBois, one of Tennessee Williams’ most quintessential characters, who utters, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
This may be the most successful experimental film ever made, as there’s little about this film that suggests commercial possibilities, eternally slow and contemplative, mostly a nonverbal, intensely subjective experience offering little explanation, where there is no dialogue in the first 25 minutes of the movie, and none in the last 23 minutes, as what little narrative exists is almost entirely advanced through spectacular visual detail that penetrates the subconscious, where no one other than Kubrick could possibly have imagined making it exactly this way, yet this remains the highest grossing Kubrick picture he ever made, produced for little over $10 million dollars, yet globally earning about $200 million dollars. This is a film that each generation will eventually discover and attempt to come to terms with, where it’s one of only a handful of Hollywood films that were meant to be projected in 70 mm, shot in a variety of formats from 8 mm (Cineavision, 2:35 anamorphic), 16 mm (flat version), Digital, and 35 mm, including one of first uses of a front projection camera in a feature film, preceded only by Ishirô Honda’s Japanese special effects film MATANGO (1963), blown up to Super Panavision 70, where it requires a special engineering installation to project the film properly. Nonetheless, it remains to this day the mindblowing experience it was always meant to be, beginning with one of the most perfectly synchronized opening credit sequences ever created, 2001: A Space Odyssey Title Sequence - YouTube (1:39), set to the ominous music of Richard Strauss, the opening horn “Sunrise Fanfare” from Also Sprach Zarathustra, which plays as three celestial bodies move into perfect alignment. This is followed by a lengthy, visually expressive but wordless opening sequence entitled The Dawn of Man, which precedes human evolution, showing rival groups of apes (mostly mimes and dancers in monkey suits hired to play apes) in contention for the same watering hole, that includes a mysterious appearance by a monolith, a black rectangular slab placed there by “other” space travelers apparently to observe and possibly influence the evolutionary progression of humanity, as it sparks the discovery of tools that could be used as weapons, and with it, violence and a struggle for power, representing the birth of consciousness, or perhaps the genesis of evil, where life forms are finally able to exercise the use of technology to challenge the natural order, turning ruthlessly deadly, leading to an altered power over nature, also set to exceptionally eerie, experimental choral music, the Dies Irae of György Ligeti’s Requiem, along with screeching apes, actually using the sounds of wild cats, gorillas, and chimpanzees originally recorded for the John Ford film MOGAMBO(1953), and a return of the “Sunrise Fanfare,” Dawn of Man - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, S. Kubrick YouTube (2:47), beautifully linking man’s initial evolution to futuristic space travel in one of the most audacious edits in the history of film, achieved in a stunning cut from an ape hurling a bone into the air that becomes a spaceship, where the effect was finally achieved when Kubrick walked back to the studio tossing bones into the air and filming their flight with a handheld camera, with the underlying suggestion being that despite our complex technological advancements, humanity may still be in a state of infancy.
Once in outer space, Kubrick creates a world of clean lines and intricate detail, where no sound can be heard aside from the film’s musical score, establishing a glacial pace with the stately music of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, 2001: A Space Odyssey-Strauss - YouTube (5:34), which has a near hypnotic clockwork precision, but also a feeling of weightlessness where one loses all sense of time. One develops a feel for the incredible slowness and the repetition of boredom as time passes in what seems like an eternity, becoming synonymous with the unfathomable distances of space travel, filling the enormously huge distances of time and space, perfectly capturing the timeless quality that is the essence of the film. While initially we just get a taste of space travel, resembling a kind of spacious, super first class accommodation that we might see on an ordinary airplane, but with weightlessness, where we still have the services of a stewardess, but also a visual telephone able to call earth. While there are meetings and conferences suggesting something mysterious has been discovered on the moon, a second 4-million year old artifact buried deep on the lunar surface, a smaller-sized monolith intentionally left behind for someone to find it, sending a radio signal to one of the moons of Jupiter, as if providing a clue, where the spaceship Discovery is sent to investigate. Into this equation Kubrick adds an element of uncertainty and comic relief through, of all things, the HAL 9000 computer, known for never having committed an error in its entire history, so it is given the task of controlling every aspect of the Jupiter-bound flight, where for eighteen months astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) travel to Jupiter along with a crew that is kept asleep in a state of hibernation until they near the planet. Along the way, HAL identifies a malfunction, that when examined reveals nothing’s wrong, so there appears to be a human standoff against the superior technology of the computer, where the two astronauts meet in private to discuss the possibility of dismantling the computer, if need be, as they no longer trust its efficiency, as the computer’s explanation for its own inaccurate report is “It can only be attributable to human error.” Kubrick makes sure the human dialogue throughout couldn’t be more deliberately banal, which of course raises questions about modern society’s dependence and over reliance upon technology, where breakdowns or the unexpected are never counted upon, as unlike the occasionally flawed human factor, computers are supposed to represent a Godlike perfection, a kind of utopian technological vision that can be counted upon. The thought of them breaking down or making errors is unthinkable, yet this is the dilemma facing the two human astronauts aboard the spaceship Discovery, though they discount the computer’s ability to read lips when they discuss their options, a fatal mistake that leads to the intermission.
No sooner does the audience return to their seats but HAL jettisons Frank, who is on an external inspection and repair, into the void of deep space. The jolt of this vile act is initially difficult to process, where the viewer thinks there must be some kind of mistake. But it’s Dave that must leave the safety of the ship to retrieve his dead comrade and return him to the ship, where HAL refuses admittance.
Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave Bowman: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave Bowman: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?
HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
In the movie, HAL tries to kill Dave by keeping him out of Discovery after Dave retrieves Frank’s body. In the book, Dave never tries to retrieve Frank’s body, and HAL tries to kill him by opening inside and outside airlock doors and letting all air escape. In both cases, Dave survives by making it to an emergency airlock and turning on the oxygen, where he’s forced to dismantle the computer. Theories abound about HAL as a representation of the new digital culture, a machine with artificial intelligence that is nearly human, a Frankenstein invention that veers out of control, where man is ultimately at the mercy of the machine. HAL may have been programmed from the beginning to malfunction, as it’s conceivable he was programmed to malfunction so he could eliminate the crew in order to more perfectly carry out the mission, quickly killing the crew in hibernation, but due to his close interaction with the astronauts, he has difficulty concealing this information from them, as he knew how they would react, becoming more of a cautionary tale where Dave is forced to disconnect his higher brain functions. Perhaps the most amusing scene in the entire film is when Dave does exactly that, where HAL tries to talk him out of it, “Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” This is one of the few instances of a computer having a nervous breakdown, or a meltdown of catastrophic proportions for reasons that are never made explicit in the film, yet it’s HAL’s insecurity that may be the most human aspect of the film, perhaps Kubrick's most humorous character, played by the voice of Canadian actor Douglas Rain, yet he gains our sympathy when he pleads for his life, begging him to stop, “I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it,” where his dismantling leads to a delirious soliloquy and a children’s song, Deactivation of Hal 9000 - YouTube (4:38). Ironically, the sound of human breathing (Kubrick’s own recorded breathing) acts as a counterpoint to the machine’s lobotomy. The last of the astronauts to survive, Bowman is finally on his own in the farthest reaches of the solar system, cut off from all earthly ties, suggesting an end of humanity as we know it before it is transformed anew. Unlike many special effects movies, Kubrick was determined to make every effects shot look extremely realistic, using hand-drawn illustrations, frame by frame, of a space ship flying, also finely detailed miniature models of spacecraft where the attention to detail made it possible for the cameras to get as close as possible without losing believability. Initially (also in the book) the Discovery was on a mission to Saturn, but when the special effects crew couldn’t come up with a convincing model of that planet, Kubrick changed it to Jupiter. One of the crowning achievements of the film was the level of detail achieved a year before we actually set foot on the moon, where Kubrick hired a Scientific Consultant, Frederick Ordway, who collaborated with various corporations like Whirlpool, RCA, GE, IBM, Pan Am, and NASA, providing easily recognizable product placement in exchange for some of their futuristic ideas, where the familiarity of their logos adds another layer of realism to audiences.
Of interest, the early drafts of the script included a narration, but the final version exclusively utilizes inner titles, where the most intriguing is the final title sequence, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. Once Bowman ultimately reaches Jupiter, there is another encounter with the monolith, who seems to have been waiting for him, sweeping him into a force field, sucked into a star gate sequence that hurls him through the infinite on a psychedelic-rendered phantasmagorical journey into deep space, transporting him to another part of the galaxy, jettisoned through celestial starbursts and gaseous nebular regions, shot through colored filters, including aerial footage of Monument Valley, Utah and aerial shots originally made for Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), designed by special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, photographing drops of dye moving on a glass plate to create the strangely moving gaseous effects. Kubrick also invented a split-scan effect by keeping the camera’s shutter open to expose a single frame of film while he moved the light source toward the camera to create fantastical light patterns. Two musical pieces by Ligeti overlap, the Requiem and the orchestral work Atmospheres, which add an eerie intensification, making the abstract expressionist artwork the visual focal point of the film, a place where the spatial and temporal ambiguity meets the metaphysical and philosophical realms, where the viewer is literally plunged into the incomprehensible. Making contact with an extraterrestrial life force that has progressed beyond anything we could imagine, their potential would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans. To us they would appear as gods. For Kubrick to simply speculate on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, where he doesn’t try to decipher their motives. When the journey is over, Bowman arrives in a “white room,” also described as a Louis XVI room, bearing some resemblance to the artworks shown in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), something that resembles human perfection, where the only imperfection in the room is Bowman, who is fed and kept alive, eating his meals quietly, placed on display like a zoo creature in luxurious hotel room surroundings that would feel familiar to him, perhaps something discovered from his own dreams and imagination. When his life has passed from middle to old age, the monolith returns to the foot of his bed and Bowman transcends into another dimension, reborn as a being of higher intelligence, a star child, where he’ll likely return to earth to help them leap forward into their evolutionary destiny.
The beauty of the film is this is simply one man’s vision, where the timeless aspect of the viewing experience is so subjective, the film remains open to multiple interpretations, which are likely to evolve over time as well. While the film tinkers with narrative experimentation, it alters the way stories are told, where at the premier screening of the film, 241 people walked out of the theater, including Rock Hudson who remarked, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” Interestingly, the minimal use of story in a conventional sense allows the director to maximize visual sensation, where it was the psychedelic rendering in the final sequence that appealed to young viewers who eventually flocked to the film in droves, often enhanced by drugs or psychedelics, creating a mystical aura surrounding the film. And while this is a late 60’s technological fantasy, a forerunner to exactly the kind of blockbuster, computer generated, science fiction films that could perfectly be described as cheap thrills, it is also an extension of DR. STRANGELOVE, in some ways a prophecy of things to come, where human fallibility is less likely to destroy mankind than the abdication of moral responsibilities to presumably infallible machines, like HAL, or the Fail-Safe nuclear response, where computers (and certainly the programming) have the capacity for error. While the film alters the genre’s conventions about how the future will look, in this respect, Kubrick’s film may be the cinematic response to Fritz Lang’s visually exhilarating, pioneer silent sci-fi film METROPOLIS (1927), perhaps the summit of German Expressionism, interestingly set in the year 2000, with its wide range of elaborate special effects, dramatic camera angles, bold shadows, and futuristic set designs, where Roger Ebert noted that “Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made.” While much of the commentary about Kubrick’s film was about its minimal dialogue, the film is chock full of various means of communication via language, print, computer graphics, mathematical formulas, video and televised recordings, or words and graphs on a computer screen, much of it printed in the Helvetica typeface, all of which suggest a futuristic world where man is dominated and owned by technology, where they have adapted, becoming perfectly integrated into corporate terminology, even part of the circuitry, where there’s precious little human interaction. Ultimately the film is a terrified celebration of technology and an elegy to the end of man, where the final sequences are perhaps the most provocative and ambiguous, revealing unresolved speculation on the origins and destiny of human life, expressed in extraordinarily visual starkness and serenity, leaving the viewer in a state of rapturous awe, caught in a rhapsodic wonder about heaven, earth, and the infinite beyond.