Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) is (truly) one of my favorite movies of all time. If I could take only three DVDs with me to a remote island (assuming I had a DVD player that ran on coconut juice), this movie would be one of them.
Now I don’t mean it’s the best in terms of character development, exceptional dramatics, social commentary or any other more typical critical tools that one uses to measure the overall quality of a film. “2001″ is less a linear movie and more of a cinematic experience; a series of images & sounds forming unique visual and aural poetry.
The film is a vision of a future seen through the ambitious lens of post-Kennedy “New Frontier” optimism. The 1960s were a decade where humanity went from a Soviet pilot making a solitary orbit in a capsule to landing manned American missions on the moon a mere 8 years later. It was a very different and very heady time. Turbulent yes, but wildly optimistic. “2001” came out near the end of that decade, in mid-1968. I was not quite two years old then.
Cut to the summer of 1983, and I’m a 16 year old high school kid.
“2001″ was playing at a revival screening at a small theater. This was a good 15 years after the film’s original debut. Long before seeing the movie, I’d read Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization (a portion of which was based on his short story “The Sentinel”) and I’d also read his sequel novel “2010: Odyssey Two” the previous year, so I was quite well-versed in “2001” lore.
I just hadn’t gone through the formality of seeing the film yet.
My parents, who came with me, didn’t care to sit through it (they weren’t big on science fiction), and they went to the theater next door to see the revival of another 1960s classic, “Psycho II.” So, I got my ticket and we parted ways for a few hours.
A grainy, slightly faded 35mm print (sadly, not 70mm) unspooled in front of me; complete with the opening overture and an intermission break (relics of the glorious days when longer movies had seating music as well as intermissions). This was a complete print, at least, and not some chopped for time drive-in movie version.
So there I was in the darkened theater as Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” majestically blared from the theater speakers as images of our moon, giving way to the earth, giving way to the sun filled the screen.
Then the movie began…
The opening sequence is called “The Dawn of Man” and shows our earliest, apelike ancestors eking out an existence on the plains of Africa four million years ago. Constantly preyed upon, warring with rival tribes over a filthy watering hole, and foraging for food in leaves and whatever else they could scrounge.
One morning, the oldest of these early hominids (called “Moonwatcher” in the novelization and played by mime actor Daniel Richter in the film) awakens to find a tall, smooth, rectangular black slab standing tall in their midst. Unnatural angles in a world void of technology. It’s startling. Moonwatcher rouses the rest of his clan, and they take tentative turns touching it. Later on, Moonwatcher looks over the bones of a dead tapir and for the first time in his life (or anyone’s life then, for that matter), he has an idea. An image of the alien monolith flashes in his mind as he begins to wield a large femur bone as a weapon. Technology is born.
He returns to the watering hole, where a rival tribe is trying to scare Moonwatcher’s clan away. Moonwatcher approaches the lead rival ape with his newfound tool, and beats the the life spark right out of him. Others follow. This is the first use of the tools of technology; murder. Moonwatcher tosses the bone victoriously into the air…
… and the image of the airborne bone cuts to an orbiting missile platform above the Earth in the early 21st century. The meaning is clear; man’s early tools lead to weapons, which lead to weapons of mass destruction… and those weapons accompany humanity to the stars.
We then see a Pan-Am space shuttle making an elaborate rendezvous with a giant orbiting space station to the strains of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” (incongruously so, at first; now I can’t imagine a more perfect theme for this orbital waltz).
The lone passenger of the shuttle, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) disembarks into the sterile, airport lounge-ish space station as he awaits a connecting flight for the moon (of course). In the interim, he makes a video call to his young daughter (played by Vivian Kubrick, the director’s kid) and dodges a few questions from some too-curious Russians, who press Floyd on the true reason for a recent quarantine of the American’s “Clavius Base.”
Floyd then catches his lunar lander and proceeds to Clavius. Floyd’s flight to and landing upon the moon is also accompanied by a reprise of “The Blue Danube.”
Once at Clavius, Floyd attends a secret briefing and gives an utterly uninspiring motivational talk regarding the need for the “coverup.” Humanity’s two most unfortunate imports from Earth; bureaucracy and politics.
Floyd then catches a suborbital ‘moon bus’ with several of his fellow scientists to personally examine the real reason behind the base’s quarantine; a black slab, identical to the one seen in the Dawn of Man sequence, has been uncovered near Tycho crater. There is some small talk and snacks eaten aboard the shuttle as the men discuss the implications of the Tycho discovery… the first direct evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence; and it was buried on Earth’s own moon approximately four million years ago.
Attempting to capture the moment for posterity, Floyd and his fellow astronauts pose for a photo with the alien monolith when it suddenly emits a piercing shriek through their helmet comms; the shriek is a radio signal, an alien ‘alarm clock,’ sending a signal out to the planet Jupiter…
Cut to 18 months later.
A massive spacecraft called “Discovery One” is en route to Jupiter with a human crew of five, as well as an artificial-intelligence control system known as HAL 9000 (HAL, the preceding letters of IBM). With limited resources, three of the crewmen (a planetary survey team) are placed in cryogenic suspension for the long voyage.
The remaining two crewmen keep watch; Commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and his deputy, Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).
We see routine life aboard the Jovian-bound spaceship: Exercising along the wall’s of the ship’s centrifuge (to maintain terrestrial gravity on the long flight), eating prefab heated dinners, watching television on pad-like devices (not too unfamiliar to audiences today), playing chess with HAL, and Bowman sketching his cryogenically frozen comrades in their long slumber.
Shipboard life seems quite routine, until HAL picks up a fault in the ship’s main antenna unit. He recommends they replace a key component of the system before it fails, and this requires a spacewalk. Bowman confers with mission control, which takes considerable time for a response given the radio time-lag between the ship and Earth. Control gives the okay to replace the unit. Bowman takes one of Discovery’s three space pods outside of the ship to replace the unit.
For most of the space jaunt, we hear only Bowman’s breathing as he makes his way to the antenna complex amidships, and methodically pulls the component for inspection. Back inside the Discovery, Bowman examines the unit over the pod bay test bench and finds absolutely nothing wrong with it. HAL has no explanation for this, but recommends that they put the unit back in place and allow it to fail, in order to better track down the cause.
Bowman is unconvinced, but keeps his doubts contained. Poole and Bowman are both having apprehension about their ‘perfect’ computer, and the two of them make up a bogus excuse about a ‘bad transmitter’ in Bowman’s pod in order to confer privately.
Inside the pod, they shut off all internal mics and computer monitors for privacy. Once alone, they begin to voice their doubts about HAL, but fail to realize that HAL is reading their lips through the pod’s window…
(yes, the print I saw actually had an intermission at this point…)
Poole takes the next spacewalk duty in order to put the unit back in place for the failure mode analysis. This is where things really go south, as HAL takes remote control of Poole’s pod and rams its claws directly into Poole!
Poole’s oxygen line to his helmet is cut, and the astronaut is unable to reconnect the line. On the command deck, a spacesuited Bowman sees Poole’s flailing body on the monitor and then races down to the pod bay, without his helmet. He gets into the next available pod and leaves Discovery in pursuit of Poole’s body…a nobile, if futile act; as Poole is already dead at this point.
Onboard the Discovery, HAL takes full control and turns off the life support systems of the three hibernating crewman, effectively killing them in their sleep. Bowman eventually catches up to Poole’s drifting space-suited corpse and uses the pod’s claws to grab him in order to return his body to the ship. This makes no practical sense, of course, since the ship wouldn’t be able to hold a corpse for the duration of the journey. The futility of Bowman’s ‘rescue’ is one of the few times we see a ‘modern’ human in the film acting purely on emotion.
Bowman brings Poole back to the ship and demands that HAL “open the pod bay doors.” HAL refuses, and tells “Dave” that he knew the two men were conspiring against him. HAL says he couldn’t allow them to jeopardize the greater mission. A resigned Bowman tells HAL that he’ll reenter the ship through the emergency airlock. HAL smugly reminds him that “without your space helmet, Dave. I’m afraid you’re going to find that rather difficult.” Ouch…
Dave aligns his pod’s hatch adjacent to the now opened airlock, and uses explosive bolts to blow the pod’s hatch off. He rides the fleeting atmosphere across a brief vacuum into the airlock, and hurriedly closes the door behind him.
Once inside, he grabs a spare emergency helmet and reenters the now depressurized Discovery to disconnect HAL’s control of the ship. In effect, he is going to kill HAL… a hi-tech equivalent of that first murder on the plains of Africa four million years earlier.
Bowman enters HAL’s vast computer core (back in the ‘60s, everyone assumed that high-powered computers would have to be bigger) and proceeds to disconnect HAL’s ‘mind’ piece by piece. The very human HAL pleads for his life as Bowman methodically continues. The once-super computer begins to falter, as he sings “Daisy” (one of his earliest programs). His voice stops… HAL is effectively dead.
Suddenly a pre-recorded tape is automatically activated; it’s a tape of Heywood Floyd briefing the ‘crew’ about the true purpose of their mission to Jupiter. After the mysterious lunar monolith shrieked its radio emission towards Jupiter, the Discovery mission was hurriedly prepared to investigate. Only HAL knew the true reason for the mission, and he was instructed to lie to the crew (a direct contradiction to his programming, as we learn in “2010”). Apparently, HAL’s paranoia came from a fear that the ship’s human crew would muck up the mission somehow.
Bowman now knows everything, and he continues the mission to Jupiter alone.
“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”
It’s at this point that the movie becomes something more akin to a Rorschach Test.
Bowman reaches Jupiter, where he finds a giant kilometer-long version of the monolith encountered on the moon. He takes a pod to investigate and apparently falls into the giant monolith, which appears to be some sort of gateway to another dimension…the dimension of its creators, perhaps (?).
Bowman’s pod continues to fall through shafts of light in geometrical patterns. He then witnesses what appears to be the birth of the universe itself (hence the novelization and the sequel’s line, “My god, it’s full of stars!”).
… the movie, living up to its own movie tagline as “the ultimate trip”…
After a bizarre ride across various false-colored primordial landscapes, Bowman’s pod lands (or just stops?) in a surreal ‘hotel room’ of some kind.
The hotel room is a curious mix of modern (underlit floors) and antique (with various 18th century furnishings and objets d’art).
Inside the room, Bowman seems to live out his entire lifetime in various phases; seeing each ‘older’ incarnation of himself as the previous self then disappears…
Finally, he’s a withered old man, lying in bed, and pointing to a black monolith standing tall at the foot of his bed. He reaches for it…
…and is reborn as a cosmic infant, high above the Earth with a womb of atmosphere about him. Bowman is now the first of a new kind of human being… the ’star child.’ In the novelization the omnipotent Bowman inexplicably rids Earth orbit of all space-based weapons; but in the movie, his intention is utterly ambiguous.
That was a lot for a then-16 year old kid to process…even a precocious geek like me.
Reasons why I love this movie so damn much:
* It was the FIRST movie I ever saw that gave me a true feeling for spaceflight.
Decades before Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” or Sir Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” there was “2001.” The zero-gravity sequences, such as Bowman floating in HAL’s computer core, or Frank Poole’s lifeless body bouncing around in the vacuum of space were largely achieved by wires, upended sets and camera tricks to hide the rigging… yet they are absolutely fluid and very believable. The utter lack of sounds in space is strictly enforced as well; something that modern space fantasies such as Star Wars and Star Trek have made us collectively forget. This was the first space film I’d ever seen that actually observed that basic rule of physics. As my then-16 year old self sat alone in the darkened theater, I almost felt like Bowman… alone in his space pod, traversing the harsh airless ocean of space. The film drew me, almost hypnotically, into an approximation of the real experience of space travel. I felt like I was riding in a simulator as much as seeing a movie.
* The music.
The juxtaposition of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” (a warm Viennese waltz) with the mechanics of docking/landing spacecraft is utterly inspired; as is Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as opening and climactic music. “Zarathustra” is also widely remembered as Elvis Presley’s stage theme during his later years. Both Elvis and Lennon were huge fans of the film. Lennon once famously said of “2001″; “It should be shown in a temple once a day.”
Also inspired is the use of the works of the more recent Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006). Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (Eternal Light) perfectly embodies the cold beauty of a pre-dawn lunar surface; and his “Requiem” as the monolith’s ’theme’ is terrifying and befitting to an alien and truly unknowable intelligence.
Ligeti’s “Requiem” was also recently used to great effect in 2014’s “Godzilla” during a parachuting sequence to face the great monster. It added a new dimension of dread and foreboding to what could’ve been a standard, “Top Gun”-like action sequence. Well done, Gareth Edwards. Sounds like a chorus of angry spirits in a graveyard…
I had the gatefold LP of the soundtrack album to “2001″ when I was younger and, regrettably it was lost when my old bachelor pad flooded 20 years ago due to a leaking pipe in a wall (the water and mold ruined my LP collection). I rebought the soundtrack on CD years later, but it had no colorful gatefold, nor the vintage artwork (by renowned space artist Bob McCall). Man, I do miss LPs…
There was also a CD release of a collection of Alex North’s (Star Trek) original score for the film that was never used by Kubrick (conducted by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, no less!), Some of it this unused score is quite elegant, and is very reminiscent of the works of Gustav Holst and his “Planet” suites (particularly his suites for “Venus” and “Neptune”). It’s a fascinating ‘what if?’ in movie soundtrack history.
* The most human character of the film is a computer.
HAL 9000 is, by far and away, the most complex and fascinating character in the film. This is not meant as a slur to the actors or their characters; this is clearly by design. The ‘humans’ of the film are mindless apes, bored lunar bureaucrats or deep space explorers who are the more predictable than the machines running their ship. HAL, voiced by the inimitable Douglas Rain, is colorful, cunning and somewhat tragic. Outwardly he acts like the perfect maitre’d in a fine restaurant, but inwardly he’s a cross between Norman Bates and Richard Nixon; a paranoid murderer who wants to be liked, yet trusts no one. The sequel “2010” partially redeemed the character by showing how his actions were entirely not his fault. He was acting on conflicting programming given to him by humans (of course…). HAL is almost Shakespearean at times. And all with done with a disembodied velveteen voice, various display screens and ominous red camera ‘eyes’ positioned throughout the ship, like the mythic, hundred-eyed Argus of ancient mythology. He’s one of 1960s cinema’s most memorable characters, in my opinion.
* The movie seemingly defies gravity in-camera.
Miracles are achieved throughout this movie. The multitude of ‘zero gravity’ scenes with actors walking (or running) along walls, traversing spinning corridors onto seemingly stationary sets, floating in space and grappling giant antennas are all achieved in camera. No cuts. No cheats. No green-screen. Foreground sets would be locked to a camera, which would rotate as the backgrounds remained stationary; giving the illusion of a rotating corridor. The effect onscreen is utterly seamless. Director Christopher Nolan would employ similar techniques in his reality-bending film “Inception” (2010).
The spacewalks aren’t actors in front of green screens with wires digitally matted out, nor are they digital characters themselves. They are real human beings, hanging from carefully positioned rigs, made to look as though they’re floating in the vacuum of space.
The centrifuge set actually spun like a giant ferris wheel, so that actors could ‘walk’ along the walls as it moved. I remember actor Gary Lockwood once saying (at a convention) that he had to turn the camera on himself at times, because there was no room for the camera operator to remain within the centrifuge set.
I couldn’t imagine a space movie of this scale, using all in-camera techniques, being even attempted today.
* The climactic light trip.
All achieved optically, using a technique called ‘slit-scan’ which slowly photographed artwork through a narrow moving slit and then played it back at a higher speed with only minor rotoscoping.
This sequence is 50 years old, and could easily take (and win) the Pepsi challenge with some of the best CGI fantasy sequences of today. To witness this sequence, as I did, in a darkened theater back in pre-CGI days was sincerely awesome (in the truest sense of the word). It was right up there with the arrival of the mothership in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The Light Trip was one of those moments for which cinema was made.
It’s easy to see why a lot of people in the 1960s and ‘70s used to drop acid in the theater as this sequence played.
* Future forecasting
While much of the movie is wildly optimistic regarding humankind’s future in space, there were a few things that it got right:
— Computers would become increasingly sophisticated (and also a lot smaller).
— There would be a large space station in Earth orbit by 2001 (the International Space Station), but without centrifugally-made gravity, a Hilton hotel, or regular shuttle flights to the moon… too bad. The ISS (and the Mir space station before it) did entertain a few super-rich space tourists (such as Dennis Tito and Anousheh Ansari), but mostly just astronauts, a couple of politicians, and many scientists.
— Watching TV on small portable pad devices. Something I do every day when I haul my iPad into the kitchen to watch TV as I cook dinner for my wife and I.
— There would be voyages to the outer planets, but made by unmanned probes. And given Jupiter’s intense radiation field, sending humans there for any prolonged lengths would be suicidal.
* Personal memories of meeting two of the actors of “2001.”
This, sadly, is not an experience all viewers of the movie can share so I consider myself fortunate. Attending only my second science fiction convention way back in 2002 (the year after the movie) my wife pointed out to me that Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea were at a booth singing autographs… together! Frank Poole and Dave Bowman reunited! Well, of course I hauled ass over there to got their autographs (which I framed and hung as soon as possible; the photo below still hangs in my library room today…).
I remember Lockwood was like a crazy uncle at times; brash and funny. Dullea was very kind, intelligent and soft-spoken… he also had a knack with my digital camera.
I would also meet Lockwood many times at many conventions over the years afterward; most recently at WonderCon 2015 in Anaheim, where we talked about “2001” (he patiently answered my nerdy questions, which I’m sure he’s answered a million times before) as well as his work in the original Star Trek. He’s an affable guy, and I like him very much. Here’s hoping to see him at many more conventions to come…
My few nagging issues with an otherwise near-perfect cinematic experience.
* Very non-diverse casting.
The future according to “2001” will be one made up of nearly all white males. And women are almost all reduced to stewardesses or space hotel receptionists. The only exceptions are the Russians, who have two female scientists at their table in the space Hilton lounge.
This is especially disappointing, considering that 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” would feature a black astronaut “Dodge” (Jeff Burton) and one (sadly dead) female astronaut in Charlton Heston’s Icarus crew. Granted, Dodge dies, but then again, none of the humans in the film fare much better; not even Heston’s Taylor.
The low-budget George Romero horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” also debuted that same year, and featured a black male lead (Duane Jones as “Ben”).
You’d think Stanley Kubrick, who saw such an ambitious future for computers and space hardware would foresee a slightly better one for non-white males & females of 1968.
* The pacing.
Yes, it was panned for this even back in 1968, and it does take a lot of patience. There are huge sections of the movie without any dialogue, or with only breathing sounds. But for me, the movie’s deliberately slower pacing (much like 1971’s Solaris) serves to lull the viewer into something of a hypnotic state; especially when viewed in a theater (without distractions, such as phones). But to modern audiences born to more attention-challenged times? The pacing may be a critical (if not fatal) barrier to overcome.
Just as the original “Star Wars” rewrote my very DNA when I saw it for the first time at age 10 (in 1977), “2001: A Space Odyssey” similarly changed my life at age 16. It was a space epic more appropriate for a then-intellectually curious teenager rather than a more easily awed youngster.
The movie holds a special place for me, with circumstances that are perhaps too uniquely mine to apply to every moviegoer, but I hope to convey at least some part of why this movie is special to me.
While we may not be in the optimistic future that “2001″ forecast, I prefer to think of the film the same way I think of the Blade Runner franchise… a vision of a future that never was, frozen in time, that I’m able to revisit whenever I choose.
Finally, to paraphrase Frank Poole’s parents (in their awkward video message to their illustrious son) I’m wishing “2001: A Space Odyssey” ‘the very happiest of birthdays… all the best!’