2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Many film-makers have described 2001 with reverence as one of the most ground-breaking films released during their formative years in the business and a vital influence in their work. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas (each of whom would go on to have an enormous impact on the style and content of movies) and countless other fans would revel in 2001’s hugely ambitious ideas and scope of vision. Though it equally has its detractors, and I’ll examine why, this science-fiction masterpiece defines what a pioneering artist does and the importance of an undiluted vision in art.
The criticisms of 2001 could in some cases be seen as strengths, for example it takes some time to ‘get going’ but that’s only if you think of it in terms of traditional story-telling. This is a film of sophisticated ideas and that doesn’t play out in the usual three act boy meets girl structure. The epic sweep of the story begins with a prologue of primitive apes dealing with their precariously rough daily lives before a large black slab Monolith appears in their hunting ground. On making physical contact with its smooth alien appearance, we see that it teaches them/us a step in their/our evolution. Arguably, the acquisition of bones as weaponry is possibly a retrograde one, but nevertheless it enables the apes to defend themselves and the triumphant ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ nails the profundity of this historic moment in man’s development. Then comes the celebrated ‘match-cut’ where the upwardly-tossed bone falls and cuts suddenly to become a space station, thus neatly jumping millions of years in a single frame. (This moment has often been erroneously described as a ‘jump-cut’; this is not true as technically the image is deliberately matched to another similar one not jumped to a different one).
We discover that an identical Monolith has been found on the moon. A cover story disguised the discovery (and even a suspicious pre-Rigsby Leonard Rossiter with an even more suspiciously non-Russian accent can’t get any answers) but a harsh radio signal emitted from it has us cut to eighteen months later when the US vessel Discovery One is heading to Jupiter. The ship contains Drs Poole and Bowman (Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and three other scientists kept in computer-controlled hibernation by their highly-advanced computer system called HAL 9000. HAL has a calm human voice (courtesy of Douglas Rain) and is in command of every aspect of the spaceship yet functions in perfect accord with his human masters – until he gradually displays signs of a separate agenda. This results in Poole being cut adrift and sent spinning out into space till Bowman can retrieve him and then take necessary action to de-activate the rogue HAL.
Kubrick’s critics usually cite 2001 as the lightning-rod for their accusations of an intellectual cool, an emotional distance. I agree that the pristine antiseptic whites of the beautiful interiors, the precision designs of the models and the at-times languid pace can be off-putting for some. I’ve also always felt that Dullea and Lockwood’s performances are oddly blank cyphers, largely devoid of personality. This may be purposeful if one was to suggest that it enables them to be viewed as, say Everyman, but it’s ironic that for an artificial life-form HAL has more character than they do. Rain’s voice possesses a no-doubt intentional disarming quality for space work, yet his subtle ambiguous choice of words betrays a sly mind at work. HAL is a diplomat who draws a veil over his cunning plans for take-over just like his human creators did in disguising the moon’s Monolith sending signals to Discovery’s destination. He lip-reads the two scientists’ secret conversation about shutting him down (hence the cutting loose of Poole). Kubrick keeps cutting to shots of HAL’s lens as though it’s the inscrutable face of a wise mandarin giving nothing away as he schemes.
It’s hard then to fully level a charge of coldness at a director when he can invest human qualities in such a seemingly inanimate invention as a computer. The best example of this humanity is the undeniable poignancy in HAL’s gentle, child-like bewilderment as his personality and memory gradually disintegrate under Bowman’s dismantling of him. When he suspects what is about to happen to him, his famously portentous question “What are you doing, Dave?” could just as easily be addressed to ‘Daddy’. Also, Kubrick had enough self-awareness of his tendency toward a certain emotional reserve to ask Spielberg to direct A.I. instead of him as he felt the younger director’s warmth would be a better fit for that project’s needs.
And so we come to the last part of 2001 which is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly, there are the transcendent neon grid opticals as Bowman passes through the ‘Stargate’ to Jupiter. This is a brave move to allow an extended visual effect the time to show his transition between dimensions. It’s a strikingly powerful psychedelic ‘trip’ with eerie cuts to freeze-framed close-ups of the crewman caught in facial expressions of torture and shock as he undergoes the unimaginable path to a hitherto-unknown world, and like most of the film’s visuals it has dated amazingly little. Also, it appears that this section and the epilogue are what transformed the film from a critically-mixed reception to huge success. Projectionists wrote to the studio warning them not to pull the release following dispiriting reviews as there was a gradual trickle of young counter-culture fans which turned into a flood, coming in to experience 2001’ as a head –trip, smoking pot to accentuate Bowman’s voyage for themselves. Clearly the crucial EASY RIDER fan-base was taking this film to heart as well and no-one could have bought that kind of tremendous publicity.
The other key factor that makes the ending so important for longevity is that it is open to endless interpretations. Why does Bowman see aging versions of himself? Where is this curious room they inhabit with its retro Earth furniture? Why does the Monolith arrive at his death-bed and what’s the significance of the floating Starchild in space that he ultimately becomes? 2001’s power to invoke a rare wonder is so strong that strangely it almost doesn’t matter; my theory is that the alien object causes Bowman to surpass the prologue apes with an even greater leap in evolution to a form of higher human purity. I remember in Arthur C Clarke’s novel, the final chapter beautifully described the Starchild gracefully evaporating a series of nuclear missiles fired at him from Earth with a mere thought and contemplating his next move. He is beyond the base desire for dominance through weaponisation. There is hope for us.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is composed of leaps of innovation in itself for the industry to follow. The brilliant model effects work and ship instrumentation, zero-gravity sets achieved with clever construction and ingenious camera positioning all take cinema technical achievement to new heights. The music score, aside from the unnervingly effective Ligeti choral cues, broke new ground in choosing classical music in lieu of a composed ‘futuristic’ soundtrack - which would have dated quickly and diminished the emotive grandeur and playful lilt that Strauss gives to the visuals. (This was almost accidental as the editor was initially only using Strauss as a ‘temp’ track for pacing until Kubrick heard it and felt it was perfect). Lucas took note of this when asking John Williams to compose the iconic score for STAR WARS.
Turn on, tune in and drop out. Far out…