Required Viewing volume 1: 2001: A Space Oddyssey
Although lacking in many areas, the film class I’m currently enrolled in has a pretty excellent required viewing list. It’s about a 50/50 split between films I’ve never seen and ones I’ve seen several times. Rather than skip over the ones I’ve already seen and rely on memory, I’m taking a fresh look at all of them. Despite the fact that there’s barely any homework and the class discussion level is nil, I figured it was a good opportunity to revisit a few things and maybe get a handful of blog posts out of the deal. I’ve had a ton of stuff to write about and these are going to be running concurrently with my Netflix reviews, so they won’t be in the order I’ve been watching them for class, but this seems like as good a place to start as any. So get ready for the first installment of “Required Viewing”, in which we’ll take a look at Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction landmark, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And if I need to include spoiler warnings for a 44-year-old movie, consider yourself warned.
At the risk of damaging my impeccable nerd cred, I’ll be completely honest here and say that many years ago, the first time I watched 2001, I didn’t like it. I grew up on Star Wars, and felt like 2001 was overly long and entirely devoid of the space dogfights and crazy aliens that made me love sci-fi in the first place. It’s only with age and repeated viewings that I’ve come to love this film, and appreciate it for everything that it is. At once beautiful and bleak, both sterile and dangerous, it’s a towering achievement not only in terms of special effects but also in storytelling. In an era where sci-fi pop culture consisted primarily of fare like the hokey Lost in Space or the relentlessly optimistic Star Trek, Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke unleashed something incredibly different on an unsuspecting audience.
Hitting theaters the year before man successfully landed on the moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey is populated by technology that is tantalizingly achievable. There are no lightsabers, and no teleporters. There are, however, painstakingly detailed and beautifully realized space stations, complete with luxury hotels, alongside enormous space freighters and tiny, cramped landing craft. There are no deep-space chases or dogfights, the awe comes in how amazingly functional everything looks. Kubrick presents the incredible as mundane, as we witness a stewardess walk into a corridor, retrieve a couple meal trays, and walk up the rounded wall onto the ceiling in one continuous shot. All this seemingly achievable technology comes with a steep price, however, as by the end of the film mankind is presented with several good reasons to stay on Earth and as far away from outer space as possible.
The film begins, as the title card states, at the “Dawn of Man”, when mankind is still closer to apes than anything else. Kubrick follows these prehistoric men through their day to day lives, in an impressive stretch of screentime without exposition or indeed dialogue of any kind. Eventually, and also without explanation, a large black monolith appears among them. Crowding frantically around it as if in worship, our prehistoric ancestors are suddenly inspired to use tools, realizing that the large femur bone of one of their prey animals can be used as a club to hunt more efficiently. And in a decidedly less fortunate evolutionary leap, they realize that this same tool can be used to kill and therefore to subjugate their own kind. Kubrick takes our collective ancestry from blissful ignorance to cold-blooded killers in a little under half an hour, before flashing forward to the then-distant year of 2001.
On board the aforementioned luxury space station, a meeting has been called to discuss a monolith recently unearthed by colonists on Earth’s moon. A team is sent to investigate, and upon their arrival a loud, high-pitched signal emits from the monolith. Flash forward several months, and a new team is dispatched. Unbeknownst to them, they’re following the signal of the lunar monolith, which was directed towards Jupiter. Most of the ship’s crew is in cryogenic stasis for the journey, but a few remain awake to watch over things. Namely, doctors Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, along with HAL-9000, a state of the art computer which oversees the operations of the entire ship. In 1968 it could hardly have been possible to foresee mankind’s eventual reliance on computers, but somehow 2001 does so anyway. Anyone who has ever had their GPS lead them decidedly off course, or lose their connection to the satellite at a crucial moment, can surely identify when the usually friendly HAL-9000 goes off the rails. A suspicious computer error leads to Frank and Dave conspiring to shut HAL down, and HAL responds by luring Frank outside the ship for repairs and then cutting his lifeline, condemning him to death in deep space. Dave, thinking it’s all been an accident, goes to retrieve the body. Upon returning in his small maintenance craft, he requests that HAL open the pod bay doors, only to be met with “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.
Nearly everything that happens in 2001 is understated to the point of being absolutely chilling. Continuing in the tradition of the opening sequence, there are extended periods without dialogue that are more effective than any scripted lines could ever be. Frank’s death is preceded by a long stretch where the soundtrack consists solely of the sound of him breathing within his suit. The fact that the only sound we have been hearing for several minutes ceases when his lifeline is cut results in one of the most emphatic onscreen deaths of all time. This is expounded upon when Dave leaves the ship and HAL takes the opportunity to murder the rest of the crew in their stasis pods. There is never a struggle, and we’ve never met the victims, but mass murder indicated by a cold diagnostics readout on a computer screen is probably one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen in a movie. And as Dave is en route to shut him down for good, HAL’s monotone plea of “I know I’ve made some poor decisions recently” is shockingly heartfelt for a computer which we’ve just seen kill several people in cold blood.
The ending of the film has been endlessly debated since its release, with Dave finally reaching “Jupiter and the infinite beyond”. If the first monolith is meant to jump-start mankind, and the second is a signal that they’ve escaped the confines of their planet, the third is entirely ambiguous in its intent, beyond the obvious “don’t go into space”. When Dave reaches the mission’s final destination, Kubrick again abandons traditional storytelling for an extended sequence that still has people discussing its meaning almost a half century later. Whatever the finer points may be, the predominant tone is an extremely bleak viewpoint of man’s place in the universe, and a sense that our technological advances and curiosity will be our eventual undoing. Science fiction as a genre is driven by our inherent need for exploration, and 2001 rejects that convention outright, making it an extremely controversial and talked-about film. In terms of pure effects and camera work, there are few films that match it, and as far as complexity there’s little else in the genre that comes close.
I can’t end a discussion on 2001 without at least mentioning the score, which consists of an array of classical music that has mostly become irrevocably tied to this film. The score and the sound effects do such an excellent job of carrying the story that 2001 could very feasibly exist as a silent film, with intertitle cards used for the voice of HAL. Several Kubrick films, most notably A Clockwork Orange, strive for the perfect marriage of sound and iconic imagery that is 2001, but few films by him or any other director have even approached this level. Every element of the film, from the story to the effects to the soundtrack, combines to form perhaps the most beautifully hopeless portrayal of mankind’s ambition ever committed to the screen.