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2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
By Norman England and Steve Biodrowski
March 02, 2000
The spaceship Discovery approaches Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odessey.
© 1968 MGM
A few major studio efforts notwithstanding, science fiction cinema in the 1950s and most of the '60s seldom attained the mature level of the Sci-Fi novel, being mostly interested in one-dimensional stories about invading aliens. However, this all changed in spades in 1968 with the release of cinema's most intellectual and philosophical offering, Stanley Kubrick's supreme man-in-space epic, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Not only is 2001 the greatest science fiction ever made; it is also, at least in some sense, the only
science fiction film ever made. Whereas other efforts transpose recognizable genres into a sci-fi setting (STAR WARS is THE HIDDEN FORTRESS in a galaxy far, far away; STARSHIP TROOPERS is a WWII movie in space), the subject matter of 2001 could only have been examined in the science fiction genre. This is a film that seeks to explore the question of what is mankind's place in the cosmos. In doing so, it creates a beautiful, breath-taking view of the future, pristine with clarity and as believable as if shot on location, and it reaches back to our primordial beginnings and mythic yearnings, compressing millions of years of evolution into two hours and twenty minutes.
Traversing eons from the Dawn of Man to the dawn of a new millennium, 2001
opens with a prehistoric sequence (employing prehistoric simian man makeup by Stuart Freeborn and utilizing mime actors to communicate only through movement) that portrays our less than glamorous cave dwelling origins, when our ancestors were little more than apes at the mercy of their environment. When the mysterious Black Monolith inspires an ape-man to create the first tool, Kubrick informs us only what we've feared all along: that man's earliest invention was the weapon. After the killing of the first enemy, the bone-club is tossed up into the air, and a jump-cut transforms it into a futuristic spacecraft--a message, perhaps, that even at that early stage of development our destiny lay in our ability to overcome and eventually leave planet Earth.
The rest of the film is spent in the vastness of space and Kubrick never lets us forget it. These scenes are enhanced tremendously by a classical soundtrack. Kubrick's utilization of Johann Strauss' 'Blue Danube' and Richard Strauss' 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' represent two of the most ingenious and daring attempts by a director, who, despite having the resources for an original score, instead went with what was basically stock music. The music sets a pace for the images, which are not driven by the demands of plot or conventional storytelling. Shots are long--almost painfully--but as they unfold, a poetic splendor emerges; we fall into a hypnotized state as spaceships drift about, are laboriously docked, and the people within plod about by means of Velcro shoes. In Kubrick's hands the details and difficulties of space travel in these scenes fascinate the viewer, teaching us about the challenge and wonder of space exploration, while at the same time casting a sardonic eye on mankind itself.
In a typical piece of Kubrickian irony, the impressive achievements of Man are contrasted with the paltry behavior of individual men, who seem oblivious to the magic and mystery around them, having apparently grown blasé through over exposure. (The sexism of the language is intentional, by the way, as this vision of the future is dominated by white males.) An astronaut receiving a birthday message from his parents on Earth can barely bother to watch the view screen. A scientist on his way to the moon misses his daughter's birthday but really has nothing to say to her, despite the amazing technology that allows him to call her at home. When a TV interviewer questions whether the computer HAL 9000 has emotional responses, the real joke is not that he might but that, if he does, he is one step ahead of the human crew of the spaceship discovery, who act like little more than organic robots.
Additionally, Kubrick's recurring theme of man's penchant for homicide and self-destruction is well on display. Following through on the opening sequence, the voyage of discovery is marred by further evidence that human intelligence will always turn itself toward death and destruction. Even in its highest form, the supposedly infallible HAL, there is some kind of intrinsic flaw that leads to paranoia and then murder. In a perhaps telling moment, astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) must shut down HAL's higher brain functions in order to keep his meeting with destiny that will transform him into the Starchild. The message seems to be that intelligence in its present form is a stumbling block that must be overturned; if mankind is to move on to the next stage of evolution, he must take the leap of faith and surrender to forces beyond his comprehension.
This notion of surrendering to inspiration rather than intellectualization is emphasized by the stylistic approach of the film, which emphasizes visual over words. 2001 was initially scripted with an overlying narrative, but Kubrick abandoned this, relying on the intelligence of the audience to intermix with his own confidence in telling a story solely through images. The words that are spoken in the film are Spartan. Characters communicate in bland pleasantries that seem spoken out of habit rather than genuine feeling. We are verbally told just enough to get by. In the case of HAL, the Discovery's sentient computer, it is not so much what it articulates, but its calm, phlegmatic delivery that grips us. When it becomes clear that the spoken word rests outside information gathering, the audience begins letting their eyes and, more importantly, their emotions absorb the film's saga. At last, when Kubrick feels us ready, he puts to work the rhythmic breathing of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to carry us back to our pre-speech origins. Here, as in the opening section of the film, we are communicated to on a gut, instinctive level. All this being preparation for the final sequence of the film, 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite', in which Bowman flies past the gaseous red giant before being drawn into some kind of inter-dimensional passage way that takes him on the 'ultimate trip' to a meeting with what may be an unseen alien presence but might as well be a god-like force beyond human comprehension.
For this sequence too, the only language spoken is that of the 'illusion of profound intensity' that Kubrick once used in describing the motion picture. Lights and colors run past, music swirls, things make sense and, conversely, no sense. The final image of the Star Child remains one of the great cinematic controversies of our time. Is it a message saying that we are babies waiting to be born unto a larger, cosmic community, or is it one telling us that our much self-touted intelligence is mere infant-level to that what lies beyond our own pinprick in the universe?
Four years in the making (three devoted to filming alone), 2001
was the most ambitious effort in the Sci-Fi genre up to that point--and possibly ever since. Kubrick consumed himself with every aspect of the film's production. He estimated that the script, derived from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke entitled 'The Sentinel', took Clarke and him 2,400 hours to complete. Advanced photographic systems were just coming into being, ones that the director took full advantage of. And where the technology wasn't available, he created it himself. Many of the groundbreaking special effect techniques used in the film were put together jointly with effect master Douglas Trumble. During filming, Kubrick utilized all nine stages at MGM Borehamwood Studio in England; when requiring more space, he took over nearby Elstree Studio. While a budget of $10.5-million dollars (55-million in adjusted dollars) may seem like nothing today, at the time this was a considerable sum to spend on a single movie. 750,000 of it alone went into the building of the centrifuge, the circular 'hamster wheel' set from the Discovery spacecraft. In the end, though, technical innovations and SFX must take a back seat to the quality and effectiveness of the overall film, and in that 2001 excels.
2001 was released a year before man first set foot on the moon. But for fans of science fiction alive at the time, the dusty lunar shots were already well established in our minds. We had been given a glimpse of the future just a short year prior--it was inspirational at the time and remains (perhaps even more) so today.