I've been putting off this review for some months. You see, 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite film. It is the film that, along with Seven Samurai, truly changed my life in the summer of '07. Fresh out of high school, enjoying my last months before I went to college away from what few friends I'd timidly amassed over my 14 years at the same school (Pre-K-12). Back then I was the music geek, seeking out not particularly obscure stuff but certainly the only guy on campus who owned a Frank Zappa album, to say nothing of Captain Beefheart or Ornette Coleman. When it came to movies, I'd seen a number of the greats but never processed any of them, liking Apocalypse Now and The Godfather on a superficial aesthetic level without even remotely understanding or appreciating their aesthetics. In honesty, I looked forward to the mindless summer blockbusters as much as anyone else.
Then it all changed. For one, the atrocious summer schedule of '07 likely contributed to a sense of disillusionment (in terms of blockbusters alone, apart from The Bourne Ultimatum the next best thing was a censored and ludicrous fourth installment of Die Hard). But 2001 really, to take from Apocalypse Now, put the zap on my brain. At the time, Dr. Strangelove was my favorite film -- so my taste wasn't that bad -- and I liked Full Metal Jacket so I decided to check out some other films by this "Stanley Kubrick" fella. Two hours later, I found that I was crying. Not from anything in the film, but the simple existence of the film. That masterful shot of the bone cutting thousands of years into the future to an orbiting space station could very well describe my filmgoing life before and after seeing the movie. And now you know why I was reticent to discuss it: I simply cannot avoid wretched superlatives and effusive, fanboyish love when talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kubrick adapted the film from legendary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke's novel, though adapted may not be the right word as Kubrick made the film and collaborated with Clarke before the authored even finished writing the source material. Even then, Kubrick's abstract, philosophical version differs greatly from Clarke's more explicit, concrete novel. It is, if anything, a tone poem, one filtered, either consciously or unconsciously, through the hallucinogenic counterculture of the '60s. Upon its release, people even came up with posters with the priceless tagline "The Ultimate Trip." I would seriously doubt that Kubrick designed it either on drugs or with drugs in mind, as he explicitly stated in an interview with Playboy, "Drugs are not for artists, since they cause a sense of satisfaction before you have done all the work, then kill the critical spirit and make anything look beautiful and interesting."
Either way, 2001 certainly is a trip, whether you experience it straight or zonked out. It takes us through the entire span of human evolution and beyond, from the first advanced apes to the far reaches of space. Propelled as much by its soundtrack of classical and modern composers as its perfect aesthetic composition, it moves at a gentle, assured pace that wrings every drop of beauty from a shot. I remember reading an article on editing once -- though I can't recall where for the life of me -- that asked the reader to consider the 141-minute 2001 with the 196-minute Schindler's List and, without thinking about their printed length, state which one was longer. At under two and a half hours, Kubrick's opus nevertheless feels like a towering epic. Perhaps the length of each shot was meant to stress the slow process of evolution, but I resent the dismissal I often encounter when talking about the film, that it is "boring" simply because of its structure. Even those who are not so simple as to walk away from the movie for its pacing write it off as too cold and clinical, but I disagree. 2001: A Space Odyssey contains as much euphoria as I've ever encountered in any other film; it simply reaches this bliss through unconventional means.
The film can be divided into roughly four segments. The first of which appears with the subtitle "The Dawn of Man" and occurs hundreds of thousands of years in the past. A group of proto-humans, still primitive apes, struggle to survive in a harsh desert: their primary source of food walks among them, because the apes can do no lasting harm to them, nor can they access a river for water, as another band of apes defends their territory viciously.
Then, an obsidian block appears in the desert. Amidst the craggy rocks and spiny plants, it is smooth, geometrical, perfect. Nature could not produce this. The band of apes regards it with suspicion and fear; Gyorgy Ligeti's buzzing, building choir pierces the roars of the apes and can practically drive one insane. At last, one intrepid soul touches the monolith, and the music reaches such a fever pitch that (combined with the low-angle shot of light cresting directly overhead of the monolith) I'm tempted to call it an otherworldly orgasm.
Shortly thereafter, the ape who touched the obsidian object sits in a pile of bones of one of those grazing beasts who moves with the apes. He picks up one of the bones, thinks of the monolith, then discovers he can use it as a club. As the triumphant horns of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" blare, Kubrick alternates between shots of the ape learning what power this new tool can give him as he beats the bones of the beast as well as living ones. Now they can finally feast on the creatures who subtly mocked them. The meat gives them strength and, bones in hand, the apes confront the river-dwellers, and savagely beat the alpha male. Our main ape, often called "Moonwatcher," basks in pure ecstasy of the kill -- the thrill in the apes roars and faces as they continue to beat the limp corpse of the river male would be echoed in the scene of Alex and his droogs beating the bum in A Clockwork Orange -- and the first humans assert themselves. Kubrick cynically (but satirically) establishes the birth of man as that time when we learned to use tools, to rely on them to do our tasks, and the joy we experience in violence and subjugation.
In his joy, Moonwatcher throws his bone into the heavens, leading to that matchut of the space station. This quantum leap is understandably seen as the start of a new segment, the second of the four, but really it serves more as an extension of the first. Indeed, as all of other other segments come with their own subtitles, it's reasonable to assume that Kubrick intended it this way. As a space station rotates around Earth, a spacecraft (amusingly sporting a Pan-Am logo) flies to it and syncs with the rotating station in a sort of waltz, underlined by "The Blue Danube" playing over it. Just as the proto-humans' discovery of tools was matched with euphoric music, so too do these tools, far advanced beyond bone clubs but just as necessary to the life of humans, come with "happy" music.
Aboard the space plane is Dr. Heywood Floyd, called to investigate a mysterious occurrence on one of the moon's bases. On the station, he meets a group of Soviet scientists, who have heard rumors of something gone wrong at the Clavius base but remain in the dark. Conflict still exists between humans and, as with the apes, he with the bigger and better tool wins. Floyd travels with a team to the moon, where he learns that an excavation team uncovered a monolith, deliberately buried by some unknown force. When Floyd touches it, a piercing tone rings out, a signal to whatever buried it.
The next titled segment, "Jupiter Mission," addresses whatever happened on the moon. Set 18 months after the lunar excavation, astronauts Francis Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), along with three scientists in cryogenic stasis, pilot the ship Discovery on the first manned mission to Jupiter. Aiding their duties is the HAL 9000 computer, the pinnacle of technology. The 9000 series has never made a computation error, and the scientists who installed this unit aboard the ship programmed HAL with humanizing qualities, simulated emotions, to make interaction with -- I actually almost wrote "him" -- seem more normal.
In that wonderful smashcut, Kubrick threw us thousands of years into the future, where our original tools had evolved with us. That blink-of-an-eye time jump reflects how short the course of humanity in relation to the history of the Earth (much less the universe) really is, yet also how remarkably we've advanced in such a short time. That Kubrick would chart our advancement so clinically through our technological advances may seem cold, but how does that differ from the way most of us chart human history? We define prehistory in terms of what tools man learned to use -- be it stone, bronze or iron -- and determine the beginnings of history through the conquest, technological and military innovations of empires, and we now live in the Digital Age. Kubrick only seems cold because he's presenting historical examination via film. Only now, after a half dozen viewings, do I begin to see this sly side of the movie.
He also juxtaposes the smashcut nicely with the sudden 18-month jump, illustrating how technology begets faster development of more technology. As Floyd travels to the space station, he's served a meal that must be drunk through straws; on the way to the moon, he and the other passengers share sandwiches of various types of meat, all indistinguishable from the rest. They mock the quality of the space food, but Floyd notes, "They're getting better at it." On Discovery, Poole can be seen eating solid food. It's mushy and identifiable only by color, yes, but it's a noticeable improvement over the liquid lunches of less than two years prior. More importantly, the space station created artificial gravity with its spinning structure; Discovery can move normally, with several rotating segments within the ship providing gravity.
In HAL we see man's finest creation. We define ourselves through our technology, and now our technology has the ability to mimic us, to define itself by a manufactured humanity. A reporter interviewing the pilots notes that HAL almost sounds proud as it lists off its perfections and infallibility, and hubris ultimately contributes to HAL's malfunction. Only it knows of the true nature of the mission, to investigate the monolith that appeared in Jupiter's orbit, and for some reason HAL was instructed not to reveal this information to the crew until the last possible moment. This directly contradicts its fundamental programming -- to freely compute and give information -- creating a logical error that it struggles to solve.
HAL's false emotions contrast interestingly with the muted responses of the actual humans. These men must rely on technology to explore space, but their utter powerlessness and complete dependence on technical readouts, oxygen and pressure regulators, and suits for spacewalking leave them indifferent. Poole receives a birthday message from his family and looks at the video recording of his smiling, proud family with all the emotion of a scientist watching a lab rat. With their advanced tools capable of handling everything, mankind slips into ennui and routine. Bowman too is a man of habit, and we never see him doing anything but checking HAL's reports. (A similar theme is visible in Kubrick's later Full Metal Jacket, in which the military breaks and conditions its recruits by encouraging them to view their rifles as extensions of themselves, even something superior; the chant "This is my rifle. There are many more like it but this one is mine" places the gun on a pedestal of reverence even as the humans are broken into an uniform whole.) Ironically, HAL is the most emotive person on-board; indeed, his birthday wishes to Poole seem kinder and more thoughtful than the rote "Happy Birthday" tune the man's parents sing. The music, once boisterous and triumphant, is now repetitive and unmemorable, and the bright, beautiful aesthetics are slightly dulled
As HAL's deception slowly reveals itself, Poole and Bowman discuss it clinically and decide to shut HAL down without passion. In response, HAL kills Poole while outside the ship and shuts off life support in the cryogenic pods. Kubrick showed us that man was born with violence, and HAL's emotions, what makes him almost human, lead it to violence. It is still a machine, though, and tellingly its murders occur in near silence instead of the bombast of the earlier kill. In that sense HAL truly is superior, as he takes no joy in killing, though he still feels a sort of pride in his supremacy. That pride drives it to kill at the expense of the mission; what will HAL do when it reaches the monolith? It doesn't care whether it leads to alien lifeforms, and it can't touch the thing anyway. Entrusting it with the secrecy of the mission gave it the hubris to believe that the humans on-board were just there for publicity's sake.
Poole and Bowman's decision to shut down what is supposed to be a flawless computer shows them willingly purging themselves of technology. Not all of it, of course -- they can't very well just leap out of the spacecraft and hitchhike home -- but by disabling HAL they are re-asserting man's supremacy, this time over the tools that made them superior in the first place. The bowels of HAL's mainframe are red and open; as Bowman floats inside switching off various panels and functions, he looks like a child in a womb, a visual conceit that will come into play momentarily. HAL's begging is one of the most affecting and haunting moments in Kubrick's canon, as its pride turns to realization, which then turns to fear. Kubrick loves to pervert popular, upbeat tunes (the "Micky Mouse March" of Full Metal Jacket, the horrific use of "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange), and HAL's dying, monotone rendition of "Daisy Bell" cuts to the bone.
The first part of the film concerns man's discovery and creation of technology, while the second shows him at last rebelling and re-establishing a certain self-sufficiency. In the final stretch, Kubrick combines the two, where neither human nor its tools are superior. HAL's "death" activates a recording from Floyd explaining the true mission, and when Bowman reaches the monolith he is suddenly thrust into some sort of portal. Bowman's journey through the Star Gate is undoubtedly how the film got its reputation as a prime psychedelic feature, and it remains a technical marvel. 2001 already employed groundbreaking visual effects -- most of them in-camera -- such as the front projection used to capture the vast expanse of Africa while the monkey-suited actors did their stuff on a set and the realistic miniatures used in the spaceflights, but the hypnotic colors of the Star Gate stand out. Filmed with slit-scan photography (in which a movable slide is placed between the lens and the object being filmed, allowing for a flow of colors. The journey takes several minutes, during which time these camera tricks and buzzing music leave you unsure of whether to be ecstatic or frightened. This sequence was handled by effects guru Douglas Trumbull, who would go on to do noted work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner.
At last, Bowman finds himself in a strange room filled with decor that looks ripped straight from Versailles. In a series of magnificent cuts, Bowman sees a man in the distance, only for it to become an aged Bowman. In a matter of minutes, he advances to old age and dies, reaching out for the monolith that suddenly appears in his room just before he passes.
Here the film pulls out all the stops: Bowman is reborn, a glowing, humanoid baby still in a protective sac. This Star Child is sent back to Earth, where it looks upon the planet with a mixture of curiosity and deep knowing as "Also Sprach Zarathustra" plays once more. What is the meaning of the Star Child? Well, let's consider: sexual and birth imagery abound in the film. Two birthdays are celebrated -- Poole's and Floyd's daughter's. The aforementioned womb imagery of HAL's "guts" sets the stage for Bowman's rebirth. And heck, the shot of the phallic spacecraft flying into the ringed station, syncing and docking with it has such a blatant sexual overtone I'm surprised Alfred Hitchcock didn't spacewalk past the camera as a cameo.
What the Star Child means, to me -- Kubrick left interpretation open, as he did with all of his work -- is that mankind at last becomes one with his technology: man's emotion meets machine's clinical detachment. Our ingenuity now has the perfect logic to perfect our highest concepts. What the monoliths are, who left them for us to discover, is meaningless. They are our means for self-betterment, our raison d'être, and they are as arbitrary an explanation for the meaning of existence as any religious explanation. In fact, Kubrick flirts with the idea of finding God in this film, or at least a "scientific definition" of one. He believed that any advanced extraterrestrial life we ever encountered would be seen as gods because of their advancement beyond our ken, and that's an interesting and plausible take. It's also a deliciously wicked piece of satire that God, long an indirect adversary of science, may literally be in the machine.
The real 2001 may have come and gone and not brought intergalactic exploration with it, but 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a benchmark in realism, in science fiction or any other genre of cinema. The attention to detail, even for Kubrick, is astounding. Shots of weightlessness, filmed long before CGI could make the job easy for them, look like the real thing, particularly a floating pen that couldn't mask its wires the way the bulk of the actors could. He rightly leaves space silent, audience expectations or wants be damned. Naturally, this didn't sit well with many. Kubrick won his only Oscar for the film, for Visual Effects, richly deserved certainly, but as he won because the effects were done in-camera, and he developed the film around his direction, one must almost admire the Academy's trademark imbecility and their practice of belatedly rewarding artists for past unrecognized triumphs at the expense of deserving filmmakers in the present (in this case, Carol Reed took home the Oscar for the enjoyable Oliver!, which was nevertheless hardly a blip on the radar in terms of achievement [it also won Best Picture]).
It's also a bit of a commentary on Kubrick's style: HAL sees the world through a camera lens, marking it with clinical indifference, but it occasionally cannot conceal its emotions, and it straddles the line between identifying itself as human and remaining at a distance. In essence, it battles for man's soul when man grows tired of using it, which could be said of many of Kubrick's films and their psychologically broken, sometimes outright sadistic, protagonists.
Even considered out of context with the rest of his oeuvre, though, 2001 must be considered a masterpiece. A satire on over-reliance on technology, it is nevertheless Kubrick's most "upbeat" picture, and one that truly inspires awe with its aesthetic beauty. Human advancement robbed us of the will to live, or at least live a life of any interest. When Bowman returns to Earth as the Star Child, he brings with him hope; the flaws of both man and machine may still reside within him, but, through his struggle with HAL and his subsequent evolution, Bowman has a grip on humanity that no one else does, and his appearance can re-ignite the spark of human curiosity and and joie de vivre.
A sequel was made down the line, one that expressly explained the mysteries that Kubrick left in for thematic and philosophical effect. While the sequel is pretty good, the interpretive freedom of 2001, combined with its perfect use of composition and music, makes it one of the great touchstone of cinema, of 20th century art in general. It is no more dispensible to me than the work of Beethoven, or Michelangelo. I can understand the criticisms that it is too cold, too cynical, too plodding, but the more I revisit this film the more I see it a joyous depiction of what space might hold for us, one that will move us outside of our still-primitive mindsets and into something more worthy of our potential. In a society currently mired in attention-deficit impatience and general indifference, the question of whether we are more like Bowman or HAL is more interesting than ever.