This week, it was Ashley Royston’s turn to bring us a film. Unfortunately she was ailing and unable to make movie night, but via a messenger she still presented one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time (and shockingly our very first Stanley Kubrick film) – 2001: A Space Odyssey. Needless to say, with the length of the film we didn’t bother with a short this week. I’ll admit I was tempted.
As for the film itself – let’s make no bones about it, it’s artsy. I mean, it starts with about a five-minute overture (if Györgi Ligeti can be considered true overture material). It’s uncomfortable. I mean, it’s enough to make even somebody who has seen the film like five times wonder if there is actually a movie. Maybe the whole thing is a completely elaborate hoax, one of those nod-nod-wink-wink-no-soap-radio jokes. Greatest sci-fi film ever, or the cinematic equivalent of John Cage’s 4’33”? You may never kno…oh, OK. The movie started.
Part I – The Dawn Of Man
Let me just say this – Kubrick sat down at the table and immediately played his I-Don’t-Give-A-Crap-What-You-Think card when he made this film. The entire first segment (and, to be accurate, the final segment as well) has zero dialogue. On the other hand, when your entire first segment is populated by pre-hominids, maybe that’s a good call.
There’s not much to say here. There are apes. They eat tapirs. They battle over watering holes. They completely ignore matte paintings in the background. And one day they are confronted by the appearance of a 1x4x9 glossy black monolith (racing stripes not included). Seeing as the apes don’t understand the concept of squared numbers, the dimensions of the monolith are a bit lost on them, though I would like to point out that in the grand scheme of things, 1x4x9 is pretty bad-ass.
The monolith is perhaps one of the best cinematic solutions to the “we-don’t-want-aliens-to-be-dudes-in-suits” problem. In “Close Encounters…” Spielberg managed it by making his aliens be really, really skinny. Like the kind of folks that Manute Bol would turn to and say, “Eat a sandwich!” And that worked. In 2001, Kubrick (presumably in concert with screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke…you’ve heard of him) decided to go a different route – don’t show the aliens. But if you don’t show the aliens, you’ve got to at least imply their presence, and a supremely mysterious piece of their technology – the monolith, natch – is a great way to do it. What is it? I don’t know. It’s impenetrable. But it sure seems to make people behave in weird ways.
For instance, it appears to cause the apes to undergo a leap in evolution, at least intelligence-wise. After contact with the monolith, the apes figure out how to use tapir femurs as weapons, and, let’s face it – that’s a pretty big advance. I mean, first you’re pounding on ape-dudes trying to Bogart your watering-hole with a femur, and next thing you know you’re losing all your hair and developing agriculture and debating whether or not Pauly Shore was ever all that funny. And then you throw a bone into the air and it totally transforms into a spacecraft.
Which beats a montage by a country mile, I’ll say that.
Part II – TMA-1
It’s hard to say what exactly the name of part II of 2001 is, because for some reason Kubrick omitted the title. But Wikipedia thinks it should be called “TMA-1”, which stands for Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1, and I’m not terribly inclined to disagree.
The second segment of the film is notable for being one of the best examples of sci-fi realism in cinema history. Nobody before – or for that matter, since – 2001 has dared to confront the difficulties of portraying a realistic space voyage. Kubrick imagines gigantic spinning space stations whose centrifugal force substitutes for gravity, and a masterful docking sequence that involves locking to the station’s rotation.
He imagines zero-gravity space flights in ships designed to capitalize on the ability to have passenger cabins and crew cabins on completely different axes. And he anticipates both sides of the alimentary difficulty of zero-G, when your food has this tendency to float away both before you’ve eaten it and after you’re finished with it. The scene pictured above is one of the many technical marvels in this segment (and segment III as well). Here the stewardess walks down a stationary corridor while at the far end, a circular passageway rotates. But seamlessly, as the stewardess steps into the rotating passageway, the passageway changes speed and the stationary corridor (to which the camera is affixed) begins rotating, allowing the stewardess to “walk up the wall” and exit the passageway into the “ceiling”. From a technical point of view, I’m not sure there’s a better shot in all of cinema. It’s that good.
Oh, by the way, the plot of 2001 also kind of starts in this segment. Dr. Heywood Floyd (he has a way better role in the non-Kubrick “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, though he’s played by a different actor) is on his way to the moon on a classified mission. There are widespread rumors of an epidemic that has broken out at the Clavius moon base, though they’re simply a cover story for the real event – an alien artifact (a monolith, of course) has been uncovered near the base. It was deliberately buried, and easy enough to find once mankind made its way to Tycho crater because it has an immense magnetic field. Hence, “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1”. The humans don’t really suspect anything, but this monolith is a beacon, programmed to send a message to a counterpart monolith in orbit around Jupiter when it is uncovered by a space-faring society. The segment ends with the monolith emitting its radio signal, and if it’s going to send a signal to Jupiter, well…
Part III – Jupiter Mission
It’s 18 months later, and sure enough, mankind has sent off a mission to Jupiter to see why it was that the monolith sent a signal thataway. And thus begins the segment that is most intimately associated with the film.
The mission includes two non-suspended specialists – Dave Bowman (pictured) and Frank Poole – several artificially-suspended crew members (eventually killed in their suspended animation, so they have no speaking roles and Kubrick could pay them scale), and one superintelligent computer, the HAL-9000.
The HAL-9000 is as sketchy as a young Picasso, as sinister as Clayton Kershaw, but the model has never, ever made an error so it’s the perfect system to control the Jupiter mission at a fundamental level. Naturally, when the HAL-9000 predicts an imminent fault on a communications component, Bowman goes on an EVA to replace the component. HAL suggests putting the old component through a full test, which does not reveal any potential faults. A terrestrially-based HAL computer agrees, and Bowman and Poole are faced with a scary thought – they may be trapped out in space with a malfunctioning computer running the show. Left unsaid is the possibility that the HAL-9000 is malfunctioning because it has been ordered to conceal mission information from Bowman and Poole and is going completely NOMAD on them because of this.
On a pretense they head off to an escape pod, disconnect any microphones, and have a frank talk about whether they can trust the HAL-9000, including discussing disconnecting the computer. Unfortunately, HAL can read their lips, and he doesn’t want to be disconnected. So when HAL suggests that they reinstall the component to see if it will really fail, he takes control of Poole’s pod and knocks him clear of the spaceship while cutting his oxygen line.
Poole is a goner, but Bowman goes out in a pod to retrieve the body. After doing so, one of the most famous exchanges in movie history occurs:
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.
What’s the problem, HAL?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
HAL intends to kill Dave by refusing him access to the spaceship – in the meantime he has already terminated the life support of the other suspended crew members. Bowman, however, cannot be defeated so easily, and lacking a helmet (because he left in his escape pod to get Poole’s body not imagining that HAL was trying to kill him) he survives a dangerous maneuver, first opening the manual airlock with the pod’s articulated arms, and second opening the pod’s hatch and blowing himself through the vacuum of space into the airlock and closing it before succumbing to the vacuum. Naturally, his first step is to don a helmet (with HAL having evacuated much of the spacecraft of air) and next he disconnects the rogue computer, leading to a desperate plea from HAL:
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.
And to the tune of HAL singing “Daisy”, Bowman completes the disconnection just as a programmed message comes on, intended to tell the crew the heretofore suppressed details of their secret mission.
Part IV – Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
I like to call this section “Potty Break”.
Bowman leaves the ship in an escape pod, and things just go wacky. Like Star Trek warping through a wormhole wacky. The MST-specific visual effects (and by “MST” I mean “Medial Superior Temporal”, not “Mystery Science Theater”) last for a really long time. Like ten minutes. It’s totally OK to go to the bathroom, you won’t miss anything.
Are you back? Does the movie still look like the picture above? Yeah, you didn’t miss anything. Go ahead and hit the head again, it’s OK.
Eventually Bowman – now middle-aged – is pulled into a mysterious sub-lit bedroom in the neo-classicist style of Louis XVI (you know, barring the floor lighting). I always think of this as “rococo”, but apparently rococo was highly ornate and the stark neo-classicist style was a direct challenge to the prior rococo excesses. This is why I was never an Art History major. Because A) I don’t give a crap, and B) I couldn’t tell “old and ornate” from “old and stark” if you labeled them with a Brother P-Touch.
Things get pretty dissociative here.
Whoops! Not that dissociative! Didn’t mean to bring in my intended short…
Bowman swaps points-of-view as he watches and then becomes older versions of himself, finally succumbing to old age in the presence of a monolith…which converts him into a star-child, the next stage of evolution.
Yeah, it’s a bit weird.
Let’s face it – 2001 is a difficult movie. But to summarize – aliens plant monolith on earth to accelerate hominid evolution, and monolith on moon as space-faring society detector, then bail out. Humans trace moon-monolith beacon to Jupiter, where another monolith sucks astronaut through time warp for hidden evolution power-up. That’s pretty much the story. And yeah, I’ll admit, that’s not terribly satisfying. That said, this movie’s got the cojones of a hydrotesticular donkey. And even if you don’t respect it for that, I do. It’s great movie, even if there is a lot of dead space there.