2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
There is really only one place to begin;
The Dawn of Man. A montage of prehistoric images denotes the timeless passage of the years and decades, aeons before such concepts existed in the human imagination, as a collection of our simian cousins shelter from the elements, from rival clans and from the lethal predators of the epoch, a scrabble for sustenance amongst the arid African veldt. One morning the troop awakes to discover that a ominous, obsidian black monolith has appeared in their midst, its presence signalling a terrified rage amongst our forebears, a suspicion of the unknown and incomprehensible. Through association, through a mental leap mirrored in the films narrative we make the association that this mysterious object has ignited a flash of inspiration in one ape, our distant ancestor whom when toying with the discarded thighbone of a deceased tapir makes an imaginative vault forward of his own, to the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra, to utilize the first tool – humankind is on its way and it’s no accident that our first utensil is used to kill our fellow denizens for food – shifting our diet to carnivore – and to eliminate the aggressive leader of another ape clan, signalling the survival of the fittest through aggression, through belligerence and most crucially through technology…
Let’s hold on there for a second – before we get into the review proper I’d best cover the NFT event before I get carried away, and in the case of my favourite film of all time this is a distinct possibility. While I’ve loved many of the film talks and interviews at the NFT over the years in terms of an actual screening this was pretty much unsurpassed. This is the third time I’ve seen 2001 on the big screen, once of course back in the year 2001 as part of its limited London re-release and once a couple of days after I got back from Tokyo in 2006 with camera operator Kelvin Pike in attendance. This however was something else, it was Kubrick’s own master print of the film – and as such it is something of a sacred relic as it would be the print that all others would be graded and compared against for potential screenings – accompanied by a forty five minute presentation from Douglas Trumbull to set the context of the films production a half century ago. As with the Silent Running event we were treated to some behind the scenes photographs and anecdotes, in the interests of space much of the tales are recounted here. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before – the development of the Slitscan process, the building of photographic techniques and models literally from scratch over a three year production period, the ubiquitous use of source lighting in the frame, the most incredibly fertile, creative atmosphere Trumbull said he has ever worked in – this is all well established but that article is a good synopsis. The screening itself was in breath-taking 70mm in the perfect environment of the NFT1, as an atheist I hesitate to claim it was some sort of religious experience but it was pretty damn close* considering the Trumbull introduction, the print and the culmination of a whole weekend of cinematic endeavours on my part – Inception, Silent Running, Toy Story 3D, 2001: A Space Odyssey – that’s actually quite a composite of movies eh? But I digress;
Through the most ambitious match-cut in cinema history hundreds of thousands of years are traversed in the blink of an eye, in a symmetrical marriage the bone, the first weapon transforms into a orbiting space vehicle, an ICBM launch platform although the Cold War background to the film was eventually jettisoned along with the Martin Balsam voiceover that remains in the original script. Throughout the film Kubrick suggests order, control and rationality through the compositions and editing framework, as with the photo above the aura of an overwhelming, indistinct intelligence lurking behind the screen and consequently is alluded to subconsciously throughout the four acts of the movie – the Dawn Of Man, The Moon and Second Monolith, the Discovery Mission, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite – which also form a robust spine to the films narrative, a harmonious structure that can be alluded to birth, adolescence, middle-age and death. Those graceful movements of the spaceships gliding amongst the stars as the Blue Danube seduces the viewer are a counterpoise to our uncivilised, brutal genesis, and in these movements there is a majesty to human achievement, an inherent beauty and sense of civilisation that has apparently divorced us from our animal instincts and origins. It bears mention that these sequences are unsurpassed today, they are immaculate some forty years later in terms of SFX and were a quantum leap forward in terms of the craft of film-making in comparison to the B-Movie progenitors that Kubrick viewed as part of his exhaustive research methods.
But with this beauty there is a detachment, a certain aloofness amongst these future scientists and astronauts, almost all evidence of emotion has been supressed – Consider Poole’s response to his parents birthday message, or Bowman’s response to the lethal manoeuvring of HAL or even Heywood Floyd’s controlled pleasantries with his Soviet colleagues – even after a revelation of epoch shattering ramifications, that we are not alone as another monolith, another inert artifact has been discovered buried beneath the Tycho crater on the Moon, rationality and logic reign supreme. After docking at the space station our first character emerges, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) who is leading the scientific delegation to unearth the origins of the mysterious menhir, and ensure total secrecy of the discovery due to the potential cultural and sociological carnage that would be caused by such a revelation. After delivering an obtuse presentation, thanking his American colleagues for working so hard to maintain the cloak of secrecy a sojourn is made out to the excavation point to inspect this tombstone to human dialectics. It is interesting that the film doesn’t really have a central character – except perhaps HAL but we’ll come back to him – as Kubrick and Clarke didn’t want to be distracted by such hollow narrative conventions, perhaps examining these events on an individuals belief system , instead aiming for a much broader investigation into the ramifications on our species rather than any particular protagonist. It’s a frequently made point but it beats repeating for emphasis, barely anyone had seen the earth from space and of course we hadn’t even reached the Moon by 1968 (I still wonder if that apocryphal story about the Apollo 11 crew is true, them musing over having a joke after they’d reached the sea of tranquility and relaying that they’d discovered ‘something ‘to mission control – that would have been awesome, after all they did watch the film the day before blast off I think) and for the most part Kubrick and his crew got most of their predictions right, hiring NASA consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange as technical advisors on the picture certainly paid dividends.
One of the films submerged motifs is sustenance and the theme is slyly inserted throughout the films four movements. The first is during the aforementioned shift from vegetarian to carnivore as we make our first unsteady steps on the evolutionary ladder, secondly during the flight to Tycho Floyd and his companions consume nutrition that is emitted in tepid cubes – we are divorced by millions of years from our hunter gather instincts – and the most basic elements of survival are now mediated by technology. Thirdly Poole and Bowman’s in what now has become a SF staple preparing similarly tepid cuisine during their mission to Jupiter and finally of course Bowman’s crowning meal prior to his transformation to the star child. If the three basic drivers of human instinct are to eat, to find shelter (which throughout the film is again supplied by our technology and tools in our spacecraft that operate as hermetically sealed, purely functional vessels) and to procreate, the latter may seem throughly absent in this cold, mechanical future but it’s present according to some of the more esoteric theories I’ve read on the film, as with the mechanical couplings during the opening titles of Strangelove the space vehicles move through a balletic courtship and certain scenes allegedly echo sperm being absorbed into the fallopian tube – take a look at 5.00 onward here – and the repercussions of the act are seen three times – Floyd’s phone call to his daughter (that’s Kubrick’s daughter Vivian fact-fans), the creation of a new lifeform in the form of HAL and of course the image of the star child reborn at the film’s climax. I happen to think that such a contention is weak but whatever turns you on I guess…
In an echo of the first scene the monolith, now discovered emits a powerful radio signal (5.00 onward here) to the outskirts of Jupiter and we shift to the lengthiest sequence of the film, the Discovery mission commanded by a five man crew, three of whom are in suspended animation to preserve valuable resources and two astronauts Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), assisted in their mission by to my mind the masterstroke of the film, as it seems that in our middle age our tools seem to be overwhelming, superseding us and evolving beyond our control, after all any imperfection can only be attributable to ‘human error‘ – yes, we’ve finally come to HAL. First of all the coincidence that the acronym Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer just happens to follow the letters immediately before IBM is just that, one of those coincidences and not a submerged joke on the part of Clarke or Kubrick. HAL is the only character with any personality in the film and its no mistake that ‘he’ is the only character whose eyes we see through in frequent POV shots, in what I can attribute to Kubrick’s particularly ironic sense of humor he makes us sympathise with a creation of silicon and steel in this brave new world, not the neutral, humorless figurines of flesh and bone.
A composition that echoes the stargate, the foreground suffocating the astronauts in the middle-ground, in the background squats HAL in a typically omnipotent pose. Anyway, during the Trumbull Q&A disbelief was still expressed at how some of the effects in this sequence were achieved, particularly the astonishing centrifuge scenes as seen here, alas I’m not the person to spoil the fun so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. During the secret mission HAL malfunctions and makes a faulty detection of a failing satellite dish that would compromise the ships communication links with mission control, a failure that forces Bowman and Poole to consider deactivating the machine. When Poole is in EVA, replacing the satellite components HAL makes a lethal decision – just like his creators in order to survive – and severs Poole’s air supply, prompting Bowman to make a doomed rescue effort and barter for his re-entry to the ship in what has become an all time classic exchange. One classic deserves another as we proceed to HAL’s death, the films one and only obliquely emotional moment – at least in the sense of characterisation within the films world – Bowman disconnects HAL and a emergency message is revealed which details the true details of the mission and the monolith, evidently we must kill our creations in order to evolve. It was this scene and the sequences to follow that arrested me as a child and catapulted the film into my all time favourite position, it is absolutely magnificent and moving, there is a certain irony that the apotheosis of mankind’s achievements to date, the creation of an artificial lifeform and thus the most brilliant and revelatory tool (that phrase again) that our civilisation has crafted almost thwarts mankind’s ecstatic transformation, our pride, paranoia and neurosis being invested into the creations we use to tame and explore our environment. Prior to his passing the neurotic apparatus has also terminated the life support of the three hibernating crew members in what I’d wager is one of the most chilling (no pun intended) kill scenes committed to celluloid, the victims ensconced in sarcophagus that brings to mind Egyptian burial shrouds in another strand of transformation that will shortly be fully realised in the films most challenging sequence – Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite;
A film, like any other successful work of art should ask more questions than it answers in my opinion and it was the hallucinatory final sequence to Kubrick’s visual symphony that still confuses, befuddles and bewitches viewers to this day. That marriage of discordant music and phantasmagoric imagery is utterly unique and unsurpassed to me, I love how it has garnered a wealth of interpretations over the intervening four decades, the visual formations of the planets, moons and stars all suggesting a controlling hand, a sense of purpose and reason to our reality, before plunging into the stargate itself where the visual cues of rotation and alignment explode, shifting from the vertical to horizontal to ignite a sense of being transported to somewhere other, to somewhere utterly alien, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – exactly how did such a sequence get smuggled into a such a big-budget, event movie? This sequence was crafted over forty years ago, when our scrying of the heavens was still very much in its infancy, when you see images such as this you have no fucking soul if you are not moved and awed by the incomprehensible scale of our universe, here’s Carl who can put things slightly more majestically than me.
The film’s most pressing motif is vision, how we interpret information through our primary sense, a crystallisation of the Kubrick gaze that runs throughout his work. The editing structure of the films final flow that I have embedded at the end of this post confirms this supposition, as Bowman looks from one stage of his evolution to another in a POV cut to celerity tempo is a brilliant employment of cinematic grammar – a tempo also employed during the stargate sequence – proving that this is an artist working at the peak of his powers. I consider 2001: A Space Odyssey to be one of the all time great works of art, of any medium, ever. Quite honestly who else has attempted to cover the entire genesis, evolution and future of our species in two and a half hours? There are Picasso’s and Michelangelo’s masterpieces of course, but in the field of film, the decisive art form of the twentieth century it is quite simply incomparable. The film is a voyage akin to those of the Argonauts, of Odysseus, Theseus or the Knights of the Round Table in terms of artistic expression, it has the Odyssey sobriquet for a reason I think, from ape to man and then beyond, traversing upon Sibylline possibilities. If you skim through that original script that I linked to above you can see just how much exposition Kubrick stripped out and that in a sense is the real strength of the film, the audience fills in the blanks, you interpret its meanings and propositions,the viewer draws their own conclusions from its visual structure, its narrative mysteries and staggering divinations. Here is Tarkovsky’s response to the Stargate sequence from his similarly cerebral Solaris, apparently he found Kubrick’s concatenations amusing, his fluctuations from B&W to colour drawing down the epic and cosmological to the mundane and industrial, it’s almost a political reprimand of its era;
How accurate were Kubrick and Clarke’s predictions? Well, it’s a mixed bag of course but it’s still a pretty good effort I think. Coming back to Trumbull’s revelation of the missing footage I’m thinking some things are best left undisturbed, just as Kubrick had his assistant Leon Vitali destroy all the outtakes from his films back in 1999 why interfere with and potentially obfuscate perfection? So that’s close to 3,000 words but maybe I should have just bowed down to the prowess of 15 year old Margaret Stackhouse whose review – which can be seen here – was considered one of the most intelligent and insightful on the film by Clarke and Kubrick, even as they both refused to be drawn in to any specific explanation of the films – as Stanley said “It’s not a message I ever intended to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience…. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.” – amen to that. As is my idiom here are some interesting documentaries and curios that orbit the film, (the assertions by the actress who played the stewardess in that documentary are total fabrications by the way), arguably the apotheosis of Kubrick’s career, I’ll be moving on to some other SF material next week from my old chums Michael Moorcock and Jim Cameron. But I would be remiss not to close on the final movement of the film, a sequence I still find faintly terrifying (it really, really freaked me out as a kid) in its amaranthine claustrophobia, a human zoo that begets our species final evolutionary metamorphosis, I’m not a religious man but for me 2001 is a seraphic experience in its final fervour, immaculate and impeccable in every way;
* I’m joking. Mostly.