To my mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films ever made. And it is to my eternal shame and regret that somehow, I missed marking the 40th anniversary of its premiere on April 2, 1968.
So let me play some catch-up, given that I saw the film today.
Spoiler alert! Yes, I will be talking about some plot details, so if you’ve never seen the film before, you might not want to read this post.
I believe it was the first movie I ever saw sans the accompaniment of adults (I would have been nine at that time).
* TIFF puts 2001 at number 26 on its 100 essential films list. I think it should have been a slam dunk for the top 10
Why does it transfix, especially considering there are no car chases, gunfights or chop-sockey?
Many prominent critics at the time of 2001′s release panned it as a dull, plodding dud that lacked imagination (?!?!).
It’s not to be watched for Hollywood-style entertainment “value.” The reward in repeat views comes from the thoughts 2001 — based on a novel by science fiction genius Arthur C. Clarke — can provoke over the nature of humanity, our relationship with technology and our species’ quest to know. It also reminds us of how much is unknown and can likely never be known.
Kubrick himself has said that 2001 is a religious film at its heart.
You can see that in the film’s first act, entitled the Dawn of Man. Ape-men creatures eke out a miserable existence by plucking at shrubbery, fearing death at the hands of predators such as leopards and indignity from the bullying of other tribes of ape-men around the watering hole.
They both fear this strange object and are drawn to its power.
With the monolith’s appearance come the glimmerings of intelligence. They learn to use bones as weapons. They grow stronger by eating the flesh of tapirs they have killed.
They become strong enough to dominate the watering hole, killing the alpha male of another tribe by beating him to death with bone clubs.
In savage triumph, one of the ape-men, Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter), hurtles his bone club skyward — where Kubrick deftly morphs it into a spacecraft.
To the strains of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube waltz, we see a dance in space between the passenger spacecraft* and a giant, double-wheeled space station tumbling through the void.
* The spacecraft doesn’t look all that different that the space shuttle did in 2001. :)
This builds our sense of wonder by appealing to our appreciation of style and grace. If you watch it while mindful of Kubrick’s proviso about the fundamental nature of the film, it takes on the tone of a dignified religious ritual — with the faith being technology.
In this second act, we learn that things are not as they seem.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester), a top official with the National Astronautics Council, visits the Clavius space base on the moon. He is there to give the crew a pep talk and reinforce the need for secrecy about Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (TMA-1) — a monolith.
“I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning,” he told them.*
* Remember how the ape-people reacted, then multiply that :)
They found the monolith because it emitted an incredibly strong magnetic field. What had authorities freaked out is the fact that the monolith appeared to have been deliberately buried about 40 feet below the moon’s surface four million years ago.
“Well, I must say you guys have certainly come up with something,” said Floyd as he munched on a sandwich while travelling out to the Tyco crater.
One Floyd reaches the monolith, he reaches out, as his predecessors did millions of years before, to touch it — but more in wonder than in fear.
As the astronauts gather around, the sun’s rays hit the monolith, triggering a piercing and powerful radio blast that leaves the astronauts in agony. The signal is aimed at Jupiter.
Cue the third act.
We move ahead 18 months in time, where the spaceship Discovery One is cruising silently through space towards Jupiter, half a billion miles from Earth. We find astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) quietly jogging and later meet mission commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea).
We also meet, Hal, the HAL 9000 computer running the ship and the mission.
Hal speaks to a BBC interviewer, who tells us this generation of computer can mimic most activities of the human brain, “but with incalculably greater speed and reliability.”
Hal, phlegmatically voiced by the enigmatic Canadian actor Douglas Rain, tells the interviewer: “The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000-series computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, fool-proof and incapable of error.”
The computer said he enjoys both working with people and the duties imposed by the mission. “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
Poole called Hal a sixth member of the crew and said one quickly starts thinking of it as another person.
When the interviewer asked him if Hal had genuine emotions (he noted Hal displayed pride in his work), Poole said: “Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. He’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether he has real feelings is something that I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”
We start finding out that Hal is capable of doubts, primarily about the mission.
He then apparently makes a mistake — one not made by his earth-based twin. And when he determines that Poole and Bowman are thinking of disabling his higher function, Hal makes a deadly power play. He kills Poole while the astronaut is outside the ship. When Bowman goes to recover Poole, Hal shuts down the life support systems of three hibernating crew members and then refuses to open the pod bay doors for Bowman. Watch this classic scene:
In a way, I find that type of showdown can be found in many offices — er, with less potential lethality. :)
Bowman carries out a high-risk manouevre to re-enter the ship. He then goes grimly about the task of killing mad Hal. Watch this scene:
We see a crazed machine afraid of impending death (“My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it … I’m af-raid”) and reverting back to its “childhood” in Urbana, Illinois.
As Hal’s conscious functioning is turned off, a prerecorded message from Floyd to the crew pops up as Discovery One enters Jupiter’s orbit, which “for security reasons of the highest importance, has been known on board during the mission only by your HAL 9000 computer.”
Floyd reveals that that the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth had been discovered 18 months early on the moon, and talks about the radio signal beamed at Jupiter. The monolith’s “origin and purpose (are) still a total mystery,” he said.
This brings us to the film’s final act: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. This is the part of the film that brought out the college-aged druggies in the late 1960s!
We find a monolith floating in space high above Jupiter. Bowman goes out in a pod to chase the monolith – and things get freaky.
A dazzling psychedelic journey of flashing, shifting lights and fluorescent landscapes ensues, ending with the inside a castle-sized bedroom described on Wikipedia as being Lous XVI-style.
Bowman, visibly aged by his light-speed voyage, exits in a spacesuit to find an older version of himself enjoying a meal (he isn’t speaking, but you can hear voices — presumably aliens). That second Bowman’s attention turns to a still-older version lying and dying in bed.
During the final moments of his life, Bowman reaches towards the monolith that had suddenly appeared in the bedroom.
In the process, he is reborn as the Star Child, a fetus as big as Earth itself:
The monolith makes appearances in all four acts of the film, perfectly symmetrical and mysterious in its inky blackness that echoes the depths of space itself. Like any great religious symbol, it taps into the primordial part of our brains. The monolith is both charismatic and humbling to us as it offers tastes both imagined and real of a power far greater than anything we can comprehend.
This resonates with us because as humans, we have a sense of both hierachy and awe — something Kubrick heightens with the brilliant use of music, such as Gyorgy Ligeti’s for the ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ final act.
The monolith also triggers transformation in the film: For the ape-men, it means going from prey to predator. For the U.S. moon crew, it means realizing we are not alone. For David Bowman, it sent him on a mindbending journey that would conclude with his death — followed by his immediate resurrection as a different life form.
Because Hal was sworn to secrecy, we’ll never know his thoughts about the monolith, which is unfortunate.
Would a machine of programmed intelligence have formed useful insights about the nature of such an object?
Possibly not, which shows the limits of science and logic in understanding our world.
However, Hal is important in how he/it provokes thought on the nature of what it means to be human.
Are humans more than mere “conscious entities”? Do you need flesh and blood to be human? Does the ability to feel insecure and doubtful make someone or something human? How about madness?
In Hal’s case, does his inability to remain stable while keeping a secret provide evidence of human qualities or bad programming? Is there a difference?
More than 40 years after I first saw the film, I still find myself intrigued by the questions 2001 raises. That’s what makes it one of the greatest films of all time.
I’ll leave you with Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. If you haven’t seen the film before, or feel like reconnecting, it plays the Bell Lightbox until Jan. 5. The 70mm print is absolutely gorgeous.
If you do go, be mindful of the message in my tweets:
The 70mm print of “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing at the Bell Lightbox is stunningly beautiful. And if you’re lucky …
… You too will have two chatterboxes behind you who are oblivious to signals both subtle & strong that they should STFU.
I’m also a big fan of Blade Runner. Check out my post on that landmark film.
For a multimedia exploration of the film’s meaning, visit Kubrick2001.com – although I don’t endorse its intepretations.
On Dec. 6, The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell offered 21 cool things about 2001: A Space Odyssey. An excerpt:
19. Symbolism alert! The aligned planets and monolith at the beginning of the (Douglas) Trumbull-designed Star Gate psychedelic sequence form a crucifix. This is no accident.
Howell also interviewed Trumbull, who was in Toronto to talk about the making of 2001:
He’s proudest of the rainbow “Stargate” sequence at the film’s end, part of a 17-minute wild ride towards Jupiter that had hippies lining up to experience “the ultimate trip” when the film opened in 1968.
“That was a huge machine I had to build (to shoot Stargate). It took many, many months to photograph all those shots because it took many minutes of frame per exposure to make them. We used special photographic equipment that I had to build.”
On Dec. 8, the National Post’s Chris Knight offered these tidbits to show Kubrick’s maniacal perfectionism:
The film — suggested titles included Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, Planetfall and eventually 2001 — started principal photography at the end of 1965, wrapped an astonishing 21 months later and ate up an additional, partially overlapping 21 months in post-production and special-effects work.
Much of this labour never made it to the screen. For instance, the iconic black monolith that appears at several crucial junctures in the film was originally constructed as a four-metre-tall slab of Plexiglas, which required a month to cool — slowly, so it wouldn’t shatter — and weeks of polishing. Kubrick hated it, so a black-painted wooden monolith took its place. It had to be repainted if so much as a fingerprint was seen on it.
A fascinating article in the special effects journal Cinefex (April 2001 edition, naturally) discusses some similar tales of cinematic insanity. For instance, Kubrick oversaw the creation of lactating ape-woman costumes for the film’s opening sequence, suckled by young chimpanzees in tiny ape-baby costumes — and then left the footage in the cutting room.
In a Dec. 12 New York Times article on the role of black rectangles in design, you can find this quote by German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic:
“They’re black boxes in the scientific sense in that they express some kind of power and authority but we don’t necessarily know what’s going on inside,” Mr. Grcic said.
“They remind me of the black monolith that the ape-men discover outside their cave in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.”’ It stands for knowledge and faith that they don’t understand, but recognize and respect.”
If you haven’t done so, and you like the film, you should read Clarke’s novel. He also wrote three other books on the theme, which are summarized on this SciFiDimensions.com page.