Lost in the Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick

The Story: Monkeys kill each other. Millions of years later, a murderous computer is dismantled while singing a vaudeville tune. An astronaut travels through a wormhole, ages rapidly, and is reborn as a gigantic fetus floating amongst the stars. Sleek, black monoliths appear intermittently. Lots of ships and satellites and stations float through outer space.

The plot both is and isn’t the point of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the one hand, its rather sketchy (and on paper, ridiculous, as the above indicates) plot is easily overwhelmed by the cosmic light shows, the long demonstrations of space travel technique and ritual, the passages featuring the apes who can’t talk and the bloodless bureaucrats who can but probably shouldn’t, and of course the lavish visual effects (which hold up so much better than CGI from two years ago – or for that matter, from this year). On the other hand, if the overarching plot seems haphazard and thin, the narrative arc – spanning millions of years as the human race progresses from a mindless ape to a cosmic star child – is all-important. Composing the arc are several generally separate stories, four in all: the prehistoric men, the trip to the moon sponsored by Howard Johnsons, the showdown with HAL, the mystical and mystifying finale.

In fact, while 2001 has been credited with advancing the art of film beyond narrative concerns (a spurious charge, given the history of the medium up to that point), its strongest passages are very driven by story. The apes and the star child are enthralling, the trip to the moon boring, but the movie's greatness lies in the classical dramatic tensions and the rich themes of the longest act:  the active crew of the Discovery, a spacecraft drifting listlessly towards its destination on the moons of Jupiter while most of its passengers lie in cryogenic slumber, slowly realize that the computer who guides the ship's every move, whose artificially soothing voice has come to endear "him" to them, may be malfunctioning.

Before we get there, Kubrick (along with Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and then expanded the story into a novel) has some detours in store for us. Perplexingly, this sci-fi film begins with a title informing us that we're at "the Dawn of Man" and launches into wordless - except for guttural snipes and yelling - sketches of primordial life, with actors in ape suits wrestling, scratching themselves, and getting attacked by leopards. Then the monolith, the famous discovery of the bone as a weapon (the implication being that the monolith has awakened consciousness in the formerly mindless primates), and the even more famous transition between the bone tossed in the air and a manmade satellite floating amongst the stars quite a few years down the line.

The following passage introduce us in mind-numbing detail to 21st century society (which, in fashion and style, looks remarkably like 1968, or perhaps even earlier, when the film was shot - by its release date Kubrick's vision of the future was already falling behind the times). The intent appears to be satirical, but frequent uses of the "Blue Danube" in tune with waltzing space stations and endless digs at space toilets and drinkable food and the like make their point quickly, and this portion of the movie goes on too long. It also seems to have made the strongest impression on the film's critics forty years ago, as most of their initial complaints correspond to what happens here far more than what happens later on (Woody Allen's impression, before revising his opinion on a second viewing, was that it was a commercial for NASA). At any rate, there is a sense that these sequences are there to display the effects as much as advance the story or tone, and hence this "story" drags.

As soon as we're on the Discovery, however, the film begins to soar. Whereas the shots on the space station and the Moon were pointedly static and banal, the angles inside the spaceship are skewed and disorienting. Earlier, we had seen a stewardess walk upside down in a hallway to deliver a cosmic TV dinner, but now we are floating along with the astronaut who runs in an endless circle, punching at the air, climbing up and down and sideways around the gigantic set until the loss of gravity ceases to be a cute joke, becoming instead a disturbing metaphor for spiritual disorientation. No wonder Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is so withdrawn, masking his humanity behind a professional, bland, un-engaging exterior.

But even as the humans stay cool, the computer - HAL 9000 - "freaks out," to use the parlance of the times. HAL sends one astronaut drifting through space - Kubrick's chillingly cold eye watches him flail and then float off in terrifying silence - and tries to lock Dave Bowman out of the ship. Using a daring method, Dave is able to break in; once he's back, he disarms HAL, whose calmly-delivered admonitions for the nearly-murdered astronaut to calm down and take a "stress pill" are initially hilarious (the audience laughed boisterously); ultimately, the computer's pleas ("I'm afraid") and regressions (he returns to his start-up phase, which included a programmer teaching him to sing "Daisy" - by this point the chuckles had silenced) render him sympathetic - a reminder of our own mortality and fears of impotence. For all his power, HAL can do nothing to prevent his own dismemberment.

The sequence works remarkably well for two contradictory reasons. It is a classic example of suspense, with technology working against our human protagonists as they try to figure out how they can outsmart the "villain" and save their own lives (one scene has them conspiring to shut him down, while the camera reverses perspective to show that HAL can read their lips through a window). And yet HAL is far more sympathetic, at least initially, than either of the flesh-and-blood characters. It is they who seem cold, cerebral, more machine than man, while HAL for all his efficiency and bland assurance is "at heart" winningly insecure and vulnerable (though he in fact controls every facet of the set, he is represented to us as a small red eye embedded in the wall, a "little guy" compared to the towering astronauts). If the astronaut's predicament makes for a nice thriller, HAL's is the stuff of grand tragedy.

(Notice that when the sleeping astronauts are killed, we are given an antiseptic computer screen readout of their stats flatlining, while when the computer itself is killed, we get a voice crooning "I'm half-crazy, all for the love of youuuuu.......")

HAL's ironic humanity has been much commented upon and celebrated over the years; often less appreciated is his sacrificial aspect, how in dying he both humanizes and strengthens Dave Bowman. True, even as his character's life is at stake and he must fight to survive, Keir Dullea never plays it charismatic. But he does began to break a sweat, to show the strain and the stress of his predicament, and to betray flickers of anxiety and regret as he lets his friend's body drift away so that he can save himself. By the time Dave is taking HAL apart, his voice is breaking, his skin (beneath the green helmet perched on an orange suit, a costume change to demonstrate his inner discombobulation) is pale and blotchy, his eyes desperate. In dying, it's as if HAL transfers his soul to Dave.

And, in a way he does. For a video broadcast reveals that HAL was carrying the knowledge of the trip's true mission: to discover the third monolith, evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, near Jupiter. The strain of this terrifying knowledge - a barely-understood conception of the imminent evolutionary leap - broke HAL and will transform Dave. Though the timing of the broadcast is a coincidence (the ship has arrived in Jupiter's area and the crew can now be briefed on their true aims) it feels as if in dying, HAL gave Dave a bite of his poisonous fruit. And Dave bites deep, setting off in his pod to travel through space and time for the film's infamous conclusion.

That conclusion is nicely psychedelic and visionary after the film's somber, stately aesthetic, but in the trip through the wormhole, some of the visuals are not really abstract enough to justify the film's depiction of them as a rip in the space-time continuum. (Outtakes from Kubrick's colorized mountainous footage had already been used in the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" TV special, where they were more at home, the previous Christmas). While some of the phenomena are quite lovely - simultaneously recalling the outer stretches of the universe and the inner workings of procreation, appropriately enough as the prelude to the star child - the light show does remind one of Pauline Kael's criticism of the time, that the movie's conclusion was not as avant-garde as it thought it was, given what the underground scene had been doing for years.

Stronger, and quintessentially Kubrickian, are the closing moments in the white room, perfectly composed, at once classical and modern, taking us back to the bosom of civilization with the Greek statues and fine silverware only to launch us forth into the great cosmic unknown with the appearance of the fourth, and final, monolith (or is it the third, which was last seen floating near Jupiter, and which Dave has finally caught up with?). It's one of the most memorable conclusions in cinematic history, closing with the eerie infant in his Milky Way membrane (his face convincingly and creepily evoking Keir Dullea's).

Now, of course, the year 2001 has come and gone, with no star children or monoliths or even 21st-century missions to the Moon. Instead that memorable year brought us closer to the savage violence of the apes than anything else; perhaps even in its pessimism, the vision of Kubrick and Clarke was too hopeful. And yet their film does not seem off-the-mark, nor does it seem naive, and (except for the second "story" which turns the future into an extension of 60s kitsch) it has not dated at all. That's because its timeframe stretches far beyond 2001 or 1968 - its subject is the long-term evolution of the human race. It's a process which spans millennia, giving the film's creators - and for that matter, all of us - plenty of time to catch up.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. It was later cross-posed at Wonders in the Dark, where you can read the comments.

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