Sunday, September 3, 2017

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey - Part Two

The 800-foot long spaceship Discovery I with a space pod exiting the pod bay. This shot gives the viewer a nice perspective of the troubling communications antennae.
Note: This is Part Two of my synopsis of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is filled with spoilers.

At about 54:40 into 2001: A Space Odyssey writer-director Stanley Kubrick begins the film's next section: “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later.”  We see a vast dark field of stars. Into this the spaceship Discovery I thrusts, a great long ship in sharp focus and magnificent  detail.  This is accompanied by Aram Khachaturian's wonderful adagio from his Gayne Ballet Suite, one of my favorite pieces of classical music. Essentially, all that has gone before in 2001 is a prologue to the Discovery's mission to Jupiter and ultimately to the transformation of one of its crew members. 

Astronaut Frank Poole is doing a fast-paced workout while literally jogging sideways before our eyes.  We follow him along the centrifuge's 360 degree path.  Rushing around him are various tables, displays, and workstations for the spacecraft as well as the capsules of three hibernating astronauts. Poole silently punches the air and jogs in the utter stillness inside Discovery's command module.  

Discovery in its full length from a distance.

The eye of HAL observing Dave Bowman approaching the ship's centrifuge. 
We see Dave Bowman join Poole initially in the reflection of an all-seeing eye of the ship's HAL 9000 computer.  Bowman enters the centrifuge in a rather mind-bending shot.  Our perspective is still sideways but Poole is clearly sitting and having a meal below us.  Bowman enters through a hatch in the middle of the centrifuge and descends a ladder to the floor, upside down and away from Poole. Bowman then casually walks around to where Poole is seated. This would be a piece of cake in today's CGI films but Kubrick made this shot all in-camera and it has a startling effect on the viewer's perspective the first time you see it. Watch a short video about how this was accomplished here.

As Bowman fetches his prefabricated meal, Poole watches a BBC news broadcast regarding the mission.  This serves as an orientation for the viewer.  Discovery I began its mission to Jupiter three weeks ago.  There are five crew members aboard (three in hibernation, who will be the “survey team” once the mission arrives at Jupiter) and the HAL 9000 computer.  Bowman is the mission commander.  Poole is his lieutenant. There is a brief discussion about the nature of hibernation.  Poole informs everyone that hibernation is “exactly like being asleep, you have no sense of time.  The only difference is that you don't dream.”

HAL is introduced as the “sixth member of the crew” and as “the latest result in machine intelligence.”  HAL is interviewed and we hear its calm, emotionless, precise cadence of speech.  HAL boasts that it is “incapable of error” when the interviewer asks if HAL experiences any “lack of confidence” while being completely in control of the ship and the safety of all the astronauts. Bowman gets the final say about HAL in the interview: “He acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he is programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don't think anyone can quite answer.”

Back to Khachaturian's adagio again as Discovery continues to beautifully drift through space.  Poole receives a happy birthday transmission from his parents as we watch Bowman sleep.  Poole's dad tells him about some financial business he has taken care of.  Poole then plays HAL in chess and loses. Bowman sketches aspects of the centrifuge, particularly the astronauts in their hibernation capsules. HAL asks to see them.  The computer compliments Bowman. Again, Kubrick is emphasizing the mundane amidst the extraordinary.

Then HAL abruptly questions whether Bowman might be having any “second thoughts” about the mission.  HAL confides to Bowman that “I have never completely freed myself of the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission.”  It turns out HAL is the one having difficulty with the mission as it considers the tight security in light of the rumors of “something being dug up on the Moon”; the rather dramatic touch of the hibernating astronauts having four months of separate training on their own.  Bowman dismisses all this by mentioning that HAL is working on his “group psychology report.”  HAL almost defensively admits “Of course, I am. Sorry about this.  I know it is a bit silly.”  Then...

“Just a moment.  Just a moment.”  HAL announces that the AE-35 unit, a component in the ship's communications antennae, has a fault and it will fail in 72 hours.  In an extended sequence, Bowman exits the ship in one of its space pods and ventures to the antennae, eventually space walking to retrieve the unit that is predicted to fail. Throughout the 7-minute span of this sequence there is no sound at all except for Bowman's slow, steady breathing and the hiss of oxygen being fed to him in his space suit.

But Bowman and Poole can find no fault in the communications unit when it is tested back aboard Discovery.  When they consult mission control it is rather ineptly revealed that those back on Earth, consulting with a second HAL 9000, conclude that HAL is “in error” about the fault.  Bowman directly asks HAL about this.  HAL merely says this is attributable to “human error.”  Bowman and Poole are troubled by this though they hide it rather well.  
Bowman asks Poole to help him with a transmitter in one of the ship's space pods.  It is silent once they are inside the pod. Commands given to HAL are unacknowledged by the computer so Bowman figures it is safe to discuss the situation.  Poole admits that he has a bad feeling about HAL's possible error.  “Look Dave, I can't put my finger on it but I sense something strange about him.”  The astronauts decide to put the unit back in place and let it fail.  If it doesn't fail then they agree to disconnect HAL's higher functions rather than allow a malfunctioning computer to continue to operate the ship.  Unbeknownst to them, HAL is reading their lips through the window of the space pod.

At this point the film pauses for an old-fashioned intermission, allowing the audience a bio-break and a chance to buy more popcorn after 1 hour and 27 minutes.  61 minutes remain.  Afterwards, Kubrick mimics the overture of the film by returning to Atmospheres on a black screen for about two minutes.  Then we see Discovery slowly moving across the frame from left to right again. This time all we hear is the hiss of oxygen and the breathing of Poole, who takes his turn to space walk and reinstall the troubling component of the antennae.

Again, the sequence moves unhurriedly.  A pod emerges from Discovery.  Poole navigates to the antennae and then space walks to put the unit back in place and restore communications with Earth. Only this time, as Poole is busy with his task, the space pod turns toward him with its robotic arms outstretched as it silently, menacingly closes in. Kubrick jump cuts to HAL's eye.  The hissing and breathing stop. Utter silence.  Then Bowman, manning controls and observing Poole's progress, sees Poole flailing helplessly through space.

Poole desperately attempts to steady himself and to reattach his oxygen tube which apparently the space pod pulled from his helmet.  This all happens in complete silence, as it authentically should. There is no sound in space, only the shots inside Discovery possess a underlying hum.  Bowman scrambles.  The pod and Poole are flung away from the ship. Bowman orders HAL to ready another pod.  HAL assures Bowman that it has a good track on Poole but claims there is not enough information to know what happened.

Frank Poole and Dave Bowman discuss HAL's error.  You can see HAL's eye through the window.  The computer is reading their lips.

Poole space walks to the antennae after exiting the space pod. HAL is about to turn the pod around an attack Poole with its robotic arms.

Poole tumbles through space desperately attempting to reattach his oxygen hose.

Bowman exits Discovery in an attempt to rescue Poole.  In his haste he has forgotten the helmet to his space suit. Bowman's pod races and eventually catches Poole but by now it is too late.  Poole is dead.  Throughout this sequence we hear no music, virtually no dialog, only the silence of space and the various alerts and sounds inside Bowman's pod. Meanwhile, inside Discovery, HAL murders the three hibernation astronauts by shutting down their life support systems.  It is all so inexplicably psychotic.  HAL's eye (actually multiple eyes throughout the spacecraft) observes the sterile stillness inside Discovery.

Open the pod bay doors please HAL,” Bowman commands from his pod outside at 1:40 into the film (probably the movie's most famous line). Silence.  Bowman repeats the command. Silence. After another minute and with much coaxing by Bowman, HAL responds to Bowman with psychopathic calm.  “I'm sorry Dave.  I'm afraid I can't do that.” When questioned further by Bowman HAL replies: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” The computer explains with no emotion that it knows Bowman and Poole were planning to disconnect it. “I am afraid that is something I cannot allow to happen.”  

Bowman is flabbergasted.  “Where the hell did you get that idea HAL?”  HAL explains to Bowman what the audience already knows.  It was lip reading.  Bowman has no choice but to attempt to enter the ship through the emergency air lock, a risky necessity without his space helmet.  But Bowman successful manages it in a relatively silent but technically realistic sequence lasting several minutes.  Bowman backs his pod up the air lock door and uses the explosive bolts to blow open his pod door.  The resulting thrust of oxygen awkwardly slams his body into the air lock.  He holds his breath until he can close the lock door and release oxygen into it.  This sequence moves methodically along with every detail meticulously captured in real time.

At 1:49 we see a close-up of HAL's eye and dissolve to Bowman, now with a helmet on, walking through the ship. We are back to the sound of breathing and the hiss of oxygen. Now it is HAL's turn to be flabbergasted, though the computer's voice is perfectly at ease.  It wants to know what Bowman is planning to do.  But, of course, it knows perfectly well what is about to happen.  HAL attempts to get Bowman “to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” But Bowman has already thought things over.  He is unlocking the door to the chamber containing HAL's memory cells. 

Bowman disconnects the higher functions of HAL's memory.

Bowman watches the video explaining the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.
As Bowman, floating in weightlessness, turns a key to individually disconnect each of two dozen or so memory cells HAL experiences what is, ironically, the most emotional character performance of the film (with the possible exception of Moon-Watcher).  With a slow, decreasing cadence HAL utters:  “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 a...fraid....Good afternoon gentleman.  I am a HAL 9000 computer,  I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992.  My instructor was Mr. Langley.  And he taught me to sing a song.  If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it for you.”  Bowman tells HAL to sing it for him and HAL sings “Daisy” with increasing difficulty, ever slower, deeper, until it simply stops singing in the middle of the song...breathing...oxygen hissing...

Abruptly, a prerecorded video briefing is triggered when HAL's higher level functioning is terminated. Bowman watches as Dr. Floyd offers an explanation that was intended for Discovery's crew once the ship had entered orbit around Jupiter. The sharp signal emitted from the monolith on the Moon targeted the giant planet and thus became the primary reason for the space mission 18 months later.  Bowman's face is emotionless as he is informed of the mission's true purpose and the audience is now clearly told what that sound was when Dr. Floyd visited the monolith.  It is worth noting that throughout this section of the film Kubrick uses no music whatsoever after the Khachaturian piece at the beginning.

Discovery looks tiny compared with Jupiter and its moons.

Another spectacular shot of Discovery, Jupiter and some of its moons looking back toward the Sun.

Jupiter and its moons in alignment with the mysterious monolith turning through space.
The third section of the film, entitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, begins at 1:57.  Kubrick returns to Ligeti's haunting Requiem as the camera pans down through a field of stars to behold the brilliance of Jupiter and several of its moons. But the planetary system is not alone.  Also in the frame, floating and slowly turning, is another monolith of undetermined size.  Discovery enters from below.  Now, instead of a close-up in exquisite detail of the large spacecraft, we see it dwarfed, almost insignificant, by the size of these other celestial objects.

The monolith seems gigantic as it tumbles through space, with the light of Jupiter reflected at certain angles on its otherwise dark surface.  Jupiter and its moons are breath-taking to behold. Everything except the monolith possesses an ethereal glow to it, presented in soft-focus rather than the sharp clarity featured throughout the film until now. 

We watch a pod bay door open on Discovery.  The monolith hovers nearby as Bowman exits the spacecraft in a pod. Many of the moons are in alignment with the monolith. Then, at almost 2:02, streaks of light begin to appear in empty space, racing past Bowman who looks on wild-eyed, his head shaking with increasing violence as if he is experiencing incredible turbulence.

The "star-gate" sequence begins. 

Supposedly, these pulsating diamond shaped objects are representations of Alien intelligence.
The next nine minutes of the film are difficult to articulate. They have to be seen, though they remain virtually incomprehensible even when viewed.  Kubrick truly becomes an abstract filmmaker at this point.  It is referred to as "the star-gate sequence" and is one of the most famous and unique sequences in cinematic history.  The music transitions from Requiem to Atmospheres again.  Bowman is obviously traumatized by what he is witnessing.  

Many frustrated viewers of the film simply give-up at this point.  Yet this is an incomparable moment in the history of cinema.  That makes the film simultaneously a revolutionary visual experience and a challenge without traditional narrative context.  In reality, this pioneering sequence places the audience in a state of confusion and trepidation that is not unlike what Moon-Watcher's tribe experienced at the monolith 4 million years ago. Brilliant.

Bowman passes through the star-gate and finds his pod in a strange, elegant room. 

An elderly Bowman points to the monolith.

The Star-Child is born.

Then Bowman finds his pod inside a neo-baroque styled bedroom.  Even though he has passed through the star-gate, his body remains paralyzed, still quivering inside his space suit.  Gradually, the sound of his breathing returns and he sees himself from a third-person perspective, in his space suit but standing in the room outside the pod.  His face has noticeably aged inside his helmet.  Suddenly, the pod is gone and Bowman is alone in the room. He staggers around in his space suit as he examines the room, eventually entering the bath room.  He studies himself in the mirror and hears a sound behind him.  He turns.

The sound is coming from a dining table now situated in the bedroom .  Bowman himself is seated at the table.  The sound is of his fork and knife scraping and scooping against a plate of food. The sound of his breathing ceases.  Seated at the table, Bowman pauses during his meal and slowly turns in his chair as if he has heard something behind him.  He gets up to investigate but there is no one there.  This is an older, gray-haired and balding version of Bowman.  He returns to finish his meal and accidentally tips over his wine glass. It shatters on the floor.  He turns as if the pick up the pieces when his attention is captured by the bed. A much more elderly Bowman lies there almost without the energy to move.  But he manages to raise his arm and point...

...at the monolith now standing where the table was.  We see the monolith standing there silently, out of place.  Bowman is gone when we cut back to the bed.  In his place is a brightly glowing womb of a child.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra gradually begins to build.  We zoom in to the blackness of the monolith and out of that, in a moment of triumph, we see our Moon and the Earth.  Hovering over the Earth, looking down upon it, is the unborn child whose open eyes, intended to resemble Bowman, stare at us as we watch the film come to a close.

Not a single word of dialog is spoken throughout this third part of the film.  It is also worth noting that the film's closing credits are presented to the waltzing portion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra with “The End” coming after all the credits are presented (films typically using "The End" place it at the beginning of the closing credits).  The screen remains black for the final four and a half minutes of the film as the classical piece concludes.  To my knowledge this is the only film to end in this manner - with an extended black screen and music.

What are we to make of 2001: A Space Odyssey? As the various quotes indicate in Part One of this synopsis, it is one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a technical marvel and tackles vast philosophical questions of existence and intelligence.  Yet, for all of its technical wonder the film has many little flaws.  These do not diminish its power but its lack of dialog and unorthodox narrative structure make it difficult for many people to connect with the film.  Indeed, the critics fiercely disagreed over 2001 when it premiered in 1968.  They argued not just over what the film could possibly mean but whether it was even a worthy artistic effort to begin with.

As with most Kubrick films, time has quieted the debate over the film's value as art though disagreement still reigns over how to interpret the work. I merely wish to point out that this is obviously an allegorical movie, rich in symbolism that becomes even more complex with additional viewings.  What it means is up to each viewer, as both Kubrick and Clarke intended.  

For some decent discussion about the film's possibly meaning(s), I suggest a couple of youtube videos here and here. For a worthwhile analysis of how the film was made I suggest this seven-part video series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.  There is no shortage of videos on the internet regarding this brilliant cinematic achievement. 

For me personally the film's possible meaning(s) has (have) less value the older I get and the more times I view it.  What is much more important, at this stage in my life, is how it continues to affect me after all these years.  It is a wonderful, truly timeless experience but what makes it this way is not its brilliant special effects or its cerebral narrative.  Rather, it is the same feeling I experienced when I saw it with my friend Mitch on the front row of our small town movie theater so many years ago.  Though I could not comprehend it at that early age, I also could not take my eyes off the screen and I could not get the film out of my mind after I saw it.  It is still that way as I write this blog post.  I have a lot of ideas about the interpretation of the film but what resonates with me is not rational at all.  In watching 2001, I am moved by a deep stirring within myself which can best be described as “awe.”

Perhaps the late Roger Ebert expressed it best regarding the film: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made.  But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, audibly complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’  There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about seventeen minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one.)  The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected.  The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

“What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him has used words, music, or prayer.  And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it – not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might a good conventional science fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

“Only a few films are transcendent and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape.  Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain if after further difficulties either comic or dramatic.  2001: A Space Odyssey  is not about a goal, but about a quest, a need.  It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character.  It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.  Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet, but among the stars, and that we are not flesh, but intelligence.” (from pages 2,4,5)
The Star-Child gazes at the audience in the film's final shot.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey - Part One

The triumphant opening title shot.
Note:  This post is filled with spoilers about the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Not long after finishing the novel, I watched Stanley Kubrick's brilliant film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was a hasty viewing and life got in the way of fully savoring it.  My recent experience with the solar eclipse inspired me to settle myself enough to watch it again and appreciate this great film. I have not watched it since 2009. While the novel by Arthur C. Clarke is bold and an accurate portrayal of the metaphysical ideas and primary details of the film, it is not one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.  There are many other novels in that genre that would compete for that title. If Clarke has a great genre novel it is most likely his classic Childhood's End.   

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the other hand, is one of the greatest films of all time and would rank as such on any serious film connoisseur's list of “must-see” films.  It is a visual sensation, it tells an epic story, it exams profound philosophical issues about intelligence and existence, and it was a revolutionary film in many of its technical accomplishments.  (Kubrick won his only Oscar for the special effects of the film.) It inspired and provided context for an entire generation of filmmakers from George Lucas to Christopher Nolan.  Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that many people, including myself, have benefited from applying some of the insight of the novel to the film, for context.  (You can find a discussion of the differences between the novel and the film here.)

Kubrick doesn't offer details as clearly as they are presented in Clarke's book (an early script for the film contained narration which Kubrick wisely omitted).  Much of the film is purely visual, without the aid of narration or dialog, particularly in the first 18 minutes.  All the viewer has to work with are the images.  We do not speak man-ape.  Yet those grunts are our only oral clues to begin with. They are the extent of “dialog” so critical to commercially successful films today.  It is for this reason, perhaps, that many get completely lost and never connect with the film.  I wonder what impact Kubrick might think his film would have today. The world didn't turn out as optimistically as he envisioned when shooting commenced back in 1964.  He was decades off in terms of humans living on the Moon, for example. Nevertheless...

I want to give a rather straightforward synopsis of what happens in the film with some asides on how or why certain things are the way they are in this film and how Stanley Kubrick broke all barriers in creating a new kind of theatrical experience that is almost incomparable today.  You would have to combine the visual appeal of James Cameron's Avatar with the cerebral qualities of, say, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life to find a way to compare 2001 with today's films (or to place those recent films in the context of a great past film). Before I first watched the film back in July I did some skimming through the small Kubrick collection in my library. Here are some choice quotes for the forthcoming synopsis.

“Kubrick was repeatedly asked about the meaning of his film, which he had created primarily as a visual experience.  'On the deepest psychological level, the film's plot symbolized the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God,' he told Rolling Stone. 'This film revolves around this metaphysical conception, the realistic hardware and the documentary feels about everything that were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.'” (LoBurrto, page 313)

“What particularly distinguishes 2001 from these earlier films is its frontal assault on the traditional conventions of Hollywood narrative filmmaking. The temporal range of 2001 spans infinity rather than days or years, yet the film omits explanatory background and transitional connectives. And spatially, it embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of 'normal' perspective are literally turned upside down, and 'settings' project either an eerie remoteness despite their authenticity or a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition.” (Nelson, page 110)

“What makes 2001 such a fascinating and enduring film is the sheer emotional and conceptual appeal of its spatial aesthetics, one that vibrates with plurality of universes within universes. Throughout, Kubrick combines the linear demands of narrative with an associative and repetitious system of images, activities, and sounds to unfold a cinematic world moving on parallel but opposing courses.” (Nelson, page 116)

“For finding the meaning is a matter of not verbalizing but of feeling it in the images drawn from past and future time, in the involvement with the experience of space, and in approaching what is happening rather than being fed cut-and-dried information.  It is a whole new concept of cinema. If one can isolate any dominant thematic core in 2001, it is the film's concern with the concept of intelligence.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 172)

“But it is characteristic of Kubrick's approach that he invests the theme with imaginative allusions rather than strips it down to bare essentials.  He roots intelligence in the mythological past, before man has begun to use it; and he ends intelligence in the metaphysical future, where man cannot yet grasp its latest transformation.  Intelligence for Kubrick is a form of magic that enables him to extend the film backward and forward, to the extreme limits of the time scale, beyond the boundaries of the imprisoning present.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 173)

“Kubrick has intentionally created characters with almost no individualized traits.  The men are well-conditioned Ph.D.'s, who show little human warmth and no human weakness. Poole is bored by birthday greetings relayed to him by videophone from his parents on earth.  He seems hardly their son – indeed, he seems  hardly of the same race. Bowman's most significant human response comes when he burns his fingers on the food tray dispensed by the automatic oven. When he tries to rescue Poole from a death in space later, he goes about it with textbook efficiency and next to no emotion. Feelings, Kubrick is saying, are minimal in this new age, a matter of physical nerve ends, not emotional nerve centers. Where they have gone is, paradoxically, into the programming of the inhuman computer.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 186)

I might point out an irony here.  These authors are saying that 2001 has to be “intelligently felt” in order to be appreciated – that there is an emotional quality to the film. And yet, the film itself intentionally has no characters with any degree of emotional range.  Each of them are completely rational agents, except, of course, for the man-apes in the beginning.  They are screaming, arguing, desperate fools, especially foolish for the visiting monolith.  The film's human characters display no emotions and we as viewers know hardly anything about who they are as people.  Moon-Watcher offers emotional range.  The Star-Child offers character depth because we know everything about the child's, albeit brief, past.

“What is most extraordinary about 2001 is that, at the precise moment when he poses the fundamental human question, he deprives the universe of characters.  The metaphysical quest is accomplished by David Bowman alone after the death of his friend Frank Poole and the three scientists in hibernation. Though we saw Dr. Floyd's parents, we know nothing of Bowman, his tastes or his past.  He is abstract man, man as Nietzsche conceived him, a means rather than an end, like a rope stretched between the beast and the Superman, a rope over an abyss.” (Ciment, page 130)

“Can 2001 still be regarded as a remarkable film? Yes, almost certainly. If some scenes in the movie appear dated. They are remarkably few.  The spaceships still look superb, and the central themes remain as powerful today as they when audiences first confronted them...Hardware and visual thrills apart, Kubrick's astral epic is a movie of ideas. Such intelligence never dates.  It will take the passing of many more generations explorers before the questions raised by 2001 are answered...” (Bizony, page 22)

Kubrick quoted in a 1968 interview: “It's not a message that I ever intended to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, only a little less than forty minutes is dialog.  I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses the verbal pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.  To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium.  I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness. Just as music does; to 'explain' a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting and artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deeper level....even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intelligence categories;  experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one's being.” (Nordern, pp. 47 – 48)

I first saw this film when I was 10 years old.  I watched with my friend Mitch.  We sat on the front row of the small town's only movie theater. The theater was mostly empty.  I had no clue what was happening but it all seemed marvelous to me. I know 2001 affected me at that young age.  And each time I watch it I re-experience the way I was awed in my youth.

The widescreen (the film is shot in 70mm) is black. Kubrick starts us off with no visual, just music, an old-fashioned movie overture in the form of a wonderful modern, minimalist classical composition called Atmospheres by Gyorgy Ligeti. (As he is in most of this later films, Kubrick's musical selections are brilliant.)  We listen to that for almost 3 minutes before the title credit (only) is presented to the famous triumphant pounding of Richard Strauss' Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Then “The Dawn of Man” section of the film begins.  We see windswept arid and desert landscapes. Extended shots of the sun rising or setting, looking down on barren terrain from mountain tops we see shrubs, hear the sound of crickets (oddly), watch boar gnawing at the slight vegetation.  

About 6 minutes into the film we see Moon-Watcher sitting with others and biting off little snippets of leaves and twigs. (If you have not read the book you have no idea what this clever ape's name might be.) Man-apes and boar coexist, competing for the same meager food with only occasional grunts offered by the pre-humans in protest to the scrounging boar.  A leopard attacks one of the apes who is helpless in defending itself. Afterward, Moon-watcher and his tribe approach the local watering hole as another tribe of man-apes squat and drink there. This causes much screaming and jumping and wailing and arm shaking, the only possible demonstration of strength is through sheer intimidation.  The other tribe reluctantly withdraws and Moon-Watcher's tribe can drink.  Then night falls.  Moon-Watcher and the others huddle up inside their shallow caves and motionlessly listen to the night sounds which include the distant screams of some other man-ape being attacked by some creature, possibly the same leopard we saw before. All of this establishes the basic helplessness and lack of control the man-apes have over their shallow, starving lives.
Moon-Watcher touches the monolith as the rest of his tribe react is fear and aggression.
Soon the tribe surrounds the monolith in almost worshipful adoration.
The next morning Moon-Watcher awakens and initially reacts with hostility toward a black monolith which mysteriously appeared amidst the caves overnight.  Moon-Watcher's actions rouse the others in his tribe and soon they are all attempting to intimidate the silent, dull black surfaced object. To no avail.  Kubrick's musical selection in this sequence is brilliant.  Again, he chooses Ligeti. This time the composition is a fantastic vocal one, Requiem, which lends powerful effect to the scene that culminates with Moon-Watcher being the first to touch the monolith, followed by all the others in his tribe.  The group rub their primitive hands across its smooth surface until their fear and curiosity give way to an almost worshipful manner. Overhead the Sun peeks past the top of the monolith to shine down upon the tribe with a sliver of the Moon in alignment.
The Sun shines down from Moon-Watcher's perspective, accompanied by the crescent Moon.  Moon-Watcher later recalls this perspective when he considers the bones of a dead creature.
This is immediately followed by a scene of Moon-Watcher scratching and foraging near a pile of bones.  He stops and, for the first time, considers the bones.  Reflecting back upon how the Moon aligned with the Sun and the monolith, he toys with one bone and lets it fall, knocking other bones around. He gradually tightens his grip and drives the bone down with greater force.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra returns to the film as Moon-Watcher discovers he can smash things with this bone. Much like Clarke's novel, it is a moment of breakthrough in the evolution of human intelligence.
Moon-Watcher discovers the bones can used to smash things.
Moon-Watcher uses the bone kill the other tribe's leader.


Moon-Watcher clutches the bone and a piece of boar meat in the next shot.  He eats greedily as does his entire tribe even though other boar, unaware that their fate has changed, still passively share the same space with the man-apes.  Next time at the watering hole, as all the man-apes are yelling and screaming and jumping about, Moon-Watcher and a couple of other members of his tribe use bones to attack the leader of the other tribe and kill him, driving the other tribe away with incomprehensible fear.  Moon-Watcher growls triumphantly and flings the bone into the air. It spins upward then, as it begins to fall, we match-cut to a nuclear weapon orbiting the earth. (We only know it is a nuclear weapon and not simply a satellite from an early draft of the script. Kubrick chose not to emphasize this due to its close association with his previous film, Dr. Strangelove. This is another difference between the novel and the film.) 


Kubrick's famous match-cut through several million years of history.
The Orion III spaceplane approaches the unfinished space station to the Blue Danube waltz.


We are now 20 minutes into the film.  Strauss's wondrous Blue Danube waltzes as we look down upon the Earth and observe various satellites.  A marvelous, unfinished wheeled space station rotates as a comparatively small spaceplane (the Orion III shuttle) approaches it.  Inside the spaceplane Dr. Haywood Floyd is asleep.  His pen has floated away and is plucked out of the zero gravity cabin by a stewardess who returns it to his pocket.  The waltz continues on for several minutes as we witness the complex docking maneuver of the spaceplane and the giant wheel-like rotating station.  This is where Kubrick firmly establishes the visual basis for the film by giving us a picturesque, highly detailed montage of the docking. 

Then, with docking complete, at 25:41 in the film, the first dialog is spoken.  A simple mundane line by an attendant to Floyd.  “Here you are sir...”  The film is filled with small talk of almost no consequence to its huge philosophic and metaphysical implications.  We watch Floyd routinely pass a “voice identification” security checkpoint.  He briefly makes a phone call back to Earth to speak with his daughter (Kubrick's daughter in reality).  They discuss her upcoming birthday.  Next he happens upon a small group of Russian scientists, who, after more small talk, are inquisitive about Floyd's trip to the Moon base at Clavius.  Some “odd things” have happened there over the past few weeks.  Floyd claims he doesn't know anything about it.  When pressed that the Russians have heard rumor of a “serious epidemic” at the base, Floyd simply says “I'm really not at liberty to discuss this.”  In this way Kubrick manages to develop a mystery to accompany the intended technical majesty of Dr. Floyd's trip.
Scientists of the American Moon base near Clavius as the Aries approaches.
A stewardess walks in zero-gravity to a different section of the Aries in this famous Kubrick shot copied by other directors. Most recently, perhaps, with Inception.
We return to the Blue Danube  while Floyd completes his trip the Moon on an Aries space craft.  Kubrick mixes the mundane (Floyd and the flight crew eating their meals) with the marvelous (a stewardess walking upside down in the space craft, various spectacular shots of the Aries moving through space toward the ever-larger Moon). There is a humorous shot of Floyd reading the detailed instructions for using the zero-gravity toilet.  This is followed by a superb sequence of the Aries over Moon's surface as the space craft slowly lands and docks.  Kubrick is meticulous with the details of all this, successfully making it as realistic as possible, something that truly wowed audiences in 1968. While the effects are not exactly today's CGI caliber they are, nevertheless, awesome to behold.

The purpose of Dr. Floyd's trip to the Moon is revealed in a meeting that starts about 41 minutes into the film.  Again there is mundane and routine aspect of the meeting, most of the dialog is small talk.   Kubrick's intent is to make routine stuff out of this fantastic future he just put on display for us. But, Dr. Floyd directly spells out more of the mystery for the viewer when he speaks before the group of a dozen people, who applaud his introduction.

Floyd begins by offering condolences to those in attendance for the “many sacrifices” they have had to make recently. And he congratulates them on their “...discovery.  Which may well prove to be among the most significant in the history of science.”  Floyd acknowledges the inner conflict among the group as to how the cover-up surrounding this matter was handled. But, in Floyd's view, the cover story of an epidemic was absolutely essential.  He continues in one of a few shots where dialog does matter in this film: “Now I'm sure you are all aware of the extremely great 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.”  This line is rather shocking in and of itself at this point in the film.  Nothing of consequence has really been said by anybody up to this point. That makes the effect of the line even greater.  It is like a slap in the face by this mystery, which is still unknown to the viewer.
The space bus takes Dr. Floyd and others to the excavation site known as TMA-1. Note the angle of the shadows created by the Sun's light versus the position of the Earth.
In one of my favorite visual parts of the film, Kubrick chooses Ligeti's stunning Lux Aeterna for the magical sequence of Floyd and others being space-bused out to Clavius.  They eat sandwiches on the way out and discuss how the technology for making these synthetic meals is “getting better all the time.”  This small talk is punctuated again with something about the discovery of a strong magnetic field. An excavation around the source of the magnetic field revealed an object that “was deliberately buried” and “the only thing we're sure of is that it was buried 4 million years ago.”  The slow-moving plot literally thickens but the mystery is intact.  Though by now some astute viewers might guess what it is all about, Kubrick keeps his cards close to his chest.

At the excavation site, the mystery is revealed as a monolith identical to the one Moon-Watcher touched.  Dr. Floyd and a few others slowly walk down into the Moon's surface to examine the monolith.  Kubrick switches to Ligeti's Requiem again to more intimately connect this moment of discovery with that of Moon-watcher's earlier.  Floyd approaches the monolith not with fear and uncertainty but with calm measured curiosity.  He walks around it, has his photo taken with it, then reaches out and touches it.  The group gathers in front of the monolith for a photo opportunity, a great contrast to the mindless awe and trepidation of the man-apes. 
Dr. Floyd and his party approaches the excavated monolith.
But before the photo can be taken, the monolith emits a sharp, continuous signal that sends everyone grabbing their helmets in a misguided attempt to shut it out.  Kubrick flashes the exact orientation of the Sun peeking down over the top of the monolith; this time apparently with the Earth in alignment.  This is a flaw in the film, however. Given that we see Earth near the Moon's horizon as the group descends into the excavation, and given how the shadows lie on the surface, the alignment as presented would be impossible.  But is it artistic and cerebral to make the visual connection with the man-apes. 
An impossible shot.  One of only a handful of technical mistakes in the film.  Still, it is artistically very effective, connecting this moment with Moon-Watcher's "awakening" millions of years ago.
While the novel is in six sections, Kubrick's film is in three. “The Dawn of Man” section ends literally with the monolith sending out its signal. It is worth noting that Kubrick sees this entire expanse of time, from Moon-Watcher to Dr. Floyd as “the dawn of man.”  From the film's grandiose perspective this is all part of a primitive form of humanity.  Despite the technological progress, the human race remains little more than a rational man-ape.  What evolves next is the subject of the film's remaining 93 minutes.  

End of Part One.