|The triumphant opening title shot.|
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 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.|
|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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
End of Part One.