Sunday, May 28, 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick Productions/MGM, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We also watched a TNT showing of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (in a letterboxed edition, which was a gain — but with all too many commercial interruptions, which was not a gain; this is one film that cannot survive being chopped, sliced and diced for the financial requirements of commercial television). — 7/27/93


I ran Charles the tape I’d made from Turner Classic Movies two months ago of a shortened (149 minutes instead of the 171 minutes of the theatrical version and the 185 minutes of Kubrick’s first cut) but, blessedly, letterboxed version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It remains a haunting film despite the virtual failure of any of its predictions to come true — we’re just 2 1/2 years away from 2001 and the world is singularly bereft of giant space stations, regular passenger service to the moon and intelligent computers that talk and ultimately go psycho. It’s also a great film — I remember thinking in the 1970’s it was the only movie made since Citizen Kane I would put at the level of the all-time best (even in that American Film Institute poll of the 100 greatest movies of all time — already, predictably, controversial because of its blatant omissions[1]2001 placed 22nd, which helps make up in retrospect for its appalling omission from the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture of 1968; the Academy is often criticized because Citizen Kane, the top vote-getter in the AFI poll, didn’t win Best Picture for 1941, but at least it was nominated!) — and it holds up surprisingly well, though I noticed Charles was impressed less by the metaphysical aspects of the movie than by the subplot involving the psychotic Hal (Charles was actually talking to the screen during much of the human-computer confrontation, warning the astronauts not to trust the computer — and even I couldn’t resist joking, when Hal boasted that no H.A.L. 9000 computer had ever made a mistake, “At least not since we stopped buying chips from Intel”) — and even though there’s a certain structural shakiness about the movie, in which the final psychedelic sequence and the rebirth of astronaut Dave Bowman as the Star-Child seem grafted-on flights of purest fantasy that don’t have all that much to do with everything we’ve seen up until then, which has been meticulously plotted science fiction.

Charles said he can’t help, whenever he watches 2001, but read back the details of Arthur C. Clarke’s book version of the story into the film and fill in its ambiguities that way — which is a perfectly justifiable way to handle a film that is made from a book, but is somewhat more problematic in a movie like this in which the book was written after the film, albeit by one of the people who conceived the script (and Clarke’s main motive in writing the book seems to have been less to create a definitive literary version of the story than to write a version encompassing all the differences he’d had with Kubrick over how the story should go). I think it’s best to conceive of the book and the film as two separate versions of the same legend; certainly Clarke’s novel provides one perfectly viable reading of the film, but not the only (or necessarily the most authoritative) one. Many of Kubrick’s directorial decisions — especially the elimination of the narration that was originally going to run through the entire film and explain everything — seemed designed to heighten the ambiguity, to increase the number of viable readings that could be made of the film — and in that sense, as I told Charles at the end, 2001 seems to vindicate director Allan Dwan’s statement that “we write with the camera, not with a pencil or pen, and we’ve got to remember that and not get trapped by the fellow who writes with words.” (Charles replied with the argument that at least words say something specific, whereas images don’t! He was also amused when I mentioned Ray Bradbury’s statement that he hadn’t liked 2001 because he thought Stanley Kubrick was a terrible writer who got in the way of Arthur C. Clarke, a great writer.) Certainly 2001 has been enormously influential, not only in making science-fiction a respectable film genre at last (though there had been important science-fiction films before — not only oldies like the original Metropolis but also estimable works in the 1950’s like the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet and even — despite the ill-advised inclusion of a bug-eyed monster — This Island Earth — and I’ve always been amused by our friend Chris Schneider’s comment that he particularly hates Star Wars because he felt the success of 2001 opened up the market for intellectual science fiction in films and the even greater success of Star Wars closed it again) but also in anticipating the current age of music videos in exalting vivid imagery over intellectual sense (though 2001 is a marvel of clarity compared to a number of recent films which supposedly tell a coherent story but are really excuses to get from one explosive action scene to another), and also technically in terms of actually making spacecraft and other planets that looked convincingly real on screen for the first time. — 6/18/98


The movie Charles and I selected last night from our DVD backlog was one of my all-time favorites — indeed, when Citizen Kane was finally displaced from its traditional top slot in the 2012 Sight and Sound “10 Best of All Time” poll by, of all things, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which I really like but I don’t think is the greatest film ever made — indeed, I don’t even think it’s the greatest film Hitchcock ever made: I’d rate Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Strangers on a Train ahead of it), I thought that if any film deserved to knock off Kane from the “best film of all time” title it was this one: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 was first released in 1968 after Kubrick had spent over three years shooting it, originally calling it Voyage Beyond the Stars until, according to an “Trivia” poster, he saw the 1966 science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage and hated it so much he was determined not to use the word “Voyage” for his film. When it first came out it didn’t draw big audiences initially — especially not big enough to fill the large theatres needed to run it in its original 70 mm format (it was billed as being in Cinerama but really wasn’t) on a road-show basis, complete with intermission — but a strange thing happened. Maybe not that many people liked it, but the folks who did like it went to see it again. And again. And again

And though wags liked to joke that they were seeing it multiple times to figure out what was supposed to be happening in it, 2001 attracted a series of cult followings including hippies turned on by the long psychedelic sequence at the end, in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), the last survivor of the crew of the interplanetary ship Discovery, crashes through the so-called “Star Gate” to reach the interstellar aliens who have been controlling all human evolution; computer nerds who heard and saw the talking H.A.L. 9000 computer (nicknamed “Hal”) and got into artificial intelligence work because they were inspired to create such a computer in real life; as well as all sorts of other people who just liked the idea that someone had finally created a science-fiction movie with the depth and complexity of the best science-fiction writing. The film began life as a 1952 short story by Arthur C. Clarke called “The Sentinel,” in which early human explorers on the moon dig up an artifact left there by some other civilization — a tall object that looks something like an elongated pyramid — and note that it beams a radio signal back to wherever it came from. The explorers realize it was a sentinel left there by another planet’s ship so when it was uncovered it would send back a signal that humans had evolved enough to be capable of space travel — and the story ends with the narrator expressing the expectation that there will be some kind of response and writing the last words, “I do not think we will have to wait for long.” Director Stanley Kubrick read “The Sentinel” and after completing Dr. Strangelove in 1964 decided to expand it into the basis for his next film. He hired Clarke to write the screenplay in collaboration with him, and the two worked out an arrangement by which Clarke would publish a novel with the film’s title, over whose content he would have sole control, while Kubrick would have sole control over the content of the film. So with 2001 we have a rare level of documentation of how, at least for this one film, the always contentious relationship between screenwriter and director worked out: the differences between 2001 the novel and 2001 the movie represent the points of contention between the two creators. 

The story opens with a prehistoric sequence (quite convincing even though it, like the entire movie, was shot inside the soundstages at MGM’s studio at Borehamwood,[2] England — later, for his Viet Nam War movie Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick re-created Viet Nam on British soundstages quite convincingly even though one contributor noted that the palm trees were not only fake but all looked exactly the same: they had been made from the same mold) called “The Dawn of Man,” in which prehistoric apes are threatened by hunger, drought and predators (including a leopard, who drives them off the carcass of a zebra — actually a dead horse painted to look like a zebra, even though biologically zebras are closer to goats than horses) until inspiration from outer space, represented by a giant monolith (in Clarke’s novel its proportions are 1:4:9, representing the sequence of square and cubed numbers, but in the movie the monolith is more elongated than that), teaches them how to use the bones of dead animals as tools so they can kill the ubiquitous tapirs for food and also attack each other. (It seems curiously against the pro-peace Zeitgeist that Kubrick would release a film in 1968 that argues that violence is a necessary and inextricable part of human evolution, but it was a theme Kubrick would return to in his next film, A Clockwork Orange.) The lead ape, Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter), throws his bone into the air in triumph — and Kubrick jump-cuts to a scene in space in which Earth has been honeycombed by nuclear weapons in orbit, each bearing the logo of one of the world’s three major powers (the U.S., the Soviet Union and China), placed there so any one of them can launch a nuclear attack without having to do so from earth-based missiles, bombers or submarines. (2001 was originally supposed to end with the Star-Child — the reincarnated form of Dave Bowman whom the aliens have sent back to earth — blowing up the nuclear weapons in space and thus rendering them harmless, but Kubrick thought this would look too much like the “We’ll Meet Again” end-of-the-world ending of Dr. Strangelove, so the plot point of atomic weapons in space is almost totally lost in the final film.) 

We then meet Dr. Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester), Earth scientist on his way to the moon in a craft flown there by Pan American Airways (one of a number of firms shown in this film that met their demise well before the real 2001), which docks on a space station so Floyd can transfer to a landing craft to complete his journey to the moon. (Clarke’s novel has an ironic comment that Floyd has just made a trip humans had been dreaming of for millennia — going to the moon — and it was totally routine. The line became even more ironic when humans actually did go to the moon six times between 1969 and 1972 — and then stopped.) After a whole lot of stiff-upper-lip conversations between Floyd and his Russian colleagues on the space station, and then between him and the people at Clavius base on the moon — which has been quarantined, ostensibly because of an unknown epidemic among the personnel stationed there but really to protect the secrecy around the discovery of another monolith, obviously put there (as per Clarke’s original source story) by members of another civilization to let them know when humans evolved enough to make it to the moon — we finally get to see the monolith, it emits its high-pitched signal — there’s a grimly amusing moment in which the moonbase staff put their hands over the “ears” of their space helmets, acting by instinct and momentarily forgetting that the sound they hear is through their own radio receivers because sound waves don’t carry in the moon’s airless environment — and then Kubrick cuts to the spaceship Discovery on a mission to Jupiter 18 months later. Discovery contains five astronauts, though three of them are in hibernation, in which their bodies’ metabolism has been slowed to the absolute minimum to sustain life and they’re unconscious in giant combination refrigerators (we see ice crystals formed around the windows that allow us to see their eyes and noses but nothing else about them) and sarcophagi. 

The two astronauts who are “up and running,” as it were, are Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), both attractive young men who make their on-screen debuts in gym shorts as they run up and down the curved interior of the space vehicle (curved, like the space station, to create artificial gravity). The sixth member of the crew is their H.A.L. 9000 computer, who’s represented as a glowing red eye with a yellow pupil — indeed. H.A.L.’s eyes run throughout the ship, giving the astronauts a sort of living-under-Big-Brother feel as the computer can keep track of them wherever they are on board — and the computer, whom (as a BBC reporter in a news segment on the voyage helpfully explains) one addresses as “Hal.” One not only addresses it, it addresses back in the chillingly monotonous tones of actor Douglas Rain, a Canadian who was engaged by Kubrick because he had an even-toned voice that would sound credible as one synthesized by a future machine. (Interestingly Kubrick originally thought of the computer as having a woman’s voice, like most recent commercial artificial intelligences, including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which are given female voices and personae.) Unfortunately Hal goes crazy for reasons that, like much about this movie, are kept ambiguous in the film (though Clarke is clearer about them in the novel); he makes a minor error — predicting a flaw in a radio control unit on board and sending Bowman on a mission to replace it — and this snowballs into another extra-vehicular mission in which Poole goes out to replace the first unit and let it fail, and while he and Bowman are gone Hal goes totally bonkers, killing the hibernating crew members (this is depicted in what one of the original reviewers called “the most chilling modern death scene imaginable”: the lines representing the hibernators’ vital functions gradually become less wavy and finally flatten altogether, and the computer screens flash first “LIFE SYSTEMS CRITICAL” and then “LIFE SYSTEMS TERMINATED”), severing Poole’s oxygen line so he floats away helplessly in space, and refusing to open the ship so Bowman, flying the space pod that was supposed to support Poole, can’t get back in.

In a sequence Clarke borrowed from another short story of his, “Take a Deep Breath,” Bowman is obliged to use the manual entrance and, since he’s dressed in his spacesuit but forgot to put on its helmet, he has frantically to clutch for the seconds he can survive in a vacuum until he can pull the lever that seals the door and allows air to flow back into the chamber. Then he marches to the central chamber that holds Hal’s higher brain functions and methodically disconnects them — leaving on only the purely autonomic controls that maintain the ship’s operations, including its life support systems — and Hal responds by delivering a slowed-down version of “Bicycle Built for Two” as he’s essentially lobotomized until he expires completely. In Clarke’s novel there’s a long depiction of Bowman’s voyage to Jupiter after that — he discovers the ship’s library of recorded music and works his way backwards through classical-music history, starting with the Romantics and ending with Bach — but in the film it quickly cuts to Bowman reaching Jupiter and taking a space pod out to explore a third monolith, this one orbiting Jupiter. (In Clarke’s original conception the destination planet was Saturn, but it turned out that the special effects required to create a convincing surface of a gas-giant planet and the ones required to create convincing rings around it were so different they were incompatible, so while the astronauts in Clarke’s novel bypassed Jupiter and used a slingshot effect to get to Saturn, the ones in the movie stayed on course for Jupiter.) Then the monolith opens the “Star Gate” (though you wouldn’t know it was called that unless you’d read Clarke’s novel) and Bowman passes through a long series of stunning optical illusions, much like the experimental movies that were popular with student audiences in the 1960’s but of course produced on a much more expansive budget, including second-unit footage of the Hebrides in Scotland and Monument Valley in Utah, famed as the location of innumerable John Ford Westerns. (But the view of Monument Valley, though including the famous elevated mesa often seen in the background of Ford’s films, is heavily solarized and color-distorted, leading me to joke, “I have a feeling we’re not in John Ford’s Monument Valley anymore.”) 

Finally Bowman ends up in a ridiculously ornate hotel room and progressively ages in various steps (looking surprisingly like the real Keir Dullea as he has naturally aged — often actors who were artificially “aged” for a role when they were young don’t look at all like that when they really get to be that old) until, after one more visitation from the monolith, he’s reincarnated as a planet-sized fetus (the “Star Child,” he’s called in Clarke’s books) and ends up orbiting the earth and moon. In the original draft of the script — and in Clarke’s novel ­— he sets off all the nuclear weapons the great powers have orbiting in space, but Kubrick thought that would look too much like the ending of his previous film Dr. Strangelove — in which the Russian “Doomsday Device” sets off a series of nuclear explosions that render the whole world’s surface uninhabitable — so at the end the Star Child simply floats in space. “Now that he was master of the world, he didn’t quite know what to do. But he would think of something,” wrote Clarke in the novel (which I’m quoting from memory). Clarke would eventually write three more novels in the 2001 “universe,” and his first sequel was filmed (but extensively changed) in 1984 as 2010 with Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd, the character William Sylvester played here. Though its prediction that once we got to the moon humans would continue space exploration indefinitely and build permanent space stations, run regular moon flights and ultimately colonize the rest of the solar system proved wrong (and so did Arthur C. Clarke’s rather optimistic prediction that the moon would contain water-bearing rocks, which would have allowed human colonists to crush them and extract water, which in turn could be used to release breathable oxygen, which was disproven when humans actually landed on the moon and found no embedded water in its rocks), some of 2001’s calls proved surprisingly correct: the hand-held screens on which the Discovery astronauts watch radio transmissions from Earth look like modern-day tablet computers and the electronic devices used to monitor the health status of the hibernating astronauts are in standard medical use today. The term “flatlining” is even used by modern-day doctors and nurses to describe what’s happening when a person starts losing their life while being so monitored and needs emergency intervention to keep from croaking completely.  

2001: A Space Odyssey remains a magnificent film even though the date in which it was set has come and gone and humans have retreated back to earth after their first forays to the moon; with the arguable exception of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still it was the first science-fiction film made by a “name” director since Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1928), and Kubrick’s attention to detail made it the most realistic-looking one to date. Instead of the smooth-surfaced toy spaceships that had bounced around on wires in things like the 1930’s Flash Gordon serials, the moon craft and the Discovery look like actual electromechanical devices, with ridges, protuberances, bolts and the other accoutrements of actual human construction instead of the idealized burnished surfaces of previous movie spacecraft. (There’s a nice bit of “planting” in the script when we twice get close-ups of the back of the space pods, with their “CAUTION! EXPLOSIVE BOLTS” warnings, before the explosive bolts themselves feature prominently in the sequence of Bowman breaking back into the Discovery after Hal refuses to let him back in.) Stanley Kubrick took credit for the special effects as well as the overall direction of the film — which incensed Douglas Trumbull, who was really the effects person in charge but just got relegated to a long list of assistants (ironically 2001 won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and the award went to Kubrick, the only Oscar he ever won: the Academy didn’t even nominate 2001 for Best Picture — at least the famously shut-out Citizen Kane got nominated — and the film that did win Best Picture that year, Oliver!, was a rankly sentimental musical whose only saving graces were the shards of genuine darkness and emotion left over from Charles Dickens’ source novel after author Lionel Bart and the filmmakers got through sweetening it), which in turn led Steven Spielberg to credit not only Trumbull but his entire team on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, leading to the insane inflation of movie credit rolls we’ve seen since. 

Midway through the film — at the moment when it cut from the moon to the Discovery mission to Jupiter — Charles pointed out that 2001 is really more like a Soviet film, especially a Soviet film made after the 1930’s, when Stalin ruled that the high-energy fast-moving montage style of the Soviet silent classics was no longer politically correct. Its closest successor is the Andrei Tarkovsky film of Solaris, made in 1972 and likewise a long, ponderously paced movie about extraterrestrial intelligence and its power to manipulate human beings — even though Tarkovsky said at the time he was trying to make an anti-2001 and in particular he wanted characters that had rich emotional lives and went through recognizable and identifiable personal conflicts. (The main character in Solaris is a space scientist who is still devastated by the suicide of his girlfriend, only he meets up with her again when the sentient ocean that covers the planet Solaris sends him a replica — only, since she’s based on the one source Solaris had, his memories of her, he makes the same mistakes with his replica girlfriend he made back on Earth with the original.) When 2001 was released one of the main things it was criticized for was the dry, dispassionate depiction of the human characters, who talk to each other in stiff, formal, almost militaristic language and show no signs of any emotional connection. (The closest we come is the videophone call between Dr. Floyd and his daughter back on earth, played by Kubrick’s then five-year-old daughter Vivian, and even that seems more out of parental obligation than any real love.) 

Much of the criticism came from people incensed that the H.A.L. 9000 computer seemed to have a deeper and richer emotional life than any of the humans — within Douglas Rain’s monotone voice he’s able by subtle inflections to indicate pride in the H.A.L. series’ flawless operating record and a sort of thinly veiled patronization towards the human members of the crew (indeed, not only did 2001 deserve a Best Picture Academy Award, but arguably Rain deserved one for his incredible performance as the voice of Hal!), as well as genuine grief and fear when he is finally disconnected — while in the disconnection scene Bowman, up until then shown as little more than a cog in the mission, takes on real human qualities and becomes an impressive revenge figure. Criticizing 2001 for making the computer more deeply and richly emotional than the humans is seizing on one of the film’s great strengths and calling it a flaw! Andrew Sarris, one of the main critics who panned the film for the stiff, formal way the astronauts talked, later admitted he’d been wrong when he watched the actual moon landing on TV and noticed the real astronauts were just as stiff and emotionless as the ones in Kubrick’s film. 2001 is also an example of what Sergei Eisenstein in the late 1920’s called “the sound film” as opposed to the talkie: one which would have a bare minimum of dialogue (or, in Eisenstein’s vision, no dialogue at all) but which would use the soundtrack to add music and sound effects so it could tell a story more effectively than a silent film could. 2001 has also been praised for nice little touches, like at least mentioning the seven-minute delay in radio contact between the ship and Earth caused by the sheer distance between them, and using total silence for scenes taking place in space (since sound waves can’t move in a vacuum, space is silent, and some of Kubrick’s most striking effects are the sound edits between space, which is quiet, and the interior of the space pod, which contains air and therefore sound — and reportedly Kubrick himself dubbed in Bowman’s heavy breathing in some of these scenes). It is, to my mind, the greatest science-fiction film ever made (my others would be the Tarkovsky Solaris, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and the first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, which is essentially a science-fiction film noir) and the gold standard to which anyone making a science-fiction film now should aspire. — 5/28/17

[1] — Among the omissions noted — and criticized — in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times by critic Kenneth Turan: none of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals — indeed, nothing with Astaire at all, though Gene Kelly made the cut with “Singin’ in the Rain” at #10 — as well as none of Garbo’s films (at least two, Queen Christina and Camille, should be on anybody’s list of the 100 best films ever made in the U.S.!), nothing by directors Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges, and only four silent films, The Birth of a Nation (inevitable because of his historical importance and artistic quality, despite its horribly reactionary and racist politics) and three by Chaplin, The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times — nothing by Buster Keaton, who made at least two silent masterpieces worthy of inclusion (Sherlock, Jr. and The General). Turan also noticed that none of Busby Berkeley’s films made the cut — though that’s not so surprising because, as spectacular as his numbers were, very few of Berkeley’s films were all that great as complete films — and neither did 1939’s Gunga Din, “without whose example everything from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark might not have happened.”

[2] — Earlier references to this studio I’ve seen spell its name as two words: “Boreham Wood.”