2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Translating hard science fiction to the movie screen can be difficult.  This is due to the fact that authors like Arthur C. Clarke have a tendency of keeping the plots basic since it is the ideas about the future of technology and humanity itself they want to convey more than a complex story.  Much of the greatest science fiction from the gold and silver ages of the genre are short stories as they were about discovery.  Many were about the search for the answers to a mystery behind an incident and, once that was resolved, the story ended.  The consequences were left up to the readers' imaginations.

Such it was with "The Sentinel", a short story by Clarke that found a team of astronauts investigating a strange object placed on a lunar mountain.  It concludes with the signal it sends and the realization that we are not alone in the universes.  What becomes of humanity after that signal is sent is not as important as that sudden awakening to a larger universe.  2001: A Space Odyssey evolved from that short story, and was originally supposed to be a number of vignettes about man's exploration of his solar system, concluding with this revelation.

The movie evolved over time as both director Stanley Kubrick and Clarke worked on new ideas, with Clarke ultimately novelizing the movie version, with some differences: the third monolith is found orbiting Saturn on the moon Iapetus, and many of the details in the movie that confounded viewers are explained in much more detail.  Since the book, script and movie all came about at one time, it is not a case of the book or movie being better (as a comprehensive story the book does a better job, but the movie is a marvel of visual narrative), but rather they go hand-in-hand.  If one doesn't get everything in the movie, I would suggest reading the book, since I had done so years before I ever saw Kubrick's movie and appreciated the movie much more as I had a grasp of what was going on. 

At a remote point in our history a monolith is placed before a group of australopithecines, sending them on their way to developing a further awareness of their world and to develop intelligence with all the wonders and risks that go with it.  In the year 2001 man has placed colonies on the moon and stations orbiting Earth, although the Cold War and the tensions stemming from it still exist - enough so that Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) endeavors to keep secret a discovery at the Tycho crater.  Located due to a heavy magnetic field, and purposely buried forty feet under the lunar surface, scientists have discovered four-million-year-old monolith that sends out a signal when Heywood touches it.  

The trajectory of the signal is traced, and the Discovery is constructed as the first ship to visit the outer planets - in this case Jupiter.  The crew consists of three scientists that are placed in hibernation and two that remain awake.  The two astronauts tasked with running the ship, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), do so with the help of their onboard computer HAL-9000 (Douglas Rain).  The mission is put in jeopardy when HAL begins to malfunction, but Bowman eventually makes it to Jupiter to see what mysteries the third object, found orbiting Jupiter, may have in store.

As much as I love Arthur C. Clarke, and hard science fiction in general, I will admit that when it comes to his larger stories that go beyond a simple life-changing discovery there are some problems.  For instance, his characters fit their jobs and their place in the story, but nothing more.  I can  relate many of the events that happened in another of Clarke's classic novels, Rendezvous with Rama, but I would not be able to recall one character's name without looking up a plot synopsis.  The only reason I ever remember the three main characters' names in this is because of the movie and some of the iconic lines from it - even though the novelization does flesh out Bowman and Poole a bit more than the movie does.  By design the events that occur dwarf the human participants, as humanity is meant to develop though the first contact and not the individuals.  Bowman is not chosen by the aliens but rather he is the one that happens to enter the monolith.  

It is also important to note that when the movie is discussed, other than the visual element, the main part that is focused on is the HAL's attempts to kill all those on board the Discovery.  It's not a throwaway conflict; as humans were given that final push into intelligence by the makers of the monoliths, so are machines gaining intelligence through our influence in the world of 2001.  The question about whether to encourage growth or disconnect is most likely part of what the garbled alien voices toward the end are discussing regarding Bowman and humanity in general.  Still, as far as the movie goes, this is a small part of a grander narrative.  It is a Stanley Kubrick movie, and if there is one thing he can overindulge in it is a painstakingly slow unfolding of the story he wishes to tell.  Personally I think the pace fits the movie in this case, but many viewers go into this expecting a movie like Star Wars due to the effects work and the impact it has had on science fiction and cinema.  

Due to that, although I highly recommend this movie as being one of Kubrick's best films (the visuals and music, together, would make it a space version of Fantasia even if the narrative was removed), I want to make a few things clear without spoiling the movie for those who have yet to see it.  There is no dialogue for about the first 25 minutes, and the same for the last.  A good portion of that first 25 minutes are our ape ancestors learning how to make tools and go to war.  There are two different scenes - one when docking with a space station, another with the ship that goes from the station to Clavius Base on the Moon - that are long flight and docking sequences set to Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube.  Most of the dialogue is board meetings, discussions about fixing things and a bit of exposition.  HAL-9000, a computer, is the most developed character in the movie, and probably has the most lines - or at least the most significant.  Also, the last 20 minutes will either be some of the most visually and intellectually arresting film making ever seen, or it will make the viewer swear out loud and write a long diatribe about how anyone who likes this movie is a pretentious Kubrick fanboy.  The latter has not been helped by defenders of the film calling those who don't "get it" morons. 

As for "getting it," again, a simple read of the novel (which goes at a faster pace simply because it is not as concerned with the visual end as Kubrick was) will be enough to do so, and even then many readers will be a bit disappointed that it isn't as startling a revelation as when those few final seconds play out with Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra pounding in the background.  As for those visuals, they largely stand up today.  There were some errors made, largely because this was released a year before we actually landed on the moon, and nearly a decade before we got to see Jupiter and its moons up close with Voyager 1.  That said, a point is made to make sure there is no sound in space (why the music was highly important, as was the sound of breathing in the EVA scenes) and effects artist Douglas Trumbull, in partnership with Kubrick, did his best to make sure everything was as scientifically accurate as possible given the knowledge they had.  The moon was portrayed as more mountainous that it turned out to be and the soil was a different color than would be found on the lunar surface.  As for Europa, the one moon of Jupiter that is shown in close-up, it's pretty accurate given what was known at the time, except it is missing the stress cracks in the ice that the Voyager probes later revealed.  The change from Saturn to Jupiter - as the former had been the original intended destination - was the fact that Trumbull couldn't make the rings look realistic at the time. 

I find 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a relic of a more optimistic past, as well as a postcard from an alternate world where maybe we didn't pull back from human space exploration and the world went in a different direction.  It has a deliberate pace that may frustrate, the year itself is now come and gone (to the point where a number of people watching this movie the first time probably do not remember the real year of 2001, which unfortunately held its own turning point for much of the world) as have many of the companies featured, such as Bell Telephone and Pan American Airlines.  Kubrick, Clarke, and those who made up the main cast are also long gone as well, as thankfully is the Cold War.  I still hope myself to one day come to see many of the things here come to pass, or at least the beginnings, before I follow suit. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Time: 149 minutes
Starring: William Sylvester, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood
Director: Stanley Kubrick




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