Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Movie Review: 2001 A Space Odyssey
I’m quite sure there are numerous scholarly reviews, interpretations, and explorations of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction film, 2001. Well, that’s never stopped me before. I saw this movie when I was about 11 or 12, I’m not sure. I rented it and the sequel 2010 and watched them back to back. I remember watching 2001 blankly, not really understanding everything after the confrontation with Hal. But 2010 gave me enough of an explanation that I thought I pretty much understood the movie…sort of. It took me a long time to come back to it, by which point I’d developed more of an interest in the music and in special effects. Over multiple viewings I started to develop some kind of sense of the film, but it was only when I read the book that I felt fully comfortable with it; especially the ending, which makes much more sense in the book.
It opens on a bunch of primitive, pre-humans living their short, brutal lives. Exposed to the elements and predation, they live at the whim of nature. But, with the dramatic arrival of a giant, impassive black monolith, the spark of invention is kindled, and tool use follows. With the tool (in this case, a club) these pre-humans are able to take some control of their lives. From there, we jump forward to the future (1969’s future) of the year 2001 and find Dr. Haywood Floyd on his way first to a space station, then on to the Moon. The special effects and designs are very impressive here. Top notch model work that holds up extremely well today. Remember that this movie was made at a time when we still had the will and wherewithal to embrace science and technology, and most honestly believed that living in space wasn’t just a possibility, but an inevitability. It was a given. And we were on our way to making that dream a reality, before we lost our collective nerve. What Kubrick presents is a fairly realistic view of what life in space might have looked like (and still might). There was a great deal of effort put into making the tech as realistic as possible. Floyd is on his way to the Moon to deal with a recent discovery; a large black monolith buried for four million years in lunar surface. From there, we hop forward several months to a deep space mission on its way to Jupiter. Here astronauts Dave and Frank, and ships computer Hal deal with the stresses and anticipation of the mission. After some differences of opinion Dave continues on to something far beyond anyone’s expectations.
2001 postulates alien intervention in the assent of Man, but a mostly hands-off policy. They lit a spark and let it take whatever course it might, leaving a marker or sentinel on the Moon. When/if someone could find it, it would lead the way to the next step. Dave takes that next step into new ground, becoming something more than Human, the Star Child. That’s all there really is to the story. It’s very simple. But it reveals itself in small bites, forcing you to build the story around the framework presented. I wonder if this is some of what makes the film feel so profound. We create a lot of the content to fill in the blank spaces.
Classical music used during many of the space sequences is a cool touch, bringing our history along with us into the future, bringing the beauty we’ve created with us to the stars. And the haunting and strange music that accompanies the monolith is unsettling in the extreme. Music is very important to the film, especially because Kubrick did that thing so few have, and kept space silent. The sound design is especially effective. Like the scene where Dave is going out to repair part of the ship, and all you hear for several minutes is his breathing, a lonely sound from a man suspended in the emptiness of eternity. In a movie where there is very little dialog, sound effects and music become a key element in the storytelling.
There are so many aspects of this film that were ground breaking and inspirational for generations of filmmakers. Obviously, the effects pushed the boundaries of the time, setting the stage for Star Wars and Aliens, which themselves would become the foundation of science fiction films to come. But I think one thing in the film has had an especially profound, and unfortunate, lasting legacy. Hal came to embody our cultural fear of progress, machines, computers, and the future. That sinister red eye and mellow menacing voice. The simple calculations and logic of murder. The perfect machine, given near total control, driven mad by doubt. If we make a machine as smart or smarter than us, will it have our weaknesses of character? Will it hate or fear? Will it hate or fear us? While I think these are important and valid concerns and questions, I am bothered by how quickly and completely they were embraced by the public and by movie makers. From Hal on, there are precious few benevolent computers, so few stories about the birth of A.I. that don’t involve a clash or war with Humanity. From Dark Star to The Terminator to The Matrix, almost every time a computer gets a little power in a science fiction movie, it turns mad or murderous. One of the reasons I liked Moon so much is that even though they set up a situation where the A.I. could easily turn out to be the villain, it didn’t. Now, Hal has something of a redemption in 2010, but that movie barely registered with the collective zeitgeist, and so Hal remains the archetype of murderous artificial intelligence.
2001 stands as a watershed moment in science fiction film. There is what came before, and what came after. It changed the game, redefined how the genre would be put on the silver screen, and upped the ante by an unprecedented amount. And seeing movies like Solaris, The Fountain, or Moon lets you know that its presence is still very real in the hearts and minds of movie makers. It was sort of a summation of the hopes and dreams of an era, and can still inspire new generations, in spite of the high marks it set that we failed to achieve. And if nothing else, it’s an audio-visual journey like no other. A unique film that deserves its classic status, and should appeal to much more than just genre fans.