2001: A Space Odyssey (Great Movies Odyssey)

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As I previously posted, I HATED the first part of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was literally bored to tears. Monkeys! Look at the monkeys run, play and fight! Oh wait. . . there’s a giant monolith! Where’d it come from? Is this going to lead to an interesting plot development? No? Okay, I’m bored again.

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Perhaps part of the problem is that over the years 2001 has been parodied so often (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, any number of Simpsons episodes) that it is hard to watch without wanting to giggle. Play the opening bars of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (DUH, DUH, DUH, DUH-DAH!!!), and many people will more quickly identify it as the music accompanying the slow pan of sunlight over Cher’s phone in Clueless than the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s masterpiece is easy to parody because it is unrelentingly serious. There is not even an attempt at humor in the entire film. That is not a criticism– Kubrick made the film he wanted to make. And given that the most sympathetic (albeit simultaneously diabolical) “character” in the entire film is a supercomputer, I would argue that any hint of humor would be completely out-of-place.

2001_halThe supercomputer to which I am referring is of course HAL 9000. HAL’s influence can be felt throughout Western film to the point that, like the parodies with which 2001 is so closely related, modern audiences recognize HAL’s successors more than they recognize him. The evil computer in WALL-E is a direct reference to HAL (as is the name EVA). Eddie the shipboard computer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a spoof of HAL. I don’t think the gang on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 went an episode without mentioning the original supercomputer. Basically anytime you see an evil computer in film, you are seeing HAL’s effect on the depiction of technology in science fiction films.

What I found surprising is how late we are introduced to the character which holds the #13 spot on AFI’s Film’s Best Villains list. 2001: A Space Odyssey is divided into four parts– or perhaps it is best to say four movements. The first is The Dawn of Man, hence the monkeys. The second is TMA-1. We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester). He is heading up a secret mission, the goal of which is to study another monolith like the one in the first movement. It’s not until the third, Jupiter Mission, when we finally meet HAL and the two astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood). And finally the fourth movement, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, is when all the audience members wish they had taken psychedelic drugs before entering the theater.

So we sit through almost an hour of film before we even meet the film’s villain. Then, having met him, we are with him for another hour before the fourth movement begins. . .sans HAL. Yet he is the most memorable character in the movie. Like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, the comparatively brief time he is onscreen makes him even more memorable. What do we learn about HAL in the course of movie? He’s a computer. He’s perfect (or he should be). He’s programmed to complete his mission at any cost. He wants to live.

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That’s all we learn. But the ramifications of even these small facts are extraordinary. He’s a machine, but he makes a mistake. The two astronauts realize his mistake and decide to deactivate him. So HAL does a very human thing: he tries to destroy the evidence of his error– namely the two other people onboard.

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Last night I saw a trailer for the upcoming George Clooney/Sandra Bullock vehicle Gravity. In it, Bullock is cut loose from her own spaceship. There is a lot of screaming, fire and Clooney close-ups. In 2001, Poole is also set adrift from his spaceship by HAL, but there is no yelling and certainly no fire. He falls silently, remotely, a wordless reminder that space is huge and man is small. I was reminded of the wonderful tagline from Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream.” Bowman goes after him, but it is too late. He retrieves the body, and (in the only genuine action sequence in the movie) attempts to reenter the ship. His line “Open the pod doors, HAL.” is simple but remembered by science fiction fans the world over. For of course HAL is not going to open the pod doors.

2001_pooleWe know little about Bowman and Poole, but what we do know is compelling. They have parents who love them. They are young enough to be excited for this adventure yet old enough to hold off on the giddiness. Perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate intelligence– a trait often lacking in science fiction leads (e.g. the male lead in the recent release Pacific Rim, who poses very well but gives no sign of a single thought in his pretty little head). Bowman can enter the ship without HAL’s help, but he will have no oxygen in the process. So he takes a deep breath and uses the vacuum created when he opens the doors to slingshot himself into the ship.

I mentioned that this is the only real action sequence in the film. It works because it is completely realistic, like the scenes of danger in Apollo 13. There are no dramatic moves, except for the awesome slingshot into the ship’s interior. What stands out for me is Bowman’s holding his breath. Obviously we all draw breath, so we can imagine what it is like to suffocate. We can place ourselves in Bowman’s shoes. We fear for him because, unlike a kung fu master battling twenty enemies at once, he is battling something we understand: the need to breath.

He makes it inside without suffocating, and then comes the most memorable scene in the movie: the death of HAL.

I have written a lot about HAL already. Looking over what I have written, I notice that I used the male pronoun in referring to the supercomputer. But why? His voice is male, but he’s a machine. Machines have no gender. But as Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies review, HAL feels like the most human element in the movie. That feeling is confirmed in his death scene in which, like an old person slipping into dementia, he flashes back to his earlier existence in Urbana, Illinois. He even sings a little song to himself– still in that monotone male voice. It is wonderfully spooky and a little sad.

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The reason why movement three stands out in 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it is the only one with conflict. Astronauts vs. HAL 9000. Astronauts vs. Space. It is also the only sequence in which we get to know any of the characters. In part two we learn that Dr. Floyd has a daughter back home, but we don’t really ever get a sense that he misses her. That’s not a criticism. Kubrick obviously did not want relationships to dominate his film. According to Ebert, the reason the director used classical music like “The Blue Danube” and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was that he didn’t want this to be just another sci-fi film. I think that is why he didn’t want his audience to get to know his characters. Otherwise, 2001 would be Star Wars Goes to Jupiter.

So if Kubrick didn’t want to make a sci-fi film, what is 2001: A Space Odyssey? I think the answer lies in the use of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. It is not a symphony; it’s a tone poem which leads from “Sunrise” (the famous DUH DUH DUH DU-DAH!!) through the “Song of the Grave” to the “Song of the Night Wanderer”. 2001 is a meditation on the cycle of human existence. From beasts we rise to science; from science we evolve to a higher level of existence.

2001_starchildThat is what happens when Bowman goes to Jupiter in the final part of the film. After a special effects light show (parodied in the Spaceballs ludicrous speed scene) he arrives in what looks like a very nice hotel suite. There he meets an older version of himself (maybe), wanders around for a while (maybe) and meets a being referred to the literature around the movie as the Star Child (maybe).

My reading of this concluding sequence is that he is our Everyman who has risen from science to the higher level. More than that I cannot say, nor do I think much more can be said, but surely it is not coincidence that the “Thus Spake Zarathustra” musical piece was inspired by Nietzsche’s similarly named treatise– in which he proclaims, “God is dead.” 2001: A Space Odyssey recognizes our present is only a brief moment in the timeline of the human race. If there is no God-force in this universe, there is no plan for us. There is only constant evolution. That is why the beginning movement with the monkeys is necessary to the development of the film. Like Poole’s body floating off into infinite space, we are a miniscule part of space and time.

So this is a science fiction film without aliens and barely any action, yet it is ranked as the #1 Science Fiction Film on the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Films list. I can see why. I can also see why many audience members walked out of the initial screening in 1968. They had gone in expecting Star Wars, and instead there was this convoluted brainteaser. But if you can sit through it, you will find that by the end a kind of logic surfaces. Despite my preliminary loathing, I am still thinking about this movie a week later. There is a thudding perfection to it. Thudding in the sense that you rarely get a lift like a good comedy or action film will give you, but perfect in that nothing should be changed about it.

In conclusion, Stanley Kubrick is obviously a genius, and 2001: A Space Odyssey made me head hurt. Long live HAL.

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