Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

Who put the giant black rectangle in my room! It's blocking the damn TV!
In his book, The Great Movies, Roger Ebert said this about Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey: 
"We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence."
This is the kind of thinking a movie like 2001 works to get out of its watchers. If you go into this film expecting a sci-fi classic filled to the brim with action, suspense, aliens, and cool gadgets, this is not the film for you. If you want to see aliens, you will be disappointed. If you want robots, cyborgs, and droids, go watch Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. 2001 is not looking to be a crowd-pleaser; it's aims are higher.

Obviously, Kubrick's movie is not traditional. According to co-writer/novelist Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick made it clear from the beginning that he did not want to make one of those naive, childish sci-fi films that were so popular in the late 50s/early 60s. He wanted something contemplative, inspiring, and forward thinking. He sought something philosophical in nature that pushed the envelope of scientific research of the day. What this got him is a film that during its initial release was widely criticized, lambasted by some, and almost abandoned as a cinematic failure. Anyone familiar with the plights of several great poets and painters realizes that being unappreciated is one of the risks attached to creating art.

Oddly enough, it was the stoner generation of the late 60s, as well as the moon landing in 1969 that saved 2001. Growing up, some of my parents' friends claimed they'd get high on pot or LSD back then before going to a screening. Many of them professed love to the "star gate" sequence near the end of the film when Keir Dullea's character, Dave, enters a wormhole that takes him beyond Jupiter into the presence of alien intelligence. During that sequence, Dave is bombarded by a series of shooting lights, colors, and patterns. It's spellbinding.

I've seen 2001 a few times in my life, and each time I think I understand it a bit better. It doesn't really have much of a storyline. The movie is more told in movements, or sequences that are linked by the presence of a giant monolith -- a huge black tower that stands as a symbol of extra-terrestrial life. In the movie's beginning sequence, "The Dawn of Man," a group of struggling primates finds the monolith. Shortly afterwards, they figure out how to use the bones of a dead animal as tools, and weapons. Did the monolith teach them this? Inspire this thought?

Later, we get an elegant sequence involving the docking of a space shuttle on a space station. It's a slow, methodical section, scored to the tune of Strauss' "Blue Danube." Kubrick takes his time, letting us soak in each and every detail, from the Pan-American logo on the shuttle, to the floating pen that comes out of a passenger's pocket mid-flight. There's no rush to dive into a story, and for a lot of viewers this will no doubt prove frustrating. Even when we meet the shuttle's only passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), it's only so he can have whimsical conversations with his daughter on a videophone, and with a group of fellow travelers he encounters on the station. We discover he's going to the moon because of a problem at one of the outposts there, but there's no real urgency about it.

Eventually, Dr. Floyd makes it to the moon, and he introduces us to the problem. The monolith has been discovered buried under the moon's surface, and the U.S. government needs to cover it up until it better understands the situation. The monolith, they surmise, may be our best piece of evidence to support the idea of life outside Earth. He goes to visit the monolith, and the thing emits a high-pitched noise, as if it's an alarm being sounded throughout the cosmos.

Cut-to 18 months later. We are on a space station with Dave and Frank, two astronaut/scientists being sent on a trip to Jupiter. They are sent with a crew of three others -- all in hibernation -- and a sentient computer named HAL-9000. HAL is a foolproof computer, speaks in a calm cool voice, and almost seems human. Dave and Frank certainly treat him so.

The section involving Dave's struggle with HAL is the movie's most famous, and easily it's most traditional and engaging. HAL makes an error involving a communication device outside the ship. Dave and Frank realize that they may have to disconnect HAL's intelligence, but HAL figures this out and traps the two men outside the ship to die. Dave manages to save himself, and in the movie's most emotional moment, he disconnects HAL.

From there, Dave is left traveling alone, and we enter the final sequence of the film -- Jupiter and Beyond. Dave enters a wormhole that transports him to a hotel room. In this room he sees himself at different stages of his life: first as a middle-aged man eating a fancy dinner, then as an old man dying in the bed. As he dies, the monolith appears at the foot of his bed, and then we see not Dave any more, but a floating embryo -- the star child -- and we see that Dave's existence is just a pattern of life, death and rebirth mirroring that of the universe.

Or is that the case? Is this what it means? For me, this is the case. Kubrick's final stanza in this film is confusing, but visually glorious. Watching it again is what I felt like when I read T.S. Eliot's "The Wastelands" for the first time -- I think I got it, but I can't be sure; the words all sounded so good it didn't really matter.

2001: A Space Odyssey is not to be watched like you watch a normal movie. There are no main characters we can identify with. There is no real storyline to enjoy. This is a film of ideas and intelligence. It's like reading a book on philosophy as opposed to a book of fiction. It's like standing in an art gallery for a few hours, staring at beautiful paintings, reflecting on their beauty and what they mean. Most movies require us to sit for a couple hours and enjoy a story. Kubrick wanted his movie to live in our imaginations, inspire our thinking, and inform our understanding of the universe in which we live.

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