2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28, 2008


Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through.  I have seen it so many times!

2001:  A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time.  It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.

The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:

  • The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing.  No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years!  The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
  • There are several profound themes at play in this movie:  the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
  • Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has.  [See my post.]  In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment.  Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing.  The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
  • The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog.  The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.

Take a look…

At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men.  They act as if they worship it.  What would you expect them to do in such a situation?  Is this the nature of religion?  What is this slab?  We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence.  This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.

Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind.  The notion of a tool is born.  Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger.  The entire clan must know of them.  And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!

Ape men excited      Hmm..tool.  Good idea.   Visions of meat!

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Power!  Culture…teach the kids  Power for life or death!

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The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age.  It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.

Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!

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A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz.  A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him.  Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there!  The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope:  Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.]  Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.

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Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base.  The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals.  The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.

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After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered.  The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”

“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.”  “More coffee?”

At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist.  Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work.  While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.

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A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins.  Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey.  Also, let us not forget, a homecoming.  Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?

The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm.  The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere.  He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth.  His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.

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Hal has his problems.  Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it.  It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail.  Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together?  Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move.  HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move.  Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body.  On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.”  An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod.  The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence.  HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”

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I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film.  The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays.  Was this an accident or poetic license?  (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)


Here we have it, the epic struggle.  Man vs. his monstrous antagonist.  Man vs. machine.  Man vs. himself, his own creations?  Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet.  He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”

Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.”  He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea.  The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer.  Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door.  The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.

Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop.  Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?

HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song.  “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave.  Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.

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With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears  in front of him.  In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”  What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care.  Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.

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The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick.  The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe?  We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…

There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below.  He is the seed.

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The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism.  It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks.  The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.

Where am I?  Where is where?  When am I?  Where am I going?

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Why am I here?  What was that noise?  Oh, there I am.  On my deathbed.

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The slab returns once more.  Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.

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Something new is born.


A pair of pictures related to this final image:  Christmas & Christmas

The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun  on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of  David Bowie’s  Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001’s starchild once he actually landed back “home.”  An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.



I wonder if we do and say the right things…

August 5, 2008

…You mean about the children?

David Bowie as Mr. Newton, in The Man Who Fell to Earth, is abducted.  His long-time attorney and corporate manager is murdered by being tossed out of his apartment window.  Cut from his fall to earth to the man who planned the killing as he dives into a pool to the sound of unearthly music.  After he puts his children to bed, he says to his beautiful wife…