October 14, 2011

#15: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick's films share very little in common except that they are all wildly different. (So much so, in fact, that I've given a lot of thought to doing a Kubrick retrospective as my next project on this blog. So many more to see!) So far on this list I've seen his epic war film Spartacus, his dystopian horror thriller A Clockwork Orange and his satirical Peter Sellers farce Dr. Strangelove... and now, maybe the one that will leave the greatest and most frustrating legacy: 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed in 1968 and based partially and loosely on Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel." I know I've seen at least parts of it but I'm counting this as the first time I've watched it because I doubt very highly that I've ever made it all the way through.

Company: for a movie like this, you need folks who are in it to win it, and eager to discuss. Bret, literary enthusiast, Joe, major movie fan, and Hannah, who just wanted this to be better than The Tree of Life, were amazing company!

Cuisine: whiskey ginger and wine, popcorn, peanut M&Ms and various chips (both potato and carrot) with hummus -- for a thinker like this one must be prepared with an array of snacks.

2001 is remarkable in its scope, with its simple-bordering-on-incoherent plot beginning four millions years ago, as a tribe of human-like apes first discover tools and warfare in a quick series of wordless vignettes. In this first of four sections, subtitled "The Dawn of Man," one ape is discovering that beating things with a bone causes destruction just as a mysterious black monolith appears. Are these events connected? What does the monolith represent? Fear? The unknown? God? Destiny? Is the dawn of Man actually the dawn of war, territory, dominance, hate? Its appearance remains unexplained and theories abound. Maybe it will become clear through connecting its later appearances in the film.

In maybe the most famous smash-cut of all time, one ape throws a bone in the air in elation and victory as a satellite in nearly the same shape is seen floating through space. Both the bone and the satellite represent an evolutionary advantage as both tools and weapons, with the watering hole and the universe being the respective territories protected by these weapons. I think it's no coincidence that in this second sequence (the only one without a proper subtitle), the spacecraft we see represent simple tools such as the bone, the wheel, and the spear. For minutes on end, we are treated to plotless visual sequences underscored (overscored?) by rousing, epic classical music, in direct juxtaposition with the lack of action. 

The visuals (rightfully awarded an Oscar) are stunning, especially when you consider the time period: until now, most science-fiction films had been ghettoized, with hokey sets, clunky alien costumes and ridiculous plots. But Kubrick and Clarke did meticulous and expansive research, consulting the likes of astronomer and visionary Carl Sagan as well as NASA scientists, on the future of spacecraft and alien life. It's entrancing.

But back to the plot. While traveling through space, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is questioned about mysterious occurrences at Clavius Base, a U.S. moon colony. He's sworn to secrecy, and later it's discovered by astronauts traveling to the moon that a monolith identical to the one the apes found has been discovered, buried deep beneath the moon's surface, supposedly millions of years earlier. Once again, no explanation is offered, but the parallels of fear of the unknown and reverence for mystery are apparent between both ape and man. Perhaps Kubrick is telling us here that even with all our technological advances and discoveries, there will always be things we cannot explain. Our destiny, it seems, is to be eternally unsatisfied.

Then the third and most famous section: "Jupiter Mission," in which several mission pilots and scientists, including three in cryogenic hibernation (apparently to conserve resources), are traveling to Jupiter with an extremely intelligent computer system, HAL 9000 (referred to here as "Hal"). The nature of their mission is unclear but at this point the details are less important than the fact that Hal has some doubts about the mission and plans sabotage. Is he afraid of what they might find there, or does he know what they're looking for and doesn't want it to be found?

In any event, the two non-frozen scientists (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) become distrustful of the all-knowing robot and plan to shut him down and continue their operation manually, but in a terrifying cliff-hanger right before the Intermission (don't you love old movies?), we see that Hal is reading the lips of the astronauts who are trying to evade and deceive him.

Okay, so: man discovers tools, man translates tools into weaponry, man evolves. Flash forward. Man creates himself as a tool (robot), tool becomes weaponry on its own accord and turns against its creator. Trippy.

Hal manufactures a system error that requires one of the astronauts to investigate. While there, Hal severs his oxygen cord and sends him hurtling soundlessly through space. While the one left (Dave) heads out to rescue him, Hal cuts the life functions of the three astronauts in hypersleep and leaves Dave, alone, unprotected and without a helmet, floating in a pod outside the pod bay doors. "Open the pod bay doors, Hal." (SILENCE)

The scene that follows, Hal's destruction, is the most famous in the film and speaks to the power of suggestion and focus. So much science-fiction and fantasy filmwork that's done these days relies on quick editing, loud music, thrilling chases. But in space, in a standoff between man and his tool-turned-weapon, it's only silence. The pace is very difficult to deal with as a modern audience because of our expectations, but the deliberate nature of this scene (and in turn the whole film) glories in the power of our collective attention span. A movie that loves movies! I love it!

In the fourth and final act, Dave is set adrift in a pod and travels through time and hyperspace to find himself in strange and unusual alien lands. Where the hell is he, exactly? No answers are offered, though plenty of interpretations are available. When he finally lands, he sees increasingly older versions of himself inhabiting a futuristic looking room with Victorian-era furniture (perhaps a symbol of wealth and prosperity in a world where those things mean nothing?) Is the finale a series of self-fulfilling prophecies? He imagines himself living there, and then there he is eating at the dinner table. He accidentally (but inevitably) breaks a glass, reminding him that life is fragile, and then he sees himself dying in bed.

The monolith appears a third time. To claim him? To usher him into death? Into heaven? Hell? To remind him that it was all for nothing? The symbolism is overwhelming and the discussions we had after the film's beautiful ending were inspiring, but we were left with no concrete answers. And aren't the most ambiguous movies sometimes the most exciting? I think each time I revisit this film it will mean something different to me, but I'm so glad to have gotten through it start to finish with a company of people who were as invested and excited as I was. Thanks, friends!

It's been a long time since I've written (thanks, harvest!) but here I am, back again, watching the next few films slightly out of order but still writing about them in order. Next up here: Alfred Hitchcock takes Janet Leigh sooner than you think in Psycho. Until then!