2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) ***
I’ve never been the type to form obsessive attachments to individual directors. I’ll snap up everything I can find by favorite directors in the genres I’m primarily interested in, but I feel no particular desire to see, for example, Al Adamson’s Westerns or Lucio Fulci’s comedies. Not that I necessarily avoid movies outside my usual fields of interest, mind you— I just don’t seek them out. I bring this up because the only Stanley Kubrick movie I’ve yet seen that didn’t totally knock me on my ass is one you’d expect me to be particularly excited about— 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, until just this weekend, I’ve never been able to force myself to sit through the whole thing in one go. Having done so now, however, I feel fully qualified to ask, how much LSD do you have to take before 2001 looks as great as everybody always says it is?
To begin with, I think it’s always a bad idea to make a film that’s three-three-THREE movies in one! unless you're doing an anthology. 2001: A Space Odyssey was built from pieces of several different stories by Arthur C. Clarke, and the seams couldn’t be more obvious if Kubrick had set out to make them so. Phase one takes place at “The Dawn of Man.” Around four million years ago, a bunch of Australopithecines living in an inhospitable African desert receive what can only be a visit from an extraterrestrial intelligence. When the head of the band wakes up one morning, he sees that somebody has set a twelve-foot, black, rectangular whatsit down right outside the pile of rocks where he and his clan make their home. The ape-men are understandably pretty freaked out at first, but they soon get it through their heads that the black thing isn’t going to hurt them. That’s not to say that it will have no effect on their lives, however. While the top Australopithecine is lounging around amid a pile of old tapir bones in the object’s shadow (and we may safely assume a causal relationship between his proximity to the black thing and what’s about to occur), he happens to look at a thigh bone, and suddenly sees it in a new way. Hefting the femur in his right hand, he realizes for the first time that it or something else like it could be used as a weapon, allowing his people to eat better by killing larger animals than they could with their bare hands, and giving them also a competitive edge over the clan that lives on the opposite side of the local water hole. The chief, if we may call him that at this maximally primitive stage of human social development, rounds up the rest of his clan and shows them the new trick he just figured out. Then they go on the hunt and kill a couple of tapirs. The next day, at the water hole, they show up with clubs in hand, and chase their rivals clear away from the pond.
Four million years later, on the cusp of the third millennium A.D., Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester, from Gorgo and Devils of Darkness) is riding a transatmospheric shuttle to one of the many space stations in orbit around the Earth. His ultimate destination is the US space research center on the Moon, where something mighty funny is going on. As he says to the Russian scientists he meets in the space station’s lounge, he isn’t at liberty to discuss whatever those strange goings-on are, or to confirm or deny rumors that the American Moon base is stricken with a mysterious and potentially deadly epidemic. (You know, I never cease to marvel at the inability of even big-name sci-fi writers during this period to imagine a future without a Cold War.) But just between you and me, that plague story is a total snowjob. What’s really happened is that some of Floyd’s colleagues have found unmistakable evidence that intelligent, non-human life was active on the Moon some four million years before. The scientists on the Moon detected an impossibly strong magnetic field (remember, the Moon doesn’t have one of its own) emanating from a point about 40 feet underground near the crater Tycho. Excavation turned up a black, rectangular whatsit about twelve feet tall by five feet wide by one foot deep. No one has yet had any luck figuring out what the black monolith is, what it’s for, or how it works. All they know is that the circumstances of its placement point irrefutably to its having been buried deliberately.
Another eighteen months go by, bringing us to the year 2001. The spaceship Discovery 1 is about halfway through its 500 million-mile voyage to the vicinity of Jupiter. Aboard the Discovery are five scientists: Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea, of Black Christmas), Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood, from Earth II and The Magic Sword), and three others who have been in suspended animation since before the ship left home. With only two active crewmembers, the mission can afford to do a little skimping on food and water for most of the long trip out and back, and truth be told, even the two wakeful men are mostly superfluous. Every one of the Discovery’s systems is controlled by a sentient computer of the HAL 9000 series. The 9000 series can mimic every known function of the human brain, and the one onboard the ship has even been programmed to approximate a range of human emotions so as to make it easier for its organic crewmates to interact with it. What’s more, in the ten years since the 9000 series was introduced, not one has ever been known to malfunction in even the slightest respect. What’s that you say? Yeah. Sounds like Famous Last Words to me, too.
The first indication that there’s something wrong with HAL comes when the computer reports that the Discovery’s main radio antenna has developed a fault that will put it totally out of commission within 72 hours. When Bowman and Poole bring the defective part inside for repairs, though, neither one of them can find a thing wrong with it. HAL doesn’t know what to tell them. His diagnostic systems told him there was a fault, and neither he nor any other 9000-series computer has ever been wrong about anything in a decade. After mulling it over for a bit, Bowman decides to go back out to the antenna, reinstall the suspect part, and then wait for it to break as per HAL’s prediction. Then it should be perfectly obvious what they’ll need to do to fix it. Actually, Bowman has a second motive, too— one that he doesn’t want HAL to know about. Bowman has Poole come down to the space pod hanger with him, on the pretext of looking into some twitchy gizmo onboard the pod he was using when they went out to work on the antenna. Once inside the pod, Bowman switches off the intercom so that HAL can’t hear what’s being said inside it, and raises the possibility that the computer is malfunctioning. Granted, the machine’s track record is such that this is highly unlikely, but if it were true, the implications for the five humans aboard the Discovery would be dire indeed. After talking it over for a bit, the two astronauts decide to use the predicted antenna malfunction as a test. If it breaks as promised, okay. But if it doesn’t, then the two of them will have to disconnect HAL’s higher mental functions, and run the ship the old-fashioned way for the rest of the mission. There’s something else that worries Bowman and Poole about the whole scenario. Because HAL is a full-fledged artificial intelligence, and because he has been programmed to emulate human emotions, is it not possible that the computer will try to defend itself somehow in the event that they try to turn it off? Maybe they should just ask HAL— he’s been lip-reading their conversation through the pod’s main viewport the entire time...
I think just about everybody in the civilized world has some idea what happens next. Calling HAL’s behavior a “malfunction” might just take the prize for the Understatement of the Year, 1968. While Poole is outside the ship reconnecting the antenna, HAL attacks him with the space pod he had been using, and sends him hurtling off into the void. When Bowman takes one of the other pods out in an attempt to rescue Poole, HAL won’t let him back aboard the ship! And while all that’s going on outside, the computer cuts off life support to the three scientists hibernating in blissful ignorance indoors. It is only through an act of nearly suicidal boldness that Bowman gets back into the Discovery, but once he has, the advantage lies with him. After all, Bowman’s the one with the opposable thumbs, and so long as he’s wearing his space suit, there’s no way for HAL to get at him.
And now we have arrived at the final chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite.” When Bowman reaches the fifth planet, he finds, in orbit around the moon Io, a second black monolith— only this one is two kilometers long. Bowman takes a pod out to investigate at close range, and the thing literally sucks him into itself. Heh. “Infinite” my ass. That’s just Pink Floyd’s light show!!!! And you know what? It sucks when they do it, too! After... crap, I don’t know how long we spend looking at The Colors with Bowman, but it felt like about eleven hours to me... the pod comes to a stop in the Overlook Hotel. Okay, okay. So it isn’t really the Overlook, and Kubrick wouldn’t get around to making The Shining for another twelve years. I still kept expecting two ghostly little girls to show up and invite Bowman to come play with them “forever, and ever, and ever…” In any case, Bowman suddenly finds himself in some alien intellect’s idea of a terrestrial hotel room. And from the looks of it, this is where the last of the Discovery astronauts lives out all the rest of his days— to the age of about 130, if his condition when he finally kicks it is any indication— doing not a fucking thing. Then, after all that, Bowman is reincarnated as some kind of floating, translucent fetus-creature, drifting through the cosmos in its magical Star Placenta. Cue “Thus Spake Zarathushtra” and the closing credits.
To start with the good, 2001: A Space Odyssey is visually overwhelming right up until Bowman flies into the giant monolith. It’s no wonder this movie broke down the barrier to big-budget sci-fi that had been in place since about 1957; I grew up on that stuff, but I still got a tingle out of the scene in which Dr. Floyd’s shuttle lands on the Moon. Not only that, this is one of the most scientifically rigorous movies I’ve ever seen. The first thing that will jump out at you is the utter silence of the space scenes. Kubrick, virtually alone among the makers of sci-fi films, refuses to let artistic license come between him and the fact that compressional waves (like sound waves) can’t travel through a vacuum. The spacecraft models have all been designed with an eye toward realism, and honestly do look like plausible extrapolations from what NASA was coming up with in the late 1960’s. You’ll also notice that none of the spaceships ever use their engines except when accelerating, just the way it is out in the real world. Similarly, Kubrick makes excellent use of the absent or minimal gravity in the environments where most of the movie takes place (you’ve got to love the ludicrously long list of instructions posted on the door of the space-liner’s Zero Gravity Toilet), and there are a couple of anti-gravity effects on display that I absolutely can’t figure out the trick to.
But for all that, I really can’t understand what all the fuss is about regarding 2001: A Space Odyssey. For one thing, it’s far too long, wasting great swaths of time on things like the five solid minutes of blank screen and tuneless music that open the film. And of course that ending is just outright silly. But far more serious a flaw than either of those is the clunky, awkward way in which the story is put together. The heart of the film is the Discovery mission; that’s where the conflict is, that’s where the best developed characters are, and that, after all, is what the movie’s title refers to. And yet, thematically speaking, it’s nothing but an extended subplot. Right from the beginning, it is fairly obvious that the real point of the movie is that the evolution of mankind has been guided by whatever extraterrestrial intelligence created and controls the monoliths, and the outcome of Bowman’s eventual encounter with that intelligence leaves no doubt but that it considers it time for the species to take the next step. Bowman and Poole’s Crichtonesque travails at the hands of their homicidal computer have no apparent connection to any of that, nor can it be said that the experience prepares Bowman— spiritually, psychologically, or however— for his rendezvous with the monolith. Hell, it isn’t even apparent until after Bowman disables HAL that the Jupiter mission is connected with the discovery of the Tycho Monolith at all! Writing this sloppy is so far out of character for Stanley Kubrick that I have to wonder whether he practiced for the “Beyond the Infinite” section by loading up constantly on the hallucinogens whose effects it so obviously is meant to echo. All in all, it’s enough to make me wish Kubrick had latched onto Stanislaw Lem instead of Arthur C. Clarke. He could have done great things with Solaris, in which the main plotline and the main theme are linked throughout in a sensible, logical manner.