2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvestor, voice of Douglas Rain
At the Bloor Cinema in downtown Toronto on Wednesday I caught a screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in glorious 35mm (a 70mm print would have been nicer, but 35mm is just fine). In my brain I transported myself to 1968 (before I was born) and pretended I was watching the film for the first time at its premiere. I couldn’t quite pretend I didn’t know what was coming next, but the experience was a magical event.
When the lights went down the opening musical overture (customary in those days for epic films) played for a couple of minutes. It’s a wonderful soundscape of moody murmuring and chanting. Then the the opening “scene” set to Richard Strauss’ operatic Also Sprach Zarathustra. The audience is awe-struck with the most unbelievable special effects, then, ever put to the screen. Kubrick at his most audacious then, ‘flashes back’ to the dawn of man – a Neanderthal man chapter of the story which shows the moment of divine intervention when man progressed as intelligent creatures. Then one of the neanderthals throws one of his new bone-weapons into the air and match cuts to an orbiting satellite thousands of years later. Wow.
We then meet Heywood Floyd, an American summoned to speak at a meeting of scientists to discuss a brave new discovery on the moon. Floyd’s team investigates a mysterious black monolith recently been dug up in a crater on the moon. The monolith, which had been purposely buried there millions of years ago, emits a pulse toward the planet Jupiter. The third chapter occurs 18 months later as we follow two American astronauts, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), on the space journey to Jupiter. Bowman and Poole’s mission is compromised when the ship’s intelligence computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) runs amok and targets them for death. The rousing fourth chapter moves from the physical into another dimension of space and time. The monolith appears one last time before Bowman who experiences the ultimate existential epiphany.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is no doubt a difficult film and not for all tastes. If it’s you’re first viewing, and you watch it with a clean slate without expectations, the film will likely astound you beyond belief. If you’re like me, who, at aged 8, had expectations of “Star Wars”, you’re in for disappointment. So it took me a second viewing in my teen years to fully grasp and appreciate the enormous depth and spirituality that Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke puts onto the screen.
Technically the film is still a mystery as to how some of the shots and effects were made. Even today, against the highest-priced CGI, Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are utterly believable and awe-inspiring. Kubrick knew this film would set the benchmark for special effects and rewrite the book about science fiction on screen. As such he took meticulous care to get the physics and science correct. Watch how long he extends each procedure in the film. In the waltzing spaceship dock sequence Kubrick painstaking shows us with each immaculately composed shot how a space ship docks in zero-gravity space. Watch the sequence where Frank Poole changes the faulty “AE-35” unit on the satellite dish– the attention to detail on every switch flipped, button pressed or body movement is slow and steady but hypnotic in it’s meticulousness (and reminiscent of the CRM 114 sequence in “Dr. Strangelove”). Kubrick makes art out of technique and procedure.
Another of the great technical achievements is the famed rotating set which allowed Kubrick to achieve the incredible tracking shots through the circular ship. Perhaps the most head-scratching effect, is the smallest - the floating pen with leaves Heywood Floyd’s hand and floats effortlessly in mid air and then is caught by a stewardess. I now know how it’s done, but only after reading it in a book many years later.
The structure of the film is as daring as the concept. Splitting the film into distinct and separate chapters means, in each act we’re introduced to a new set of characters. But they aren’t so much 'characters' as instruments to propel the film forward. Bowman and Poole are so unemotional in their work they are as robotic as HAL, their computer nemesis. But their battle of wills is the highlight of the film. And watch the brilliant foreshadowing throughout the chapter as to how their battle will end – a brief cut a random hurdling asteroid, a shot of the “exploding bolts” sign on the pod, or the Bowman’s red helmet left lying in the podbay.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” has become a cultural phenomenon because of the way it unifies science and religion. “2001” tells us that though space and time are infinite, it’s God’s presence, whether you believe in the dogmatic teachings of the higher power, that that has caused man, as a species, to break free of our physical bodies and achieve the unachievable. Enjoy.
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