2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, from a story by Clarke; special visual effects supervisors: Wally Veevers, Con Pederson, Tom Howard and Douglas Trumbull)—a hyper-real/hallucinatory/mystical vision of hope and human advancement to oppose the retrograde, conformist steps the world actually took in the real year 2001, In 70mm (!!!!) on Christmas Eve 2012 at the Lincoln Center, where the projectionists still know and respect their craft: It was better than heroin!
For me, this was a trip to Mecca; the faithful must make at least one Hajj, but True Believers know they have to trek more than once. (Seeing the movie was also a great present for myself on Xmas Eve, if I may scramble/reinforce my religious comparisons.)
And with the “death” of film, I knew I had to take this opportunity to see 2001: A Space Odyssey one last time in this magnificent format.
Dude, it was 70mm!!!
(And yes, I saw new things, or bits I’ve forgotten, or lost because of the TV set’s much smaller format. For instance, at the very top of HAL’s “faceplate” is a logo, in a specific corporate font: “HAL 9000.” I had forgotten that was there, and was so happy to “rediscover” it. It’s all in the details.)
My favorite film since I was ten, when 2001 was re-released and shown in Manhattan’s magnificent Ziegfeld Theatre. That day (it was rainy and chilly), the audience was sparse and that was fine with me. I scored the “best” seat in the house to get the best screen-sight ratio, settled in—and was so amazed, invigorated and mind-expanded that I sat through the movie again immediately after.
Of course, 2001 is the reason I began obsessing over the work of Big Stanley K.
Seeing a movie as unique as this so early in my life—a four-million year jump-cut? Holy shit…—
wound up being a big influence on me: Kubrick’s film is far, far away from your “standard” screenplay format, with dialog so trite it borders on the cryptic; while at the same time seeking/providing answers to Big Questions: How did humans evolve from apes? Was there a “greater hand” at work? Where is man going? Is there life out there? Is that alien our “God”?*
Admittedly, I was somewhat prepared for 2001’s potential weirdness, having read various synopses of the film in an assortment of science fiction film books, so I already “knew” that the monolith was going to do something to the apes’ brain patterns.
So, what happens in 2001?
Short version: Through the efforts of an unknown outside agency, possibly alien or even supernatural (represented by a large black slab), apes begin evolving into men.
About four-million years later, this “unknown force” takes a human to the next evolutionary level.
Four million years ago, we see proto-humans (ape men) at a point of stagnation: a harsh, awful existence full of despair, with two tribes going back and forth over a waterhole, hardly enough food, and hungry predators everywhere.
One morning the Monolith arrives, and touching it, the ape men are changed: During an incredibly moving sequence, we later see a proto-human start to think. He observes cause and effect as he “plays” with some bones, and comes to understand how they can be used as tools.
And thus the proto-humans are saved: they learn to eat animal flesh (previously they were vegetarians having to share precious food with other herbivores) and to defend themselves.
I don’t think it’s a question of morality, or a “loss of innocence”: killing is being done to survive, not out of greed or cruelty, and to Kubrick, “staying in Eden” means likely extinction.
Taking over the waterhole is also the first war, and therefore also the first political action: one set of apes has installed order. This is the first government.
(BTW, some anthropologists believe that it was the enzymes absorbed through the eating of meat that helped primitive man’s brain develop further complexity, so score one for Stanley.)
After winning the fight over the waterhole, the alpha-ape tosses the bone in the air (the first “spiking the ball”—and I hope the ghost of SK, a fan of US football, appreciates that analogy), and we jump cut from one tool to another: a spaceship in orbit.
(I know that script-notes and novelizations claim that these ships are orbiting nuclear bombs, but in the film itself, we are never given any indication that these orbiting satellites are anything other than “normal” space equipment, like telecomm. But weapons or weather satellites, they are still tools.)
In this “future” (aside from the film’s title, we are never given an exact timeframe, and these days I tend to think of it taking place in maybe 2101…), US scientists have discovered a monolith buried on the far side of the moon.
Tests show its multi-million year age, and they initiate a shut-down, sealing the American moonbase and cutting off communications.
The powers that be, represented by scientist/government stooge Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester, previously seen in 1961’s Gorgo; which also featured extensive travelling-matte-work by 2001’s optical effects supervisor Tom Howard), feel that evidence of extraterrestrial life of such an ancient nature, and its possible influence on human history, would cause societal disruption and upheaval, and have instituted the news blackout until they can figure a way to spin it. (Another sign of evolutionary stagnation; these humans don’t want to change.)
During the inspection of the Monolith (which may be the same one that the apemen encountered), the sun’s rays touch it for the first time in eons.
It sends out a piercing radio signal in the direction of Jupiter—and the astronauts follow it…
Whatever timetable the Celestials are working from, it seems man has caught up to at least part of it. The radio signal lets them know that the hairless apes have reached the technological ability to travel in space. I guess the Ancient Cosmic-Nauts don’t want stupid humans mucking about the universe unsupervised…
A sort of positivistic neo-Lovecraftian view, where the Old Ones are benevolent and caring this time, if still distant and unknowable.
I was a special effects nut (with a library full of film books concentrating on visual effects, like John Brosnan’s Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema (1974) or Ron Fry & Pamela Fourzon’s The Saga of Special Effects (1977)—both of which had chapters on 2001; Brosnan’s being particularly good), as well as an astro-freak.
Like about a million little American boys born in the 1960s, I was absolutely fascinated by the Space Race, and even had pix of Ed White’s space walk on my wall (above, left).
Kubrick also hooks the kids in the audience (who hadn’t already been won over by the apemen—isn’t that the coolest: apemen and spaceships! Aiiieee, my preadolescent brain is exploding!), with the cameo of his daughter Vivian, as Dr. Floyd’s adorable daughter “Squirt.”
Before that, children in sci-fi movies were either the undue center of attention—“See Johnny, this is a hyperdrive engine…”—
or else were snotty troublemaking brats who I wanted to see die (like the stupid pajama-clad kid in 1958’s The Blob); or else nonexistent, which made sense when a flick was set on a military base or vessel.
(Or else, even worse, many sci-fi flicks had adults acting stupid and childish for “comedic relief” which only served to further annoy: a perfect example is the cook from Forbidden Planet (1956).)
But 2001: A Space Odyssey was, although heavily-populated with the military/scientific community, an evocation of an entire world, including families (which is also why so many “happy birthdays” and other indicators of a closer community occur in the film—see? We’re not doomed yet).
“Squirt” was a child that was part of that scheme or “world vision,” but not a focal point—her appearance aided in the realism, but also disregarded sci-fi movie conventions. A guy calls home and talks to his daughter: a moment not uncommon in dramas, war flicks, noirs or any other film set in contemporary times, but new to science fiction (at the time). An interplanetary phone call was made mundane.
Other films made nonsense like that a centerpiece; Kubrick’s genius was to make it seem commonplace—which is why those corporate logos are everywhere, as well (another first in sci-fi films).
Other genre tropes crushed included dialog. The pretentious exposition-heavy info-dumps that pulp wordsmiths were so enamored with were completely chucked out the airlock for non-speeches that were deliciously realistic in their absolute banality. It was as if Kubrick eavesdropped on actual pilots or military personnel, then extrapolated their speech and lingo about 33 years into the future.
Which also reinforced the cultural stagnation infecting humanity, showing we’d reached an evolutionary plateau equivalent to the one the apes faced four million years ago.
But I believe that our plateau is a spiritual/philosophical one: We may glide amongst the stars like angels, but mankind is still two packs of apes quarrelling over the waterhole—why do you think bureaucrat Floyd’s encounter with Leonard Rossiter’s Russian scientist at the space wheel takes place over drinks?
And if you notice, modern man is only ever seen in artificial environments: We have left the Earth behind (and nature, as well? Our natural selves? Or our potentially evolving selves?).
A bland, middle-of-the-road sort, in a more “Hollywood” version of 2001 Heywood Floyd would’ve been played by Fred MacMurray, master of the nice-guy face hiding a sleazebag soul—but that would be too obvious for chess-wiz Stanley.
But dig the way, in the “debriefing” scene, when a scientist asks about the cover story, conspiracy-chief Floyd gives him double-talk, then bluntly states that everybody’s going to be signing extra security confidentiality agreements, and then Floyd asks again, all oily and nice, “Are there any questions?” and no one raises a hand.
(BTW, it was at the Lincoln Center screening that I noticed the military men discretely sitting in on the debriefing! If I’d ever noticed them before, I’d completely forgotten they were there.)
Curious about the signal, the US launches the Discovery, but only one crew member awake knows the ET-seeking nature of the mission, and not being able to talk about it with his other crewmates is driving him crazy. (Mysteriously, several of the crew were put on-board while already in suspended animation—an effort towards information control that backfires horribly.)
It’s a spin on the colonel’s religious “space madness” in George Pal/Byron Haskin’s awful Conquest of Space (1955), but made magnificent through the Kubrickian lens: this stressed-out crew member is the ship’s supercomputer, HAL 9000, and he controls everything on the Discovery.
In a tribute to 21st Century artificial intelligence-programming, HAL has more soul than his shipmates, and the cosmic nature of the mission has shaken him to the core. He begins making mistakes. The astronauts worry about HAL, and for their own safety discuss shutting down his “higher functions.”
This helps create a negative feedback loop, as HAL doesn’t want to be lobotomized, and works to protect himself and continue the mission—which means killing the astronauts: a swell twist on crazed family dynamics in a sterile, emotionless spaceship.
Only astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, of Otto Preminger’s underrated 1965 psycho-thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing) manages to survive: through luck and almost reckless courage, he “outwits” the electronic superbrain.
The Space Geek in me knows Bowman’s explosive-bolts entry into the airlock is impossible—wouldn’t his head go all Outland on us? Isn’t it about one-million-degrees below zero in deep space? Doesn’t matter, it almost makes sense (if I want to be nitpicky, I could suggest trimming a few frames), and most of all, it’s exciting and innovative, and very risky for the character.
(Followed by the fantastic tension breaker of HAL’s pleading/threatening dialog that is hilarious in context, aided by the hand-held camerawork representing Bowman’s desperation: “Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”)
As Dave shuts down HAL, a prerecorded message from Floyd unspools, revealing the mission’s true purpose.
The Discovery reaches Jupiter, the planets are in alignment (evoking a very supernatural “The stars were right…” feeling), and Dave heads out in a pod to make contact with the third Monolith, and this one seems much larger than the two previous.
The “aliens” might not be from another planet; maybe from another dimension or plane of existence—it’s not explained thankfully.
The Monolith is a tool: the first one is a teacher (about tools); the second is a transmitter (and punisher; it must’ve busted Floyd’s lying eardrums with that screeching hypersonic blast); and the third is a, for lack of better words, a changer. Bowman goes towards it and something happens to him.
The third Monolith could be a doorway, or else is it the actual “homeworld” where the aliens (or “ultraterrestrials”? “Hyperterrestrials”? Angels?) reside.
And if you are going to show God on-screen, a big black slab is certainly a distinct way to go.
Others have mentioned this, and I agree: The Stargate sequence doesn’t feel like travelling per se; it’s more like an information overload even on a genetic level, with a subsequent forced, traumatic transformation: How do you show someone evolving emotionally, spiritually and physically far beyond our limited notions in nanoseconds?
Perhaps more incurious audiences would’ve appreciated the film more if a glowing Gerry Anderson-style puppet alien popped up and expositioned,
“Hi Astronaut Dave, your making it here ties in quite nicely with our zillion-year plan regarding the human race’s place in the cosmos. See, you guys are important after all!
To accelerate your evolution and take you beyond an earthbound, materialist state, we are essentially going to put you through hell and show you, well, everything in the entire universe.
And this will freak you out.
And actually change you physically, as well. It’s really quite interesting, and when it’s all over, you will actually understand everything that’s happened.
But first, like I/We/Us said, you’re gonna freak. Like, dude, this isn’t going to be fun for you. At all. Honestly, you’ll be thinking that Frank Poole was the lucky one.
So please relax; we’ve created from your subconscious a very nice room to recuperate after your ‘trip,’ just before the ultimate change—Thanks, annnnnnnd here we go!”
The New Dave returns to Earth, and we see the “Star Child” gazing unblinkingly at the planet.
We have no idea what his agenda is, or if that his being in a semi-embryonic state now means “birth” into some creature larger, more developed (more powerful?) later.
There he is, just staring at the Earth, when—smash-cut to black.
So, what will you do when He returns?
Like an idiot savant, the film is far too earnest to be pretentious, and a presenting something like the Star-Child in such a completely irony-free manner is the proof.
This is Kubrick’s version of The Rapture, or Nirvana—the close encounter of the sixth kind: transmutation beyond beyond.
The Next Big Evolutionary Leap.
Are you ready to take it?
My only gripe with the film is at the very end:
Big Stan K. should have really ramped down his egotism regarding the final credits, and shared the recognition with his “supervisors.”
By hogging the “designed and directed” credit regarding the special visual effects, SK swiped the recognition—and career-boosting walk on the Oscar carpet—deserved by Wally Veevers, Con Pederson, Tom Howard and Douglas Trumbull (which is why I included them in the credits tag at the start of this essay).
Innovative in ways beyond psychedelic, 2001’s technical efforts are for most people, unfortunately, the only good points to the film.
Rather than sniff at the hoi-polloi’s poor taste regarding matters cosmological, I will congratulate them for their good eye for engineering.
The effects crew was a mix of old-school masters (Veevers & Howard), new talent (Trumbull) and long-time workhorses finally given a real chance (Pederson), all under the cruel whip-hand of Massa Stanley, the Perfectionist.
But the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and on the Lincoln Center’s screen, these 70mm effects were still glorious. I kept flashing back to seeing these for the first time when I was ten, my brain absorbing all of it, and I was having wonderful memory-stirrings/flashbacks, loving what I was seeing, but also remembering my joy at seeing this for the first time as a child.
Rumor has it that while conducting R&D for the effects of Journey to the Stars (2001’s rather mundane pre-1966 working title), SK screened 1964’s Mary Poppins, probably one of the worst films ever, roughly 14 times. The flick is certainly effects-laden, but that seems excessive.
Because SK’s research habits are known to be, well, excessive, I can’t help but wonder what else the auteur screened, whether for FX or SF?
I’d love to see the list of films he screened for this research, and why he picked them: pitfalls to avoid, and paths to follow.
There are a few NASA-produced films SK cites, as well as the National Film Board of Canada production, the short Universe (1960)—
but there has to have been more.
SK had worked with Wally Veevers before (on Dr. Strangelove), and Tom Howard was the acknowledged dean of optical effects at the time, already an Oscar-winner (for George Pal’s tom thumb (1958)), so the director more than likely screened these gents’ other films, which was mainly war or mystery flicks, but included such British sci-fi as The Day of the Triffids (1962).
Some other possibilities: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet (like 2001, also a MGM production), Val Guest’s underseen The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Ward Kimball’s impeccable and must-see Mars and Beyond (1957) for Disney, which Pederson was a principle animator on; and the Czech Ikarie XB-1 (1963).
Probably all of George Pal’s films were screened, but especially Conquest of Space (1955), if for what to avoid in the storyline—
More than likely SK checked out several of Harryhausen’s films, with a special interest on First Men in the Moon (1964), which used some excellent stop-motion animation to create a modern moon-landing.
But did he screen This Island Earth? Planet of the Vampires? First Spaceship on Venus (a.k.a. The Silent Star)? The Mysterians? Any of those other crazy, effects-laden Czech fantasy films?
I really hope he caught flicks like The Angry Red Planet, Kronos, Crack in the World, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Queen of Blood, television shows like Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, and especially (for obvious snarky reasons) the Jack Arnold-produced The Monolith Monsters (1957; with excellent miniature effects by Clifford Stine), as well as the Arnold-directed The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957; written by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson), not only for the flick’s fine travelling-matte optical work but for its severe existential attitude towards man’s place in the universe.
But I’d be especially curious if Big Stan was aware of
Nigel Kneale’s 1958 BBC mini-series, Quatermass and the Pit—which had previously introduced the idea of early humans being genetically manipulated towards our present state of Homo Sapiens via determined alien intervention.
In Kneale’s story, it is ancient Martians, represented as child-sized grasshoppers with devil horns, that are doing the biological tinkering.
[Brian De Palma’s unfairly maligned semi-2001 tribute Mission to Mars (2000) also uses this thesis as well, replacing bugs with thin, golden and ethereal highly-benevolent Martians, though.]
Interestingly enough, Quatermass and the Pit was turned into a motion picture released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Hammer Films.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, with Kneale adroitly adapting (and shortening) his original teleplay, the film was retitled Five Million Years to Earth for its US distribution (a title I prefer because of its more mysterious and paradoxical qualities).
Both the mini-series and the film are worth hunting down as thought-provoking, valuable science fiction that ties in science, with mythology, ESP, superstitions and holographic Martian projections. Great stuff!
Jeez, 1968 was a great year for sci-fi/fantasy movies: in addition to those two, there was Barbarella, The Planet of the Apes, Destroy All Monsters, Yellow Submarine, Danger: Diabolik!, Rosemary’s Baby, and I’m sure there’s even more…
I’m so glad to have been lucky enough to have been heavily influenced by movies like these! (Most of ’em were on TV a lot when I was growing up…)
I will say that the god concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of god.
I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of god.
[Extraterrestrials] may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit.
Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.
These beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant.
They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men's minds, it is only the hand of god we could grasp as an explanation.
Mere speculation on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without trying to decipher their motives.
The important point is that all the standard attributes assigned to god in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who, billions of years ago, were at a stage of development similar to man's own and evolved into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first emerged.
(sections from pp. 330-332 of Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick's "2001" (1970), which reprints SK’s 1968 Playboy interview in full)
“They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods”—whew! Don’t know if Stanley ever read any Lovecraft, but that sure sounds like some of it.
I’ve noticed I’ve used the term “Lovecraftian” several times in this essay, and I have to postulate that one reason I like both 2001 and HPL’s Cthulhu stories is how much I relate to their cold, cold universes, empty except where there are terrifying secrets.
But unlike HPL, SK’s heroes take an active part in their own rescue/victory; as grim a view of humanity that he may have, Stan still believes in the individual.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a special treat:
Jack Kirby was a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the mid-1970s (right around when I was discovering the film itself), found himself working on a comic book adaption that later became a series (and what the heck did Stanley think of that?).
I still have all the comics and really should dig them out and waste a day or two with them.
Meanwhile, a wonderfully unique appreciation of Kirby’s 2001 comics can be found HERE—enjoy!
And above all, have a
Happy New Year!!!
(If you haven’t yet, may you soon find your own personal 2001!)