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Revisiting "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) - Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick's sprawling 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly ranks as one of the Greatest Science Fiction Movies of All Time. Some viewers will go so far as to say it's THE greatest, period. As it approaches its fiftieth (!) anniversary, 2001 continues to top "best of" lists by film critics, science-fiction fans, and geeks on a regular basis and it is widely recognized as a game changer in the art of film making - not only in the sci-fi and fantasy fields, but across all genres. Nearly every film maker in Hollywood today speaks of the influence that 2001 had on them in hushed tones of awe...
...but I've never quite understood why.
Perhaps I should explain. The first time I saw 2001 was in the early 1980s, when I was about twelve years old - and at such a tender age, I was definitely not the right "demographic" for the film. My experience with the science-fiction genre at the time was limited to action-packed shoot-em-ups like the Star Wars films and TV series like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ...so naturally, I expected "science fiction" to have square-jawed heroes with laser pistols, spaceship battles, big interstellar explosions, gooey alien creatures, and comic-relief robots. Needless to say, I was in for quite a surprise when I first watched 2001. Whatever I may have expected from the film, I can say that I was definitely NOT prepared for the epic length cosmic mind-f*ck that Stanley Kubrick laid down on my pre-adolescent brain!! I will give my 12 year old self credit for having enough of an attention span to actually sit through the entire two and a half hour movie, even though it wasn't making a lick of sense to me (I doubt that either of my two kids could do the same today!) and when it was over, I hadn't understood a bit of what I'd just seen. Being a typical snotty 12 year old, of course, I dismissed the movie with a haughty "Ehhhh... that sucked!" and then I probably watched Battle Beyond the Stars for the dozenth time.
I may not have been bowled over by the film at first glance, but the mystery of 2001 continued to fascinate me over the years. After all, everyone and their dog seemed to think that 2001 represented the absolute pinnacle of science fiction filmmaking - except for me. I wondered what I was missing, and I truly wanted to "get" it. I read the novelization by Arthur C. Clarke while I was in high school, which helped crystallize some of the film's rather arcane concepts, and I also got a big kick out of a garish, wonderfully schlocky 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series (!) written and drawn by the legendary Jack "King" Kirby and published by Marvel in 1976-77.. Kirby was no stranger to large-scale cosmic epics thanks to his years of work on The Fantastic Four, and his 2001 comic book contained all of the things that I'd felt the movie lacked - garish, slam-bang action sequences, big ugly alien monsters, and of course, lots of huge explosions!! I have always wondered if Stanley Kubrick ever saw an issue of the 2001 book, and if so, what he thought of it. I have a feeling that he would've said, "This guy didn't get it at all!" Marvel cancelled the comic series after a mere ten issues, which was probably a good thing as it was far from the King's finest hour, but it had a totally oddball charm all its own.
In the years since I last saw 2001, I've seen most of Stanley Kubrick's other films and enjoyed them (1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1979's The Shining are perennial faves, and I also particularly liked Dr. Strangelove and even the controversial Eyes Wide Shut), so after three decades I recently decided that I was finally "ready" to tackle 2001 again. I borrowed a 2-disc "Special Edition" DVD of the film from my public library and made an evening out of it, sitting down in a darkened living room to watch the film on a chilly winter's evening, ready to have my mind blown. Two and a half hours later, after the final bombastic strains of Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" had faded away....
....I still don't think I totally "got" it.
Huh? What Just Happened?
(** WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS**)
Don't get me wrong. As an adult I can appreciate 2001 on levels that wouldn't have occurred to me as a pre-teen. Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail, of course, is obvious throughout the film. The set designs - particularly in the "Moonbase" scenes and the rotating, centrifuge bridge of the starship Discovery One - are a visual feast, and the special effects have held up amazingly well for a film that is nearly 50 years old. The spaceship sets and models in 2001 can still hang with anything that's being pumped out of Hollywood's dream factories today, which is especially amazing when you keep in mind that all of this stuff was built from scratch, by hand. There was none of that newfangled, fancy-schmancy CGI stuff in 1968, kids! Also, if you've ever been curious to see what an LSD trip looks like without actually having to try some, look no further than the climactic, colorful and somewhat terrifying "Beyond the Infinite" sequence. (Vintage advertising for the film shows that MGM actually played up this counter-cultural connection in some of the movie's posters, using the tag line "THE ULTIMATE TRIP." 2001 apparently become a bit of a "head" movie due to the ad campaign, atttracting curious hippies into the theatres who would "tune in" at the proper moment and groove on the film's visuals. Far out, maaaaaan.)
The story makes a little bit more sense to me now than it did when I was a kid. I'm sure that this never occurred to me when I was 12, but 2001 is set up as a drama in four acts, similar to a play or an opera. (There's even a brief "intermission" in the middle of the film, where the screen goes dark for a minute or two!) In the first "act," we're taken back to the Dawn of Man, where the mysterious alien Monolith - a huge, humming slab of smooth black stone - nudges the collective intelligence of a tribe of shrieking, cave-dwelling ape men. Touching the stone suddenly gives them the smarts to develop tools and weapons which they use to take back their water hole from a rival clan of pre-humans. In the second "act," set in the far-flung future of 2001, a Monolith is discovered buried beneath the surface of the moon, providing humans with their first tangible proof of alien intelligence. In Act III (the longest of the "acts") the massive starship Discovery One's exploratory mission to Jupiter goes horribly awry when the ship's too-human-for-its-own-good artificial-intelligent computer, HAL 9000, begins to malfunction with tragic results. Astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the lone survivor of HAL's rampage, manages to escape destruction and encounters a Monolith in orbit above Jupiter, which sends him on a lengthy "trip" (in both senses of the word) through the "stargate" and beyond the "infinite" in Act IV, eventually transforming him into a "Star-Child" or "New Seed" - a cosmic fetus-like being who stares sagely down at Earth from space as the film ends. Does the Star-Child represent the next stage in human evolution? What's the deal with the Monolith, anyway? Is there more than one of them, or have we been seeing the same Monolith throughout the movie? Is the Monolith some sort of cosmic guardian that drops in on Earth every few million years to give us another kick up the evolutionary ladder? Uh... yeah, I guess so. Kubrick was famously mum about the movie's "meaning" but it's been dissected and discussed in any number of books by film scholars and science fiction geeks over the years. Rather than try to "explain" the movie (which will cause the "comments" section under this Hub to explode with people telling me how wrong I am), I'll simply shrug my shoulders and say "Ehh... I dunno for sure." I enjoyed 2001 more this time than I did 30 years ago, even if I still don't think I totally "get" it. Would I watch it again? Sure... maybe in another 30 years.
To Infinity...and Beyond!
2001 may be considered the be-all and end-all of sci-fi cinema, but its formidable, near-untouchable rep didn't stop Hollywood from trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. 1984's belated sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (unseen by me) apparently tried to tie up the loose ends and answer some of the "big questions" that were left behind by 2001, but whether or not it was successful depends on which reviews you read. Kubrick had nothing to do with the sequel (based on Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 1982 follow-up novel, 2010: Odyssey Two), which was directed by Peter Hyams (Outland). A nervous Hyams reportedly sought out Kubrick's blessing before taking on the project; legend has it that Kubrick's response was, "Sure, go do it. I don't care." Clarke wrote two more novels in the Space Odyssey saga before his death in 2008 - 2061: Odyssey Three (published in 1987) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (published in 1997) but no film adaptations of the last two books have been produced, due to the underwhelming box office response to 2010.
As it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to spark discussion among fascinated (and occasionally, infuriated) science fiction film buffs. Regardless of what you may think of the movie, I think most will agree that it stands alone. There has never been another science fiction film like it, before or since, and for that, the movie - and Kubrick - have my utmost respect...
© 2013 Keith Abt