2001: A Space Odyssey - Reliving the Glory Years of the USA
When We Still Had Stars in Our Eyes
Stanley Kubrick's "2001 A Space Odyssey" still remains the most enigmatic and mind-bending film ever made. Nothing even has come close. Kubrick is to cinema what Beethoven and Gustav Mahler are to classical music.
What you are given by these gentlemen is not exactly programmatic. Their works do not fit neatly inside a small box around which a ribbon can be tied. Mahler was sometimes called a transcendentalist, which he rejected. If some reporter had been smart enough to ask the question, they could have asked, "Herr Mahler, do your compositions reflect the infinite cosmos and perhaps the unseen world of the spirit?" I think Mahler would have responded in the affirmative.
Starting from the kernel of Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel," Kubrick was inspired with the same awe and bewilderment that Clarke must have felt at conceiving the story. The story (however brief) was there in print, and Kubrick "merely" had to make us believe that the trip from beginning to conclusion was as realistic as possible.
The collaboration of these two futurists concocted so much realism surrounding the story that it felt (at moments) like a documentary handed down to us from the future.
Although it was as plain as day, not everyone grasped that our early ancestor (named Moon Watcher) in the short story was given something by the monolith he touched earlier -- for him a hazy/fuzzy kind of new thinking -- one that involved using animal bones to bring down tapirs, which his clan could eat and stop scratching the ground for bugs.
The knowledge sends Moon Watcher into a frenzy -- the thought (in essence) was too large for his brain to contain, but it did contain it. Moon Watcher and his clan would not only bring down tapirs for food, but animal bones were also affective fighting tools against would-be trespassing clans.
From here we can surmise from the archaeological record that tool making gave early man a tremendous survival advantage. And, it seems, once he was capable and smart enough to begin making sophisticated tools and weapons, there was no stopping the species.
From these humble beginning we then jump into (what was then) the future. By 2001 we could have (and should have) built giant, permanent space stations and commercial vehicles for flying us there and even to the moon, which had been colonized. (If only our tax dollars has been spent differently.)
The greatest moment of my life was watching Neil Armstrong setting his foot on the moon. I got as teary eyed as Walter Cronkite). Whether the race to the moon (with the Soviets) was for political prestige or not, we got there. We got there!
This landing of "The Eagle" on Tranquility Base by two American astronauts proved (in my young mind at least) that we can be more than ourselves. We can overcome tremendous obstacles and succeed. Science and technology could lead us anywhere.
If the same zeal had continued to this day, we would not only have a colony on the moon but on Mars as well. We would be exploring Europa with a sub-like lander and nosing about for life within our solar system.
But, no, our government felt it wiser to put our dollars into one war after another until we are in the state we are in now -- and I can tell you with all honesty that the spirit in the country is nothing, nothing like it was with the moon landing. The United States was at its apex, the world was at its apex, yet still, our leaders preferred a path of blood into the future.
After Moon Walker, the next human we see is Haywood Flood, the head of space aeronautics, on a secret mission to gather intelligence about this monolith thing that had been unburied on the moon. He touches the black, flat rectangular and an ear-piercing sound is unleashed. All that man is capable of doing is monitoring the direction in which the signal is concentrated -- somewhere near Jupiter.
In complete secrecy the US builds a gigantic space ship known as The Discovery I and sends it with three men in a cryogenic state and two in a wakeful condition -- out toward the long voyage to Jupiter. The mission would have been difficult enough but The Discovery I's onboard computer, named HAL, which has operational and diagnostic capabilities over the entire ship, works splendidly until Dave and his crew mate Frank Poole talk about an error he has made in a critical piece of hardware, the AE-35 unit, which controls all communication between The Discovery and Earth.
The error demonstrates to the astronauts that HAL, part of the 9000 series of artificial intelligent computers, is not working properly and they see no alternative but to disconnect him. Unfortunately, although Dave and Frank have taken precautions measures against HAL being able to hear their conversation about turning him off, neither of them can suspect HAL is capable of reading lips, and he therefore knows his time is up.
HAL turns on the astronauts because he feels that the mission is in danger (which is his primary prerogative even outweighing the lives of everyone onboard.) Dave is the only member to survive HAL's murder spree, and Dave is successful in unplugging HAL's higher brain functions.
Finally arriving at the destination where the monolith had concentrated its radio signal, Dave discovers another monolith -- of the identical dimensions as the one found on the moon, but much, much larger. When Dave goes out in a pod to explore the monolith, he is sucked inside and led past unfathomable space phenomenon as well as a gigantic ancient and abandoned city of unknown origin (extremely difficult to discern from Kubrick's colorful graphics).
Once his pod is placed in a stationary position, Dave steps toward it only to find a mostly white room with classical decor. It is difficult to understand what shape Dave is in as he has aged tremendously -- probably not only his body but his mind as well.
He witnesses himself at various stages of advanced aging until he is reduced to a very old man laying in bed. To his bewilderment he sees a monolith at the foot of his bed. Dave points toward it and is utterly transformed. He becomes what the book "2001: A Space Odyssey" written by Clarke after the movie, as a star child.
Dave now resembles an iridescent fetus encased inside some unimaginable ellipsoid. We can only tell it is Dave became the being has his same eyes. Kubrick leaves us at this point, wondering what the star child will do next.
Clarke informs us that as its first wish, the star child wishes to detonate all the nuclear weapons circling the planet Earth -- over which it hovers. I can only imagine this as a good-will gesture since atomic bombs exploding in space might play havoc with our electronic systems but it shouldn't directly harm a single being or cause any long term after-effects. Because it is unclear from the motion picture what the star child will or will not do, the fact that the star child is Dave, but not Dave, the fact that the Earth looks like a marble to be played with, the fact that we cannot imagine the quantum leap forward Dave has made or all that he has experienced, leaves me with a sense of the ethereal.
Kubrick is pushing our imagination to its very limit. No other movie has taken us so far in a mental and emotional exercise. This was one of the very, very few movies filmed in 70mm film, which means unless you were on of the few lucky ones who were able to see the movie projected upon a 70mm screen, you missed out on an amazing amount of detail.
I had read Clarke's "The Sentinel" before standing in line to see the film. And from the first notes of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and the alignment of the Earth the moon and the sun, I was already being transported from my seat and from my mind.
The scene after HAL discovers that Dave and Frank plan to disconnect him is followed by an intermission (one that reminds me of Mahler's gigantic third symphony). The people in my family looked toward me for explanations. I attempted to give them honest answers, and I'm sure I only succeeded in befuddling them more. Attempting to answer questions that dealt with matters on a cosmic scale is not easy. I imagine only making their lack of understanding even greater.
Sometimes when I'm driving my car, the classical station I'm tuned into will play "The Blue Danube," and suddenly my dull driving experience feels as if I'm manning a space shuttle. My car is in perfect operational form. The activities outside my window seem as if they are occurring in slow motion, and pose no imminent threat to me.
When historians look back at the prior hundred years on Earth, they will look at our achievements more than our losses (though there have been many). They will look at movies such as 2001 as being prophetic of the moon landing and maybe, just maybe a landing on Mars. We are only now discovering other Earth-like planets -- Planets that contain more water than our own. The potential for boldly going out of our solar system is nearing our capability. We may not be ready psychologically for what is out there, but I place my money on our collective curiosity and adventurous spirit outweighing whatever fears, fatalities, and misfortune that may create obstacles to our unquenchable thirst for knowledge. In 1991, 2001 a Space Odyssey was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.