Happy LeBrain Day! It’s my birthday. Sometimes on my birthday, I like to just spend an afternoon watching a favourite movie. This is one.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, from the 2011 Stanley Kubrick Visionary Filmmaker Blu Ray Collection, Warner Bros.)
Once upon a time, when the year 2001 seemed aeons away, director Stanley Kubruck (Dr. Strangelove) contacted author Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End) to discuss making “the proverbial good science fiction movie”. Both were sick of films that passed for science fiction, but were actually monster movies set in space, or just replaced science with fantasy.
The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film, and a companion book of the same name which is actually a completely different animal. The film — striking, innovative, visually engrossing, ambiguous, and scientifically solid — is as good today as it was in 1968, even if many of the “predictions” of the film have failed to come to pass.
Separated into four chapters (The Dawn Of Man, TMA-1, & Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite) complete with intermission, 2001 has no dialogue for the first quarter of the film. Beginning with a blank screen (and “Atmospheres”, by Ligeti), this is a film paradoxically anchored by both music and silence. The screen changes to the Earth rising over the moon, and the sun rising over the Earth (an important clue and recurring symbol) accompanied by “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. We are then introduced to a tribe of pre-human apes (Australopithecus, perhaps), starving and on the verge of extinction. Other tribes are stronger and out-competing them for territory and resources. There is no dialogue, but the barking of the apes, yet that and the scenery speak volumes. Suddenly one morning, the game has changed: a mysterious black monolith has appeared. The apes are drawn to it, and soon find that they are now able to compete with predators thanks to a new discovery: weapons.
The second chapter, TMA-1, begins with what Clarke has called “the longest jump-cut in history”. We see that humanity has evolved into a space-going race. Orbital weapons platforms orbit Earth as a shuttle is making way to an under-construction space station. “The Blue Danube” plays as the spacecraft dance in calculated perfection. Our first main speaking character, Dr. Heywood Floyd, arrives on the station and we are given some tantalizing clues as to why he’s made this trip: Rumours of a plague outbreak on the moon. Yet this is just a cover story. As Floyd makes his way to the moon in another beautifully choreographed sequence, we learn that a magnetic anomoly was discovered in the crater Tycho (named after astronomer Tycho Brahe) — Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1, or TMA-1. This discovery is potentially so important, that the cover story was created to keep everyone far away from Tycho.
We see that TMA-1 is another black monolith. We see echoes and ripples of past events lead to another jump forward in time. Midway though a mission of discovery to Jupiter, helmed by David Bowman (the perpetually young Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Star Trek’s Gary Lockwood). Their ship, the Discovery contains three sleeping astronauts and the most famous computer of all time, H.A.L. 9000. H.A.L. was flawelessly voiced by Stratford Ontario resident Douglas Rain. His eerie voice and Kubrick’s perfect framing shots help create the creepiest computer character ever seen.
The seemingly dull, sleepy daily routine is soon shattered. H.A.L. has detected a flaw in the ship’s main antenna. It will fail, unless one of the astronauts goes outside and repairs it. The antenna is their only link to distant Earth. H.A.L., who controls the life support and every function of Discovery, then begins to show signs of what humans call stress — he makes an error, and acts strangely. Yet no 9000-series computer has ever failed, or found to be in error. The chapter closes with H.A.L. singing the old song, “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)”, surely one of the most haunting scenes in cinema.
After an intermission, Discovery finally arrives at Jupiter and its true mission is revealed. This section too has no dialogue, bringing us full circle to the way it began. David Bowman once again must venture outside the ship, and find out how the mysterious discovery on the moon relates to Jupiter. Perhaps even how it related to our millenia-dead ancestors.
What follows is one of the most baffling and strange sequences in movie history, one which will require a few patient viewings to appreciate. The beauty of this final sequence is that there is no right or wrong interpretation. While on the surface it may appear to be a psychedelic kaleidoscope of colour followed by a bizarre dialogue-free encounter with a being that seems to have no bearing on reality, it is Kubrick’s inventive way of showing the audience something that is beyond anyone’s imagination. Like the audience, David Bowman and humanity have come full circle.
Lacking in what modern audiences call “action”, lacking typical space sound effects (there is no sound in space!), lacking dialogue for most of the movie, and lacking any sort of warm human characters (except maybe H.A.L. who is not human), this movie was a challenge to watch in 1968 and is still a challenge today. It is, however, a piece of art that transcends its genre and is a landmark in film making. Kubrick, always a visionary and always breaking through boundaries of what could not be done in film, outdid himself and made a science fiction film that still has not been topped over 40 years later. Nobody has made anything this epic, this beautiful, this deep or this scientifically sound since. The special effects — all practical effects and mostly in-camera, as CG did not yet exist — still stand up today. No movie buff will ever forget the rotating Discovery set that allowed one character to be seated while another seemingly walked on the “ceiling”.
Sure,we don’t have a moon base. We haven’t sent anyone to Jupiter. We do have a space station. We have created computers that can beat the best humans at chess and Jeopardy. This is not that far off. If they had named this film 2031: A Space Odyssey, we might be in the right ballpark. In the end, the year does not matter. You never see modern Earth in the movie anyway.
The blu-ray release is loaded with special features and has a beautiful transfer in 2.20:1, as Kubrick shot it and intended it to be. Both Dullea and Lockwood provide an audio commentary. There are documentaries about Kubrick, about the predictions of the film, and about the effects. The only thing missing is the vintage 1966 Arthur C. Clarke lecture from the first issue of the DVD. I still have that DVD copy because I like that old 1966 footage of Clarke. He’s my favourite author.
2001: A Space Odyssey is, without any doubt or any argument in my mind, the greatest science fiction film of all time. With Kubrick and Clarke now both gone, I doubt we will ever see anything like it again. 5/5 stars is meaningless, since this movie was (for its scale and stature) first, and the best, against everything in its genre.
I’ll rate it 200 billion stars, one for each star in our galaxy.