Film A Week: The Series – “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

The old mainstay of the website has returned.

Film A Week ended its original run on December 31st, 2013 with The World’s End having covered a variety of films from the great and bad. It’s been about two years removed from the end that something told me “Wait…there are still movies that you have never watched or went back to rewatch.” Well, I figured it’s about time, but now there are no rules on long how this can go, every month will have a theme and all movies are free game.

For the first month, I figure I embarrass myself by covering “The Greatest Films…I’ve Never Seen.” Yes, my dumbass self have not seen the following for movies this month before and my friends, family and girlfriend have berated me forever because of not seeing them. Having had enough of this crap, I decided to get it started with a bang with the Stanley Kubrick classic science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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First film out of the gate and the most difficult to analyze, 2001: A Space Odyssey has polarized audiences, critics and broke film students for years. It’s a technical marvel of filmmaking, production and storytelling by making everyone who comes across it think about what the film is it about. Is it about evolution? Is it about the natural versus the artificial? Is it boring, plodding piece of pretentious art only rented because the video store was out of Star Wars? Now, before we get existential about the film and the many, many questions, let’s talk about the plot.

The plot is, for the most part, complicated. A black slab called the Monolith apparently left by aliens can help those that come across it gain knowledge as seen with man apes discovering tools. Match cut to a spaceship with Dr. Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester) preparing to comes across the Monolith on the moon of Europa and is hit by the wave of its power. Eighteen months later, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Underwood) are on a mission to Jupiter with a crew in hibernation. An AI named HAL 9000 (voice by Douglas Rain) keeps operations on the ship with promises of never having a problem until it eventually has one. What follows is an odyssey like never before.

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It is a monumental film to sit through to the point it feels like a wonderful chore. At moments, modern audiences can find it draw and boring in its pacing, yet the imagery presented grabs the attention of the viewer. The music, all public domain scores, emphasizes each segment or long standing sequence. To be honest, I had to fight myself from not sleeping because the music and calmness of imagery (in the first half anyway) was making me tired, but I wanted to see what happened next.

Kubrick had an eye for visuals and design. It’s an art exhibit with a plot practically due to the gorgeous shots from the match cut, the opening sequence and the scene of Dave trying to rescue Frank from tumbling in space. There is artistry in every shot which helps tremendously for capturing the eerie and terrifying nature of space. Space has no sound, the characters are isolated and the emptiness of the universe is supposed to comfort them.

Two terrifying scenes of note is the approach mentioned of the Monolith on Europa with a choir from the far reaches of hell sighing and crying as a piercing noise devastates the Europa crew. The second is HAL 9000’s descent into a killing machine. It’s not loud or even bloody. The first death is off screen and the rest of the crews are only shown via vital scans tracking heartbeats and monitoring their awareness. It’s scary for the sake that is done in pure silence and without warning. The “Computer Malfunction” sign beaming from the screen is an image I cannot get out of my head.

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The performances are simple in a complex film, but that is fine. The standout is Rain as the HAL 9000. It’s draw and monotone, but has a chill factor in how calm it is about everything. This even helps Dullea in one particular sequence. When it tells Dave it can read lips from what him and Frank were talking about in the pod, Dullea seems defeated and must find a way to take HAL 9000 out of the way. Rain gives no remorse until the end with Dave talking about the song he learned to sing in order to get sympathy. Luckily, it doesn’t work.

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The ending is the one thing that has caused constant debate. What the hell was that about? Is usually the first thought. For myself, I had the same question and had to think quite a bit. Ad Dave approaches approaches the Monolith. He is traversing through what is dubbed dubbed the stargate, a pastiche of colors and trippy LSD driven imagery. It’s terrifyingly beautiful, but then it gets weird. Dave approaches a room dubbed the Renaissance Room with an idea version of himself which appears to be cracking cracking or the makeup at the time was just miserable. That Dave is then the only Dave we have left as it keeps evolving till Dave’s eventual death leading to a star child being born.

The End. Rolls credits.

Wait, what the hell did just happen?

I cannot give a concrete answer since this ending is open to interpretation. Personally, it involves evolution and the dangers of the progression of technology. I am assuming that, not saying that is exactly the answer.

The Monolith can help bring knowledge to those within the grasp of it. It can bring power as well. Dave is evolving beyond what he is thought to be capable of. The HAL 9000, like the Monolith, is a black rectangular object with power and knowledge. Dave is his own natural being and HAL 9000 is just an artificial sentient being he is forced to come face to face with. He realizes the danger and evolves to find a way to destroy the artificial representation of the Monolith. The Monolith is aware of Dave’s action and evolution that he is tossed through the universe to another plane and is reborn for humanity to thrive in the next step as Dave has already destroyed the artificial next step. I believe that’s it, but maybe I’m just insane.

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A close friend of mine named Miguel Carachure loves this film. I asked him to give his personal thoughts on the film and it’s state as a masterpiece in science fiction.

When I hear the overture of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest film (and that is NOT an opinion, ask AFI) my mind aches with anticipation to hear that procession of horns and drums of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The accompanying image of the moon slowly descending to reveal the earth and the sun gradually rising and rising, subconsciously being affected on an existential level (if that’s even possible). When those stark white opening titles appear, I can’t help but get chills when a ‘Stanley Kubrick Production’ comes up followed by the film title itself; 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But enough of that, my amour for the film is making me fangirl, let’s focus on two oddly specific things, (which in no way were guidelines given to me by my friend) my interpretation and why it is a classic.

The film happily haunts cinema historians with its minimal dialogue, plot and its story structure, which is divided into chapters and unfamiliar to many casual moviegoers, (but quite familiar to Mr. Tarantino). My belief is that Kubrick is attempting to simplify a story billions of years in the making, while also economizing plot by avoiding extraneous exposition and inconsequential character dramas. This is in service of illustrating the evolution of mankind: from the ‘Dawn of Man’ to ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ Kubrick is interested in telling the biggest picture imaginable, the ultimate dramatic conflict one could possibly tell; Humankind fulfilling its rhetorical potential of becoming great.

Kubrick was odd. Deeply insightful yet kind of a lunatic, the pinnacle and cliché of genius wunderkind and with 2001, he does both brilliantly. Often he made movies with tough subject matter and mostly focused on the follies and darkness of man such as Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, respectively. 2001 is Kubrick’s ultimate statement of the potential of life, humankind and any other interpretation you could conjure up because THAT is why it is a classic; its universal appeal of universal possibilities. Like all of Kubrick’s films, it’s relevancy stands simply because it is a film about the human condition developing and changing, it will continue to inform and amaze many generations to come as it was intended to do.

Miguel hit the nail on the head. “2001: A Space Odyssey” gets everything it deserves. It’s a masterwork of not just science fiction, but film in general. At this point, it’s critic proof. It’s timeless and will continue to polarize audiences for years to come. This film is why cinema is an artform.

Next week, we move away from space and head back to Earth in Vienna with Amadeus. Time to take some time to pay a visit to the musical genius himself. Welcome back to Film A Week.

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