Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1968)

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey

“2001: A Space Odyssey” occupies a rare place in pop culture history. It's frequently regarded as one of the best films ever made, easily topping most lists devoted to the greatest science-fiction films. The film has been referenced and parodied more times than anyone could count. As a young movie fan interested in science fiction, I had read a lot about the film before ever seeing it. This was the film that made me understand who Stanley Kubrick was. When I finally sat down to watch perhaps the greatest sci-fi epic ever, my initial reaction was boredom, frustration, and bafflement. I didn't get it, simply put. Over the years, I've revisited the film a few times, my estimation of it rising every time.

In the early centuries of the human race, ape-like proto-humans cower in caves. Until a mysterious monolith appears to them, allowing the apes to leap forward on the evolutionary ladder. Millions of years later, man has reached the stars. A similar monolith has been uncovered on the moon, producing a screeching sound in the astronaut's ears. A few months later, the Discovery One leaves on a mission to the moons of Jupiter. The computer aboard the ship, HAL 9000, has been given conflicting orders. As a result, he turns on the human crew, murdering them one by one. Dr. Bowman, the only survivor, must make it to Jupiter alone. There, he uncovers the mysterious creators of the featureless monoliths.

Following the release of “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick became interested in making a science fiction film. He sought to make a sci-fi movie that would be taken seriously by critics, that would elevate the genre, rising above its pulpy roots. This would be a movie whose goals were no less ambitious than tracking the evolution of the entire human race. Kubrick would team with Arthur C. Clarke, creating a plausible future. The ray guns, robots, faster-than-lights, and outrageous aliens of other sci-fi films were not found here. Instead, we see a space without sound or gravity and realistic cosmic travel. The real year 2001 didn't quite live up to this film's vision. We didn't have artificial intelligence, commercial space travel, or discovered unknowable alien monoliths. However, compared to the usual excesses of the genre, “2001” was an incredibly realistic, grounded sci-fi story whose ideas are just as huge as its special effects.

And it's really, really slow. The pacing problems evident in “Lolita” have grown into a real problem with Kubrick. With “2001,” the director sought to create a primarily visual experience. There's minimal dialogue and many long scenes. Yet this approach also makes the movie seem incredibly distant. The audience often seems as far away from the events of the film as the monoliths are from humanity. At times, the movie feels less like a flowing narrative and more like an extended experiment. The result is a movie that feels much longer than its already extensive 142 minute run time. “2001” is undeniably a great film and it is also, undeniably, ponderously paced.

Perhaps “2001” is most impressive as a technical achievement. The film's special effects were unlike anything people had seen in 1968. Nearly fifty years later, they still hold up extremely well. Douglas Trumbull and the rest of the film's team would essentially birth the modern age of special effects. The model work is incredibly detailed and realistic looking. Down to the tiniest aspect, everything serves a purpose. Moreover, the way the models are shot are incredibly impressive. The camera moves around them like an elegant ballet, brilliantly suggesting movement and their place in space. Using elaborate camera tricks, people and objects moving around a zero gravity environment look completely real. There's a reason those conspiracy theories about Kubrick faking the moon landing refuse to go away. “2001” looks real.

The director also continues to experiment with narrative structure. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001” is essentially split up into three parts: The opening sequence devoted to proto-man's first encounter with the monolith, the segment detailing the discovery of a monolith on the moon, and finally the doomed Jupiter mission. However, this presents challenges of its own. While “Dr. Strangelove” evenly separated its run time among three different locations, “2001” presents three more-or-less unrelated stories. The decision contributes to the detached feeling. The unknowable alien monoliths are the only through-line in a story that crosses the boundaries of time and space. This choice also doesn't help the slow pacing. The main point of the story, the Jupiter mission, doesn't begin until nearly an hour in.

If Kubrick perfected his style with “Dr. Strangelove,” he applies that same perfection to an even wider canvas in “2001.” The director is unwavering in his documentary style approach. There are many long shots, displaying characters walking from one location to another. The humans often appear as bit players in a large landscape, as if recorded by a far-off cameraman. Even the Dawn of Man scenes feel captured from actual events, contributing to the film's overall realistic tone. Kubrick's camerawork is often incredibly still, moving slowly and steadily. This, combined with the minimal use of dialogue, creates a somewhat eerie feeling. Yet the film is also characterized by movement. A sudden edit of a tapir crashing to the ground or the balletic way the spaceship scenes are shot show that every move Kubrick made was precise and planned.

The movie's scientific approach is most apparent in its human characters. Which is to say, they barely exist. The human cast members are seemingly interchangeable. We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd in the moon sequence. We spend some time with him, seeing him communicating with his earthbound daughter. Yet these scenes exist less to develop Dr. Floyd and more to show off the movie's futuristic setting. Floyd exits the film soon enough, replaced by David Bowman. The actors, William Sylvester and Keir Dullea, even look a little alike. We learn almost nothing about either man's interests, life, or goals. They are simply pawns, designed to move the story along. It's not even that bad performers are involved. Dullea gives Bowman some personable touches and Gary Lockwood's Dr. Poole is also vaguely humanistic. Kubrick is interested in the grand themes and the technical minutia, not the people. This is yet another reason why “2001” can be a slow watch.

This was obviously intentional on the director's behalf. Emphasizing the thinness of the human cast is the status of the film's one truly captivating character. You know who I'm talking about. HAL 9000 would become the prototype for dozens of mad supercomputers. His calm, nearly monotone voice would be widely imitated, as would his logical disregard for human life. Despite this, HAL is a compelling character. He shows a subtle humor. He expresses confusion to the events around him, a surprising humanity creeping into that cold voice. The exact reason why he turns on the Discovery One crew is kept vague, in keeping with Kubrick's mysterious tone. Yet his descent into madness seems all too understandable. Most chilling, HAL's death is oddly touching. He expresses fear at the thought of dying and slips into a child-like state, almost like a form of senility, before the end. HAL may be a computer but he's ultimately the closest thing “2001” has to a human heart.

Which may, indeed, be the point. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is directly concerned with the definition of humanity. In its opening minutes, the ape-like proto-humans do not resemble men. After interacting with the monolith, discovering that a bone that be used as a club, their body language becomes more expressive, more human-like. The brilliant way Kubrick connects the ape-men to modern man, via that widely reference transition, shows how far humanity has come. Yet the chilly people of the future seem to lack the animal instinct of their ancestors. Enter HAL, a computer that acts more human than the humans that built him. And all this behavior is contrasted with the barely understood aliens, beings so far above humanity that they can't even be comprehended. Does HAL's fear of death make him human? Does the role of violence in the film – the apes bludgeoning each other with bones, HAL turning on the astronauts, Bowman murdering HAL by pulling his mind apart – connect the characters in a common humanity? The final scene shows Bowman seemingly transcending humanity, further addressing the film's central question. By tracking the evolution of humanity, from the soil to the stars, Kubrick finds himself wondering what humanity even means.

The only element of “2001” that has been referenced more than “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” is its soundtrack. After this movie, Richard Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” would always be associated with sudden revelations of greatness or massively important change. The use of classical music furthers “2001's” feeling of an elaborate documentary. Yet the contrast between the beauty of the music and the cold, mechanical world adds some warmth to these images. When played against the Blue Danube Waltz, the shuttles and stations moving through space become a ballet. The elegance of the music is certainly a release from the throbbing, inhuman soundscape. The brain-piercing hum of the monolith or the utter silence of space characterizes many scenes, further emphasizing the film's eerie atmosphere.

As I said, my very first viewing of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was characterized by boredom and bafflement. The boredom came from the movie's first 132 minutes. The bafflement came from its last ten. Simply put: What the hell is up with that ending? The narrative intent is widely known now. Dr. Bowman passes through a star gate and is abducted and observed by the same aliens that built the monolith. Knowing this now, the scene reads a little differently. The flashing lights, extreme iris close-ups, and swirling colors are an admittedly fascinating depiction of transcending dimensions. The film's final images – Bowman appearing in an opulent bedroom – stand out against the sterile, scientific setting of the rest of the film. In its extended last act, Kubrick overturns the standards of time and space, pushing its themes past human understanding. Which is equal parts brilliant and, yes, baffling.

Ultimately, it's impossible to deny the power of “2001.” The film's ambitions are so far reaching, that the viewer must truly admire what the movie is trying to do. The special effects were groundbreaking and are still impressive. Kubrick and Clarke set out to make the greatest science fiction film ever made and, by many accounts, they succeeded. It's a difficult watch, long and dry, with a story that is equally tedious and incomprehensible. Yet the images and use of music have endured over the decades, still influencing new films and filmmakers to this day. It's never going to be my favorite Kubrick film but it is undeniably brilliant. [Grade: A-]

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