Saturday, May 14, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey

Year: 1968
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 15
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (adaptation) Arthur C. Clarke (source material)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a movie I greatly admire. It is also a movie I don’t like very much and a movie I probably won’t feel the need to revisit for another decade. It’s a film filled with ideas and isn’t afraid to challenge its viewers in content or pace. And yet it’s a film, like most of director Stanley Kubrick’s work, so devoid of human emotion or connection that it left me cold to it every moment I should have been fully engaged.

The film begins in pre-history, with half-human/half-apes uncovering the greatest discovery since the opposable thumb. As he moves through a group of bones, one of the ape men discovers that using the bones as a weapon gives him, and his people, a power none of the surrounding species have. Oh, and a giant black monolith appears out of nowhere. Fast forward a few thousand years to 1999 when another monolith has appeared on the moon and a group of scientists is sent to investigate. Once more we fast forward to the title year and find two scientists (Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood) on a spacecraft headed toward Jupiter. Controlling the spacecraft is a computer called Hal 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) who, despite being a ball of red light, displays more emotions than any of the human characters. Is Hal malfunctioning, or are the scientists jumping to conclusions? Needless to say, the black monolith makes at least one more cameo before the end of the film.

Why are the monoliths there and why do they choose those specific times to appear? They obviously represent a far greater intelligence than ape or man…look at the contrast of the rounded, intricate space vehicles to the sleek, rectangular simplicity of the monoliths. It could be argued that they feed first the ape and then Dullea’s character (named Dave) with intelligence, but I don’t think so. I believe they are there simply to observe huge breakthroughs for humanity. They first watch the apemen realize their inherent power and then see Man triumph over the “perfect mind” of a computer. Note that they leave Dave alone to grow old and “die” (rebirth) in a makeshift five star hotel room with really bad floor lighting. And yet there are still questions, like why it behaves the way it does on the surface of the moon? Had Man become to reliant on computers and the monolith sensed that? Perhaps.

There are no easy answers, of course, simply much to observe before screenwriters Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke allow you to draw your own conclusions. Kubrick structures the movie at a very deliberate pace, never quickening or using unnecessary editing tricks to alter tension. He favors medium and long shots to close-ups throughout the first two-thirds of the film, not allowing himself (or the viewer) to get too close to the world or characters. In fact, the only character who really gets one hell of a lot of face time is Hal, but even there we find ourselves drawing our own conclusions as to what hides behind the simple red light.

The film has four parts, three of which are introduced via title in the film. The second, which depicts the moon mission in 1999, feels very dated and is an utter waste of time and energy. Its conceits, like using as many brand names (Pan Am, Hilton, etc.) as possible to underline a future of brand identity, not personalization, were fresh at the time of the film’s release but have become so commonplace today that they seem hackneyed. More than that, though, the entire section seems like weirdly unnecessary non-movement. There’s much to-do about rumors surrounding the moon mission, though characters never interact with any emotion or voice inflections. Sure, the last thirty seconds of the 25 minute section are fascinating, but were this section snipped entirely from the movie, would the viewer be really missing anything all that great?

Once we move to the Jupiter mission, it becomes apparent that Kubrick is bending over backward to keep us from making human connections to anyone in the movie. Though this would become a recurring theme throughout his work, I have to say that I feel the section (which is the film’s best) would have been much improved if we felt any sort of connection to Dave or Frank. Hell, there’s probably about ten minutes of material here before we get a good enough look at the two characters’ faces to tell them apart. Their personalities are interchangeable, and their voices remain stagnant and dull throughout. Even their “looks” are tedious: Dullea is handsome, but boringly so, and his hair is always perfectly parted. The characters don’t sweat. In what is supposed to be the most tense moment of the film, when Dave argues with Hal to let him back on the ship (“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”) and he realizes he must jump from his pod through space to get into the ship, his face never registers worry or tension.

There are still great moments here. Seeing Hal read Dave and Frank’s lips as they plot to disconnect it is quietly unsettling, as is listening to Hal go through its death throes as Dave silently “murders” it. And yet…I don’t care.

From a visual standpoint, the film is unmatched. I’d go so far as saying that it’s the best-looking science fiction movie ever made. Despite all the huge advancements in technology since 1968, I doubt the best team at ILM could make more elegant, poetic special effects than what we see here. The surreal sequence where Dave is pulled through the cosmos is still a stunner, and Kubrick was right to give all the tremendous images room to breathe and make an impact on the viewers.

Perhaps it’s that I’m a screenwriter. Perhaps it’s just the way I’m wired. Whatever the case, I just can’t manage to engage in a film, no matter how close to perfection it otherwise is, unless it presents me with characters that I care about. If Hal’s fatal flaw was that it allowed emotions to overcome its logical components, this movie’s flaw is that it is too far removed from its own emotions.

My Score (out of 5):

No comments: