Monday, October 8, 2007

The Great Movies: "2001: A Space Odyssey"

At the Movies with Michael5000

2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick (1968)

2001 is a notoriously slow movie. The first time I tried to watch it -- in an Alaskan bar, arguably not the ideal venue -- I couldn't make it to the first line of dialogue. Now, older and wiser, and with something to do with my hands, I actually found the deliberate pace and visual focus quite mesmerizing.

Plot: An anthropoid species evolves rapidly under the guidance of big monoliths left behind by extraterrestrial visitors.

This goes down in four stages, each of which is really a short movie unto itself (spoilers galore follow):
I - Apes encounter the first monolith, which apparently awakes their intelligence and turns them into tool-using, homicidal humans.
II - An important man takes a business trip to the moon, where another monolith has been found.
III - On a mission to Jupiter, a ship's computer achieves sentience. It kills several human crew members before the last survivor shuts it down.
IV - The last monolith is found in orbit around Jupiter. A bunch of crazy psychedelic shit happens.

Visuals: This is a very visual film, a real "moving picture." From African landscapes to the exteriors and interiors of spacecraft, every shot is lovingly framed and photographed. You do not, if even slightly informed, come to this movie for the action, so relax and spend some time ogling the pretty pictures. It's worth it.

Sound: One of the best things about 2001 is its sound design. It uses bombastic classical music well enough, and uses an intense choral montage to create tension when the monoliths are approached -- the latter technically good, but a little wearing -- but where it really excels is in using silence. Much of the power of the African scenes, for instance, comes from the very sparse natural sounds, free of sweeping soundtrack music, that accompany them. Better yet, Kubrick has the rare chutzpah to portray spacecraft without engine roar or whooshing. It's jarring, but it should be jarring. Space is a very alien environment for us planet-bound folks, and the absence of sound is both an important part of that differentness and a great way to represent it in a movie.

Dialogue: Strictly expository in part II, very spare in part III, nonexistent in parts I & IV.

Pros and Cons

It is rare in either film or literature for humans in space to act like humans. In part II, the beauty is in the banal details. A character makes a videophone call to his daughter from outside of an orbital Howard Johnson's to wish her a happy birthday. On a lunar flight to the unearthed (unmooned?) monolith, men dig around in a cooler of sandwiches. One wants chicken, the other wants ham. It's much like the killers talking about French hamburgers on the way to the hit in Pulp Fiction; these are the things that humans talk about, regardless of the setting.

Part III is slightly out of place, a digression away from the central "plot" (such as it is) but also the only conventional narrative in the film. It's a tight gem of an adventure story, and achieves a lovely chilly atmosphere by pitting the disturbingly impassive HAL computer against astronauts who are really just as disturbingly impassive.

In a fantasy about contact between intelligences, part III is also a pessimistic little parable. It goes like this: whoever brought the monoliths developed human intelligence. Then, humans developed HAL's intelligence. When HAL becomes sentient, there is immediately a death struggle, and HAL gets snuffed. Then, humans go out to meet the monolith-bringers. What's going to happen next?

It's hard to know what to say about part IV, but I really should say something. It is grand, lovely, and highly surreal. It's also as intellectually airy as can be. It could mean anything, or nothing. Whether you find it moving, or tedious, or heavy, man, will depend on what you bring to it. I think most people are going to find it kind of insufferable.

Prognosis: Recommended for grown-ups, people with time on their hands, and people interested in how the future looked in the past. I suppose in that this would be another good one for the very stoned, too.


fingerstothebone said...

If you're not a icanhascheezburger regular, here's a topical cheezburger lolcat:

Rex Parker said...

I remember liking this movie fine, but hating the end.

This movie is important if only because HAL is the most important precursor of K.I.T.T. in "Knight Rider."


Rebel said...

I rented this one in 2001 - for obvious reasons. Around the time when the guy is in a space suit and drifts away from the space station I fell asleep. I was lulled to sleep by the breathing sounds and it was probably the best nap I ever had. I might just have to buy the movie for nights when I can't sleep.

I think I tried to watch the rest of it, but I can't remember any of it.

blythe said...

this one blew my mind. i probably shouldn't have been watching it over and over again when i was 5. explains a lot, though.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I recommend the book! I love it. I remember reading it when my first nephew was born. The part with the monkeys is great, because we learn that his name is Moonwatcher.

I also recommend Childhood's End, which puts every "aliens invade earth" story to shame.

Now I'm going to try to counteract all that nerdiness by saying that 2001 is great when you're stoned . . .

fingerstothebone said...

...and when are we going to have an analysis of your poll results?

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: nice!

@rex: 2001 has influenced much subsequent film, but I think you've put your finger on its most important contribution.

@rebel: You could just put the movie on a continuous loop in a small child's room, to help them sleep. It's what's Blythe's parents did, and look how she turned out. She's fine! Really!

@Dr. Ken: No, I wouldn't say you've really counteracted the nerdiness there. But that's cool. I couldn't really get into the book, but then I was 10 when I read it and might not have picked up on the subtleties. Should try that again sometime. I agree that knowing the smart ape was named "Moonwatcher" would have been a plus.

@fingers: tomorrow. But they kind of speak for themselves, don't they.

mysterymoor said...

Nice one!

It's very strange. I really was like the man in the ad I posted. At first I was like "oh man, this is fucking shit" and now I want to watch it again. :D