Friday, January 14, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

UK/USA, 141 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick
Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

In case you ever need it for a trivia contest, the first line of dialogue in this movie is, "Here you are, sir. Main level, please." And it occurs 25 minutes in. That's the level of pure cinematic experience on which we are operating here, which in its totality is nearly as baffling as the overall effectiveness of this picture itself.

It's not easy to defend to detractors—because it's not hard to find endless examples here of the monumentally silly. From what are obviously actors in ape suits in the opening sequence (bombastically entitled "THE DAWN OF MAN") to the typical inability of science fiction films before 1990 to predict anything like the Internet or cell phones (the always popular video phone does put in an appearance but phone calls, even in outer space, are still made from phone booths, and there doesn't appear to be anything like voicemail) to no apparent changes in fashion since 1968 to the hackneyed-even-then computer gone amok to using a geometric figure as some kind of religious agent of evolution (a black monolith, really?) to the general incoherence of the narrative, this movie should not work. It should fail abjectly and miserably simply from being so painfully ham-handed.

But it does not. Kubrick's brilliant clarity of vision and the alternately lush and harsh soundtrack carry the tide and, once lulled into its ponderous rhythms, it remains as engrossing and penetrating and mysterious as the day it first debuted in ye olde Cinerama theatres of yon, even watching today at home in the living room.

Much of this, of course, reflects Kubrick's skills and talent and a number of shrewd choices. It's not actually a terribly long movie, clocking in at less than two and a half hours, which makes it shorter than, say, Zodiac. But all dressed up in Cinerama frippery, opening with three minutes of a black screen and disquieting music before the first image is even seen (an MGM title card, as it happens), it feels deeply portentous and heavy. There's even an intermission—and the second half then resumes with another three minutes of black screen and the same disquieting music.

The well-known light show, the most self-consciously "trippy" part of a determinedly trippy movie, takes up less than 15 minutes toward the end of the movie—and works, I think, above and beyond the pretty colors and the heady nerve of doing it at all, chiefly by reason of the visceral sensation the sequence provides of forward hurtling motion. It's easy to keep looking at such an abstraction because it's physically pleasant to keep looking.

Dialogue is at a premium throughout, by which I mean there is remarkably little of it. Much of what there is—the mundane back and forth between scientists—is often reminiscent of the kind of thing that occurs between scientists in '50s science fiction movies, wooden and self-consciously jocular. This was likely a deliberate choice by Kubrick to flatten the overall affect of the events unfolding in front of us, but at this point also serves to remind how long this picture has been around. At the time of its release, the classic '50s science fiction movies were little more than a decade in the past.

What really makes this movie, of course, are the hard glittering surfaces of Kubrick's imagery, a brilliant and memorable concoction of model work, special effects, widescreen photography, and densely allusive symbology. Very few movies since have even tried to emulate it, as if it had waged a kind of scorched-earth campaign that most filmmakers heeded. The only movie I know that even reminds me of it a little is Duncan Jones's Moon, from 2009—which in retrospect seems fully marinated in it, though attempting to distract some from that by way of Sam Rockwell's bravura performance.

After its visual impact, the sound design of 2001 is its most important feature, and there it is rightly celebrated for matching outer space images with the lush strains of 19th-century Strauss waltzes, a match I never seem to get tired of. Making his film in the immediate aftermath of the first images seen of Earth from space, Kubrick obviously drew on the excitement those images had engendered, with relish and abandon even. But unspooling them to the majestic feel of those surprising, vaguely cheesy ballroom strains of another time, when space travel was barely even dreamed of, marks the kind of decision I don't mind slotting into the "genius" column. (And as long as I'm handing out over-the-top accolades let me also add that I have no problem with characterizing the cut from the opening sequence to the rest of the film—the weaponized bone flung exuberantly in the air to the spaceship in outer space—as the greatest cut in cinema yet.)

But not all of the sound is so ingratiatingly pleasant and soothing. There are many sequences, particularly once we get to the Jupiter mission proper, marked by harsh screeches and unpleasant warning tones of machines—my cats left the room, let me put it that way. And for a good deal of this film, across at least three separate sequences and occupying perhaps 30 minutes or more of screen time, the only sound that can be heard is breathing inside a space helmet, which works to color the events it accompanies with inexorable feelings of dread and discomfort. It's also the one element here that seems to me to derive most directly from the LSD experience.

One last point I want to address is the general perception that Kubrick, for all his undeniable cinematic acuities, is by and large a humorless filmmaker, even a pompous one, caught up in his own self-serious intentions (I'm trying to avoid the word "pretensions"), and that nowhere in all his oeuvre is that more evident than here. But the scenes with the computer HAL after it has killed four of the five astronauts on the Jupiter mission and made an attempt on the fifth, who has found a way back to the ship and set about "disconnecting" the computer, is very funny on a number of levels: the note of self-righteous indignation HAL strikes first ("Just what do you think you're doing, Dave? Dave, I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question"), then its unctuous pleading ("Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this"). Even the HAL close-up that Kubrick resorts to, a tight shot of an unblinking red light encased in bulbous glass, comes to seem very funny juxtaposed with Douglas Rain's voiceover.

Kubrick's masterpiece, arguably the greatest science fiction movie ever made and certainly one of the most ambitious ever attempted, is altogether far more entertaining than it would seem to have any right to be, all things considered—the lugubrious, painfully slow pacing, the story that never makes very much sense, and the consensus adulation of critics (come on, when has that ever rocketed anything to popularity?). That it only gets better and better over time and multiple viewings is practically a miracle.

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