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‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) — Man Losing His Humanity

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) — Man Losing His Humanity“I am a HAL 9000 computer” from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s timeless visionary epic, originally billed (and titled) as a “journey beyond the stars,” is a film that’s solemn and slow moving, stately and portentous to the nth degree, but a bona fide science-fiction classic nonetheless. The elegance, serenity, poetry and majesty and, above all, the mystery of outer space are preserved in all their widescreen, Cinerama-esque splendor.

Released a little over a year before NASA successfully landed two astronauts on the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, while certainly not the first (nor, heaven forbid, the last) FX-laden extravaganza to depict the hazards of space travel, is considered by many followers of the genre as the granddaddy of all those intergalactic sleigh rides we’ve grown accustomed to viewing throughout the years, among them the Star Trek and Star Wars series, Alien and its progeny, Outland, The Right Stuff, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar and our latest candidate for consideration, The Martian.

Now tell me: has any science-fiction feature of the past 40 years or so ever been more fully realized on the screen than Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece? The work that went into the final product is truly breathtaking in its vast scale and vision.

Filmed mostly on the soundstages of M-G-M British Studios, Ltd., in Boreham Wood, England, with an unprecedented array of special photographic elements and visual effects, the film was personally supervised by Kubrick himself, along with his able assistants Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson and Tom Howard — all of them handling such aspects of the production as lighting conditions, camera movement, shutter speed, color, temperature, and so forth, with dedication and meticulous care for detail. Not surprisingly, the film took three years to complete at a cost of almost US$12 million — and it shows.

Earth and the Space Station
Earth and the Space Station

The story: highly evolved super-beings deposit their calling card on Earth (and on the Moon), in the form of a large, rectangular-shaped black object known as the monolith. With the object’s extraordinary ability to implant suggestions into their brains, primitive man-apes are taught to use rudimentary weapons (e.g., the jawbone of a wild pig) in order to gain dominance over their foes, as well as their harsh environment. The evolution of these man-apes into Homo sapiens leads to the next phase of their development, with man literally branching out into new worlds — both physically and metaphysically — far beyond his own.

But what does it all mean? The ambiguously written screenplay by producer-writer-director Kubrick and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, after his short story “The Sentinel” from 1948, and partially based on themes found in Clarke’s 1952 novel, Childhood’s End, explores cosmic questions of the specie’s origins, its ultimate purpose and, inevitably, its fate. The script, much expanded from the original story, takes up the premise that aliens of a higher order — with an advanced intelligence surpassing our capacity for comprehension — are “out there,” watching, waiting and guiding our planet’s destiny from an unseen corner of the universe.

Perhaps the best way to come to grips with Kubrick’s overall approach to this film is to see it in terms that relate to the context of the times in which it was planned. For example, the two pictures that came immediately before and after 2001: A Space Odyssey — i.e., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) — may provide the necessary clues to understanding what the director had in mind for his central project.

In these films, civilization is depicted in three distinct stages of development (or disintegration, if you prefer): in Dr. Strangelove, mankind is perilously (albeit farcically) on the brink of nuclear annihilation; in 2001, it has left the Cold War mentality behind and appears instead to be poised for a miraculous rebirth; and in A Clockwork Orange, society is back to teetering on the edge in a fundamental collapse of the social order.

Dr. Strangelove, the first work in Kubrick’s film trilogy, has frequently been described as a satire, a tongue-in-cheek black comedy of the darkest order; while the middle entry, 2001: A Space Odyssey is too often treated with earnest solemnity. Make no mistake, Kubrick did have a deadpan sense of humor; and indeed Dr. Strangelove offers viewers some relief from his more sedate musings.

The War Room in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The War Room in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

While it does take itself seriously, 2001 also offers brief glimpses into the lighter side of life’s little inconveniences. Take, for example, Dr. Heywood Floyd’s attempts to decipher the list of instructions needed to operate the space toilet; or the manner in which the super-computer HAL 9000 reverts to a song from his “childhood” when faced with termination.

By contrast, A Clockwork Orange merges the two forms of black comedy and drama into an overridingly pessimistic view of society, one that is both cynical and disorderly — with British society, in this instance, in desperate need of “aversion therapy” (the so-termed “Ludovico technique”) in order to purge selected subjects of their wanton aggression.

In the film, the general misbehavior is caused by the prevalence of street thugs (called droogs) which has given rise to a police state. The droogs have laced their drinks with a powerful stimulant that feeds their predilection for rape and violence. After a particular night of recklessness, droog leader Alex is captured by the police and sent to prison to be “rehabilitated.” It’s at the prison that many of the wickedly humorous episodes occur, among them a coldly calculated search of Alex’s body cavities by the no-nonsense chief guard Barnes.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The “droogs” from A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The madness of human behavior witnessed in both Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and the mania in these two films for all-out mayhem and destruction is contrasted with the anodyne expressions of the two human astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The men appear drained of feelings, the bulk of which have transferred onto the personality of their HAL 9000 computer with its matter-of-fact vocal inflections and paranoid, single-minded resolve for self-preservation.

In a space-age variant of “rehabilitation,” at the movie’s climax man must give up his humanity in order to be reborn as the Star Child. This is represented in the moving sequence whereby Dave Bowman, after rescuing his dead partner Frank Poole from HAL’s treachery, is forced to release his colleague from the pod’s human-like appendages. Slowly and methodically, Dave gives up Frank’s lifeless body to the immensity of space itself, an offering (such as it is) to the heavens. Similarly, HAL must take on man’s humanity so as to maintain some semblance of balance in the universe: from chaos (Greek for “disorder”) to cosmos (or “order”).

The Space Pod's claws release astronaut Frank Poole into space
The Pod releases astronaut Frank Poole into space

Keir Dullea plays astronaut Dave Bowman, and Gary Lockwood is his colleague Frank Poole, two of the dullest space travelers this side of Jupiter. It’s left to the HAL-9000 to supply the missing “human” element. With William Sylvester as Dr. Floyd, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, and the flat speaking voice of Douglas Rain as HAL (no, it was not a takeoff on the acronym for IBM).

Kubrick hired composer Alex North to do the background scoring, but went with a more eclectic, pre-recorded classical soundtrack instead (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, are among the orchestral delights, along with works by Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti) to serve as a commentary on the loneliness and mysticism of space exploration; he also trimmed his epic of about 20 minutes of redundant footage due to excess length.

Despite the director’s penchant for authenticity, the scene of the scientists inspecting the monolith on the Moon drew criticism from, of all people, the original scenarist Clarke, who claimed the men were not bouncing around on the surface as they would normally be in life — so much for realia on the big screen.

It’s on nearly everyone’s top-ten list of the best films ever made, and continues to exude a strong influence on modern movie-makers, to include Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams. Each successive generation finds new meaning in the work, and with reason. No matter how one feels about 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s still the ultimate trip worth taking.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

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