A space prodigy

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By Noel Vera

Movie Review
2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

THE FIRST TIME I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey it was in a basement, in a projected 35 mm print. I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, had heard about the film, and was eager to watch.

Bored me out of my skull.

Seeing it again and again over the decades is like coming to know an old friend. You weren’t impressed at first, you learn to appreciate his best qualities, your growing admiration has been a part of your youth, adolescence, adulthood.

Now that you’ve seen him in full splendor — projected from a 70 mm print in all its unrestored glory, with flickers and scratches and cigarette burns and all — you realize you hardly knew him, or still have much to learn.

(WARNING! Plot — what little there is that’s comprehensible — closely and explicitly discussed)

To the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) the moon slides away from the Earth; over the Earth — like an eye opening, like electrodes in an arc lamp making contact, like an atomic candle ignited — the sun dawns. The sequence introduces film and director and, of course, theme: that powerful forces shape the confluence of planets and the destiny of their inhabitants.

We’re pulled down to Earth, literally. The wide screen drinks in unending Namibian landscape, suggesting a bleak expanse against which the camera locates (or rather stumbles upon) a family of hominids, scratching out food in the sparse grassland. Leopards hunt them, rival tribes drive them away; the hominids are weak and visibly dying and it’s only when a member of the group (Moon Watcher in the script, unnamed on film) picks up a thighbone and swings it — against prey, against fellow hominid — do their prospects improve. Moon Watcher roars in triumph flings his thighbone in the air —

And the film takes flight.

Moon Watcher’s bone in a single cut becomes one orbital spacecraft after another, sprouting dishes, bristling with antennae, groaning heavy with bomblike clusters ready to drop at moment’s notice (brief thrill recognizing an anachronistic Soviet star on one metal plate). Rising into the frame: the slim dart shape of the Orion lll, a Pan Am spaceplane, its sharp nose pointed at the great spinning wheel of the Space Station V. The plane is aimed like a toreador’s lance; the station turns like a Southern belle’s crinoline hoopskirt. Below is the blue of the Earth itself, a vast pellucid ballroom floor on which plane and wheel can waltz with joy.

Compare Stanley Kubrick’s to the smash ‘n’ grab fighters in Star Wars and its more acrobatic brethren — they’re the sleek and shiny future, but somehow feel weightless, unreal; they barrelroll into crisply digitized space that somehow lack depth. Kubrick’s spacecraft are real models hanging in (mostly) real space; they are meticulously researched to make sense — from the aerodynamic lines of the spaceplane (for cutting through Earth’s atmosphere) to the splendidly spinning station (for creating artificial gravity). More, they possess character, majesty — they don’t bounce around like so many pinballs making ridiculous whooshing noises (in vacuum?); they calmly defy gravity and soar.

Cut to Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) and the contrast couldn’t be sharper. Outside the machines spin to glorious music; inside the humans make inane chatter against strikingly designed backgrounds (a window against which the Earth spins every few seconds; an upwardly curving white hallway (the inside of the station) populated by blood-red furniture). The climax to all this insipidity is a conference where Floyd addresses a group of scientists: they’re surrounded by wall-sized video screens, and while Floyd talks ominously of a discovery that “may well prove to be among the most significant in the history of science” the screens remain coyly blank, keeping Dr. Floyd’s secrets safely hidden.

I first saw 2001 decades ago on a 35 mm screen and was unimpressed, but one image did make an impact: the spaceship Discovery reaching from one end of the screen to another. Watching it recently the ship stretched twice as far, from one end of the theater to another. A spermatozoa trailing a metal spinal cord on its way to explore (Fertilize? Contaminate?) other planets? Or a hammer flung defiantly at the gods — yet another descendant of Moon Watcher’s flying bone?

Kubrick had earlier established a dichotomy: dance music for machines, near-complete silence for humans. Discovery was different; it traveled to the strains of Aram Khatchaturian’s doleful Gayane’s Adagio. Why melancholy, you wonder? Because a machine is traveling with humans, who are in control? Or because a machine is to be pitted against humans, with results that are less than certain?

On board are six crewmembers, though the film focuses on three (the remaining three are in cryogenic sleep): Frank (Gary Lockwood), Dave (Keir Dullea), and HAL 9000, the supercomputer with ubiquitous camera eyes, a seductive voice (by Douglas Rain), a soothing bedside manner.

Kubrick shows us everyday life on a ship; significantly we watch Frank view a birthday greeting from his parents with complete lack of interest, and later watch HAL beat him handily in a game of chess. HAL is graciously apologetic (“I’m sorry Frank I think you missed it.”) Frank typically grouchy (“Hmm. Looks like you’re right.”). If this were a reality show and Frank and HAL were candidates to be voted off into space (Wasn’t that a Doctor Who episode?) who would you choose?

On the other hand Dave and HAL have an odd exchange. Dave is sketching and HAL calls him over; HAL asks what he’s doing:

“A few sketches.”

“May I see them?”

“Sure.”

Of course HAL is probably programmed to show interest and engage the crew whenever he can, but what if he’s genuinely curious at this little skill of scribbling lines and smudges to create representations of things?

“That’s a very nice rendering, Dave. I think you’ve improved a great deal. “

The beautiful thing about Rain’s performance is that it’s so silkily ambiguous; you can hear all sorts of things in his line readings.

“Can you hold it a bit closer?”

“Sure.”

Do I hear jealousy?

“That’s Dr. Hunter isn’t it?”

And I may be stretching here — probably am — but the fact that Dave can scribble lines and smudges in such a way that even he — HAL — could recognize the pattern as a person he actually knew —

Was HAL curious about Dave’s powers of imagination and improvisation? Did he recognize a skill beyond his own capabilities and did he find it disturbing? Remember that right after this HAL brings up the subject of the mission objectives then reports the AE-35’s imminent failure. This, in effect, was the moment before HAL’s fall.

I wouldn’t call 2001 the greatest science-fiction film ever made. It doesn’t have Stalker’s profound sense of mystery (an alien force so powerful it ultimately has little to do with humanity itself), or Tarkovsky’s ability to make a simple Estonian landscape as strange as the far side of the moon. It doesn’t have The Incredible Shrinking Man’s elegantly structured story, or moment of transcendence done on a fraction of Kubrick’s budget (lines and smudges, representing someone). It doesn’t have Bride of Frankenstein’s sly sophisticated humor (the humor in 2001 is more ironic [Teutonic?] or sense of humanity (The Creature — an abused child if you like — confronts his Creator, developing along the way a moral sensibility).

But Kubrick’s film is great, and in 70 mm (projected on a really big screen or in Blu-Ray) an experience like no other. Still is, despite all the digitized and Marvel-ized wonders tossed at us along the way.

2001: A Space Odyssey was rereleased 70 mm print fromthe original negative this year in the US and UK. A 4K HDR Blu-ray will also be released later this year from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.