Monday, April 28, 2008

"2001: A Space Odyssey": The Ultimate Trip Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

Put the 2001 movie soundtrack into itunes and activate the visualizer: it’s trippy. Just like the film, that this month, shockingly, celebrates its 40th anniversary.

2001: A Space Odyssey with Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and The Wild Bunch (among a few others) is one of a group of films that changed the art of filmmaking in the late 1960s. Just like all of these films, 2001 split critical taste. It was additionally bested by, of all movies, the musical adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver TwistOliver!— at the Academy Awards.

2001 is about knowledge. The main story follows a mission to Jupiter that goes awry when the supercomputer onboard, the HAL 9000, takes its goals at achieving the assignment far too calculatedly. HAL abuses knowledge; and he is a reflection of man.

The film begins with a “Dawn of Man” sequence. Ape-like “humans” discover that animal bones can be used as tools/weapons. This sequence is rough going to old and new viewers alike. The apes are played by actors in ape suits— and its painfully obvious; the backdrops frequently show themselves for what they are. The sequence was cut down considerably by Kubrick after the preview. The importance of the sequence is in showing that a “monolith” appears to man— a mysterious black slab-—of some powerful but unknown origin, at the “birth” of his knowledge: which will appear throughout the film at various junctures. If this set-up wasn’t crucial, I bet Kubrick would have considered dropping the entire sequence. I have no doubt that the preview cards recommended this.

However, the sequence ends with one of the most frequently clipped and most well-known cuts in film history: the bone into the “floating” spaceship, with the strains of “The Blue Danube.” Thus begins the “slow” part of the film where we follow the spaceship to the space station, then another ship to the moon. In between is some very well-mounted suspense about the top secret happenings on the moon. And there is a look at future technology as guessed by Clarke and Kubrick to marvel at on board the spacecrafts.

The centerpiece of the film, in which actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as astronauts Dave and Frank, respectively, do battle with the HAL 9000 is riveting, in part because what has preceded (and what will follow) are so obscure. For me this is what makes 2001 a great film. It’s as if Kubrick (and Arthur C. Clarke) said, well this movie is difficult, it deals in “big” ideas. And so, we’ll make most of the movie a thriller. And not just that, but a thriller that supports our thesis— that man is so hopelessly inept at attaining divine knowledge that even his most sophisticated and astonishing advances in technology will be his undoing.

Now, of course, that is one interpretation. The ending is nebulous. This is part of the reason why the film was so lambasted on its release. The critics wondered, did even the filmmakers know what they wanted to say.

The entertainment value of the middle piece and the opening up for discussion of the idea of divine understanding is what we’re left with. A book called The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 edited by Jerome Agel came out shortly after the film’s release. Within this book is a letter from a High School student named Margaret Stackhouse that Kubrick said had “speculations on the film [that were] the most intelligent [he’d] read anywhere.” She wrote a four-and-a-half page synopsis of the film’s themes. In the end, she offers a pessimistic view of the film (that man may never become more “divine”— all chances for rebirth may be a mere mockery) or an optimistic view (that man will never be able to understand more, but that he will use his understanding better).

I find that 2001 is not a movie for your every mood but it does warrant repeat viewings as the mood strikes you. The film may have been overly ambitious, certainly highfalutin, and too ambiguous to fully appreciate but it’s an experience that draws you in and strikes untapped emotional cords, and thereby offers its own form of knowledge, in a sense, through a unique cinema outing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): A meshing of a science-fiction thriller with ideas of divine knowledge offers an original movie experience open to both individual taste and interpretation.


Jeremy said...

Loved your piece. I have to say this is one of my favorite films of all time.

Oneliner said...

Thanks Jeremy! 2001 has alternately been off and on my list of the ten greatest films of all-time. I have a strong affinity for it, but I think my write-up reflects my conflicting feelings about it! Recently I've been thinking it's time to move past the CITIZEN KANEs and CASABLANCAs, as much as I still think they're masterpieces, and to really start from 1967 to create a relevant top ten of all time in this day and age. I see 2001 as a major contender for my next go round at a top ten. By the way I've been checking almost daily for more Wilder on your blog!!!