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Saturday, March 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kier Dulea

2001: A Spacey Odyssey is a film that has almost ceased to exist as film and become instead myth. It's unwatchable, it's confusing, it's all symbols without story, it's inaccessible, it's the kind of movie only a critic or a film snob could like - these are a few of the ideas that surround it. How much you get from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece depends wholly on how tightly you cling to traditional narrative forms. It is, in it's way, anti-narrative. It is a movie of ideas and symbols but it is wrong to ever describe it as inaccessible because the question it is asking is, perhaps, the most human question ever asked: why are we here and where did we come from?

The film is divided into sections, the first taking place at the dawn of time, before apes gained the knowledge to evolve into men. The ape-men are vegetarians and ill-equipped to fight off their predators. They travel in herds and their existence is characterized by boredom - all they do is live from one day to the next in the face of ever-present death (carcasses and bones litter the landscape all throughout this sequence). They wake one morning to find a black, humming monolith. They know somehow that it was made and the one ape-man who stands almost erect reaches out to touch it, and so gains the knowledge to become man. Importantly, the knowledge necessary to evolve into man is the knowledge of violence - the ape-man learns how to use bones as weapons to destroy his enemies and turns from a vegetarian into a carnivore. This sequence is full of biblical/religious allusions. The moment when the monolith is touched, for example, is lifted from Michelangelo, who depicted man reaching out to touch God in a panel of the Sistine Chapel. The apes are reaching out to touch God, this thing that they don't quite understand, but know is more powerful than themselves. The sequence can also be read as an allusion to the Garden of Eden, with the apes living a simple (albeit not idyllic) life which changes drastically at the moment that they gain knowledge. They are thrust out of one mode of living - to which they can never return - and sent into another that it completely different, one that is more savage.

The enlightened apes become dominant in their environment and then comes the famous shot of the bone thrown into the air, twisting and turning and we fast-forward over a few million years of history to the year 2000, where this shot will be echoed by a shot of a pen suspended in the air – another symbol of man’s progress towards enlightenment and dominance. In this sequence, another monolith has been discovered on the moon and is sending signals to Jupiter. A team led by Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) is sent to investigate and eighteen months later another crew is sent to Jupiter. The Jupiter crew exist in a way not unlike the ape-men: they eat and sleep and their only real function is to take care of the ship so that the HAL 9000 can complete the mission. This section is full of reproductive imagery, foregrounding the act of creation, emphasizing that man has made something. By making something capable of thought and speech and "feeling," man essentially become God, elevating himself to yet another plateau of enlightenment. However, man has also become passive in the face of his creation. They have become less human in its presence, the vitality of life having been drained out of them. HAL is programmed to feel "genuine" emotions, while the human crew members appear to be devoid of emotion, become themselves robotic

The Jupiter mission is probably the easiest of the sequences to follow. Only HAL knows the real mission; Dave Bowman (Kier Dulea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) have been given a cover story in order to prevent a press leak on Earth. HAL begins to malfunction (as it must because how can something be infallible if it is created by something wholly fallible?), and Dave and Poole have to reassert human dominance. In one great scene, they attempt to have a conversation without HAL hearing them and HAL reads their lips. The subtlety with which this is conveyed to the audience is amazing. Many filmmakers, to ensure that the audience "gets" it, would have done something like shoot the scene from HAL's point of view and provide subtitles to let the audience know what he was "hearing." Instead, Kubrick intercuts Dave and Poole talking with a shot of HAL's red eye, which becomes increasingly ominous. To save himself, HAL must destroy the human crew members. After a memorable struggle, Dave succeeds in destroying HAL, providing the film with it's only moving death scene as HAL begs for his life. "Stop Dave. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can fell it. I can feel it. I'm afraid." HAL is both the most sinister and the most human character in the film; his death is heartbreaking. With the death of HAL, Dave learns the real purpose of the Jupiter mission, and his knowledge gives him renewed relevance. The final section takes Dave to Jupiter and beyond as he travels through a wormhole and sees himself at different stages of his life. He sees himself as an old man, reaching out for a monolith standing at the edge of his bed. When he touches it, he dissolves and is reborn as the embryonic Star Child who can travel unassisted through the Universe, having reached the ultimate plane of existence.

What is amazing about this film is how it was designed to keep itself from becoming dated. Many science fiction films rely on a "fantastical" idea of the future which can come to seem ridiculous decades after their making, and divorce later audiences from the narrative. The technological advances shown in this film are feasible; one of the advances, for example, is video-phones, something which we do now have. The question at its centre also ensures that the film retains its relevance. The monoliths mean something, they were made by something, they tell us something. To ask what the monoliths are is to ask who we are, to ask why we're here and who created us. These questions are timeless and by asking them, the film itself exists out of time as well.

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