A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

2001: A Space Odyssey

August 12, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey

One of the things I really enjoy about our collection is the variety of movies that it contains. We have some unusual and not so well known gems, like Russian Arc or Diva. We have big budget summer movies from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. We have a wide range of musicals, animated films, science fiction and pure low-budget garbage. At the same time we have some acclaimed cinematic masterpieces – which is the category this movie very nicely fits into. The trouble with classics like this is that it’s hard to find anything new to say about them when I set out to review them. They’re so widely known and so universal that anything I could think to say about them has already been said a thousand times over.

I’ve watched this movie before of course. Not many times, because it’s a dense and very stylized movie that involves a certain investment to sit down and watch, but four or five times. We put it in to watch because, frankly, we’re a little behind in writing up reviews for movies we’ve watched in the last few days so we needed something familiar on the TV so we could concentrate on that. Interestingly, this worked pretty well for 2001.

Part of what sets this movie so apart is that it is so unlike your typical space adventure. It is not an action movie. It doesn’t rely on explosions or shouted arguments or stunts. While it does have some gorgeous special effects, they really are not the center of attention. In point of fact, very little happens in this movie at all. As such it was perfect to have it playing while we wrote reviews because there are long, contemplative, slow scenes throughout this film which allow for the constant distraction of multi-tasking. In the past I have dedicated my entire attention to this movie and watched it without distraction and that’s a much more taxing experience than I had when we watched it this time.

The actual action in this movie is extraordinarily simple. It revolves around a trio of mysterious monoliths. The first appears at “the dawn of man” and through contact with the featureless black pillar a group of hairy primates discover the use of tools – specifically the use of bone clubs which allows them to hunt beasts and gain dominance over other local hairy primates.

Next – in the late twentieth century – a second monolith is dug up on the surface of the moon by a research team. It is covered up by the authorities, who fear that clear evidence of alien intelligence, which was buried on the moon two million years ago, will cause panic in the general populace. It is for this reason that when the lunar monolith sends a powerful radio pulse towards Jupiter nobody is told – not even the crew of the very first manned mission to Jupiter which is just departing.

That covers about the first half of the movie. The second half is about the crew of the ship headed to Jupiter. There are three scientists in suspended animation, two human crewmen, and an advanced artificial intelligence. Eventually it transpires that only the machine, HAL 9000, is aware of what awaits them when they reach their destination. Dave Bowman and Frank Poole are just scientists on a mission, so far from Earth that it takes half an hour for any messages to reach home. They are utterly alone when their computer begins to act up.

At first HAL tells them that there is a potential malfunction in the antenna array they use to communicate with Earth. When they are unable to discover any fault they begin to suspect that either the computer has made a mistake (something that no 9000 series computer has ever done) or it is deliberately lying – something that it is supposed to be incapable of.

When confronted HAL defends itself in the only way it can figure how. It kills Frank with one of the pods during an EVA, and when Dave goes out it refuses to let him back on board the ship. Dave is able to force his way back in and disable HAL, who explains that this was the only way it could find to protect the mission. The secret mission it was ordered to keep from its crew. The mission to contact and alien civilization which Dave must now carry out completely alone.

Then there’s a whole lot of non-sensical psychadelia when Dave actually falls into the monolith. (His pivotal line from the book – which is in the second movie – is omitted from this one. “My God, it’s full of stars!”) I had the advantage when I first watched this in that I had read Arthur C. Clark’s book before watching this movie, which definitely helped me. I love Kubrick to death, but he’s not in the least bit interested in providing answers here. There is no explanation for anything that goes on in the movie, really. The book makes it clear that the reason for HAL’s malfunction is that it cannot lie to its crew and when it is asked questions that are too near to discovering the orders it has been told not to reveal it can find no alternative to the actions it takes. The book also provides some understanding of Dave’s evolution into a more advanced life form as a result of his interaction with the monolith at Jupiter.

I say that Kubrick doesn’t concern himself with answers because he is concerned, in this movie, with something altogether other. This movie is a deliberate, gorgeous, masterpiece. It bears more in common with a symphony than with a Hollywood motion picture. It has well defined movements, with a lengthy introduction, an intermission and music that continues long after the closing credits. The movie is never in a hurry. It has some tension with the menacing danger of HAL trying to kill Frank and Dave, but even the conclusion of that conflict is a long, slow scene with HAL pleading emotionlesly with Dave as he is slowly disabled. Every shot in this movie lingers. Every detail feels so carefully placed.

Then there are the absolutely astonishing sets. This movie is full of giant, complex, beautiful sets on gimbals that rotate to provide the illusion of weightlessness or to show how centripital force is used to allow a semblance of gravity in ships far from any planet. I wish I could have been there to watch the filming of some of this movie. It’s been more than forty years since this was made and there’s nothing else that’s been done on this scale or with this feel.

Even when I was distracted by other things I found myself being caught up again in this film as I watched. It might not have done a great job predicting what the world would be like in 2001, but it has a clear and unique vision nonetheless. So many familiar images from this movie have become part of our pop culture lexicon, from the monolith itself first appearing to the primates before mankind even existed to HAL-9000’s red eye as he tells Dave that he’s sorry but he cannot open the pod doors. It’s an amazing, beautiful influential movie. So naturally it’s in our collection.

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August 12, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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