Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Rewatching 2001 recently, I was struck by just how slow it is. I mean, you can't not notice it, but this time through it almost felt like it was daring people to finish it (as was, inarguably, Barry Lyndon). I don't think this is, as Nicholas Carr would allege, a symptom of my personal overexposure to the Internet and its having conditioned me to expect lightning-quick gratification. Indeed, I felt less impatient with 2001 than I have during any previous viewing. But the slowness is one of the things that intensely stands out, and newcomers to this legendary film should account for it before idly sitting down to it.

The shot from this rewatch that's haunting me is the immediate start of "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." Preceded by a creepy but not overly dramatic mission recording from Dr. Floyd, this segment of the film opens on a monolith flying around Jupiter space, accompanied by an amped-up reprise of the "Love Theme from the Monolith" (you know, the one that goes "eeeeeeeeee eeeeeee eeEEE EEEeeee eeeeee eeeEEee"). The shot tilts downward and we see the Discovery, dwarfed by the Jovian worlds, and (because it's Kubrick) the shot lingers so long that the viewer's imagination begins to fill in context—an opportunity so few movies afford anymore—and we realize what Bowman must be feeling: isolation to a degree never before experienced by a human. He cannot go home, as far as he is aware; he can't even contact home. Not to mention abject terror at what he sees—remember, he only just learned about the monolith. I mean, Christ, how many movies achieve such a primal, visceral effect? And all this without seeing Bowman's face (because it's Kubrick).

This may be what I enjoy most about Kubrick movies: the space to imagine. That what we imagine should terrify the ever-loving fuck out of us is merely an added bonus.

Indeed, 2001 is, in its way, scarier than The Shining and more unsettling than A Clockwork Orange. I think this has a lot to do with Kubrick's cold, clinical style; Bowman's journey and ascension could have ended up with the same exuberant feel as the latter part of Contact, but it's far more plausible that actually meeting aliens should be baffling and isolating and disturbing, in a truly cosmic sense. (Oh man: just imagine if Kubrick had done a Lovecraft adaptation.)

The other big thing that struck me (again) on this rewatch is what an impressive feat of filmmaking it is on a technical level. Argue all you like about the merits of the story, the actors' blandness, whether the glacial pacing is hypnotic or merely somnolent—but no one can deny that much of what Kubrick pulls off here is just mind-blowing for the late '60s. Even knowing a fair amount of the production backstory, I still found myself unable to fully explain how a couple of shots could have been achieved without CGI…or going into space as part of some NASA cover-up ;) or whatever. Like the one where Frank is sleeping in a pod and Dave starts walking up the hamster-wheel while Frank recedes—I guess it must have been a dummy in the pod or something. And the shot where they walk into the spinning room from the non-spinning tunnel, so they're not spinning first, and then they're spinning! I can only guess that Kubrick rigged an elaborate double-spinning set, put the camera in the nearer segment, and timed it so the nearer segment starts spinning at the exact same pace that the further segment stops spinning. And after that sentence, my head is spinning.

Effects wizardry aside, 2001 may be the most Kubrickian Kubrick film. I hate this sentence, but it really is all about what it means to be human. It's often dark—and how could it not be, if it's about humanity's past, present, and future?—and yet, so completely open to interpretation is its ending that you can't really call it dark. The best you can do is call it creepy as fuck. And there's no way Kubrick didn't intend that.

Many viewers find the film's Jupiter mission segment to be the only one they like. It certainly has the most accessible narrative—yet it almost feels like a different movie. Doubtlessly this has to do with the jumbled process of creating 2001 from bits of Clarke stories and what had to have been a fascinating collaborative process between Clarke and Kubrick…yet the HAL story does fit in spite of its seeming orthogonality. To me, the significance of the HAL story to the rest of what's happening is suggested by the opening "Dawn of Man" sequence.

From the monolith, the monkeys learn tool use, and immediately employ it for violence and dominance. Then there's that famous cut to the nuclear satellite, a wonderfully simple thematic connection. Then the moon monolith is discovered and activated, and next we get HAL—another murder tool. The inference being this: each stage of human evolution is accompanied by killing.

That just makes the ending even scarier; now that a third suggested-monolith-uplift has taken place, what horrors await Earth at the hands of the Horrifying Space Fetus? What if he gets his hands on the Whale Probe and starts smashing up the inner planets? (And, befitting so bold a crossover, this hypothetical sequel would need one hell of a hit tie-in song; perhaps "EeEEeeEEEEee RRNPH-rrnph" - The Monolith Singers feat. Whale Probe) It's probably just as well that the above isn't the plot of 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Some doubtlessly find 2001 tough to get through, and it's certainly not the kind of film I can just watch at the drop of a hat. It's nevertheless one of my very favorite films—every time I see it again, I get something more profound out of it than the preceding twenty or thirty movies I've seen. It seems to me that anybody who really loves film is highly likely to get something out of 2001, and is basically required to see it.

Star Score: 5 out of 5

The wink is Fraught's clue that it REALLY WAS a cover-up!

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