Tuesday, 24 May 2011



* * * * * * 

1968 - USA/U.K. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
PHOTOGRAPHY: Geoffrey Unsworth
MUSIC: Classical

     I was so enthusiastic about the prospect of writing about 2001 that one could almost take it for giddiness. Having to wade through the communist propaganda in the last two films, turning into my favourite genre for a change and one of most iconic titles within it as well, felt like fast-approaching holiday after winning the lottery jackpot. And then it hit me. First, as with so many other titles, I have not properly watched this film for more than ten years, maybe even longer. And second, I've just put myself in position where I am supposed to write something smart on a subject that hundreds of critics already wrote just about everything. No pressure then. 'Crap!', I thought to myself using an unorthodox (beginning with an 'f') spelling of that word. But a job's a job and a simple blogger's got to do what a simple blogger's got to do. So I sat down, whimpered a bit and then watched the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY very carefully indeed. Here's what I found:

I've got to be absolutely honest here. I was bracing myself for a hell of a disappointment. What's more, I was probably even hoping for it a little bit. There is nothing more satisfying (in being a critic) then to take a really close look at some work of art that is so famous people love it just from all the references, and after meticulous examination be able to aptly point out some shortcomings in the emperor's garment division. And I was really starting to think that this might be the case with 2001. You know how it goes, a genius is always unquestionable and those who do question and doubt are (most often) nothing more than yapping poodles trying to usurp some attention while gnawing at the lower parts of soles of true greatness. Even if I'd stretched this allegory beyond any conceivable boundaries, personally, I could never pass for a poodle. And therefore you'll never see me doubting Kubric's genius as an artist and director. Not when we talk in general, that is. But then again, when we break it down into films? Was EYES WIDE SHUT absolutely necessary, huh? And so, with 2001 I had a feeling that its status is these days a little bit more due to the zeal of Kubrick's worshipers than to its actual value as a film. But then again, when you base your opinion on a gut feeling and a vague recollection of your own experience from the past long gone, you should never, EVER, jump into conclusions. And as I've learnt from my own mistakes quite a few times before, I did not. So, as I said, I was not expecting to be wowed, but at the same time very happy to discover this film again, and this time do it properly. And just from the star rating at the top of this page you can already draw some conclusions as to what happened...

First, as it's always a good idea, let us put it into some context. It is very deceiving how them olden years of Sci-fi seem to blur and merge into one, nonlinear nugget of unspecified 'oldness'. It all became the classic SF and therefore it's been all mashed together and put into the same box. To reorganise that box into smaller compartments I've put the SPACE ODYSSEY into a little timeline with a handful of other SF titles:

It's a slightly random and maybe chaotic selection but I'm not documenting here the history of the genre right now. For the inquisitive ones I recommend a List of Science Fiction films of the 1960s from Wikipedia. Two different things can be seen here. First, it took more than a decade after the release of SPACE ODYSSEY for the most recognisable and iconic titles to emerge (STAR WARS & ALIEN). Also, big budgets and/or top stars, even in the post 2001 era, did not necessarily translate into good and well made films (ZARDOZ, FLASH GORDON). And second, if you spend two minutes and study a little the list I've linked above, you'll immediately see what type of films dominated SF cinema in the Sixties. Yep. It's the rubbery-monsters-from-outer-space-eating-Earth type. So, let's have a look again. 1968 - 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Right there, between the PLANET OF THE APES and BARBARELLA. Now, who's the SCIENCE fiction daddy then?
Now, you see, I'm not saying this film is as good as it gets, but there's one thing about it that stands out so amazingly and also shows why Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest directors that ever lived. It's that 'science' bit I've accentuated above. Kubrick didn't really get the Sci-fi. I don't believe he understood the genre, its idiosyncrasies, its language and props department. What Kubrick did, was to read the dictionary definition of science fiction and in total detachment from the genre's lore he decided what the real SF should be about. So, basically, what he did was to roll back the clock by a good century and take SF back to its absolute basics. A fiction based on the scientific prediction of the future. Now, I am no expert, I'm a mere enthusiast and my knowledge base might simply not be sufficient enough but I can't think of anyone before him, who would do just that.
And so, my first impression was that Kubrick got it wrong. That being a someone from outside of the 'ghetto' he did not understand the rules and the repository, and by not playing by the rules, he simply missed his chance to achieve something far more significant than in the end he did. But after I've slept on it, it became more and more transparent that it was I who's gone astray. Decades of not-always-good SF filled us all with powerful memes, which as attractive as they might be, are nothing more than licentia poetica of countless legions of geeks who's only aim was and still is to go just that one more step weirder. Being immersed in all that myself, no wonder I got conditioned by that involuntary osmosis which makes people know the Vulcan greeting even if they've never ever watched a single Star Trek movie or an episode of the series. In a way, I got tainted. Kubrick was free from all that debris. I should not expect him to be familiar with too many flesh eating monsters from outer space which populated B rated SF of the 1950s and 1960s and even if he was, somehow I don't think he'd be reaching there for inspirations. But what he did instead, was to get on board one of the greatest founding fathers of modern science fiction - Sir Arthur C. Clarke*. For some it may come as a shock but in those times SF writers were so much more than just teenagers glued to the internet, desperate to attract maybe even up to three readers to whatever they've conceptually spawned. Clarke not only was a scientist (awarded a first-class degree in mathematics and physics) but also an RAF pilot and instructor, and finally an inventor (in 1945 he created a concept of using geostationary satellites in communication). Even Kubrick felt that this could be a very unlikely collaboration expecting Sir Arthur to be an unapproachable hermit but that was not the case. It also turned out they were both able to work comfortably together. It is important to stress that the script for the film was co-written by Kubrick in a very significant part and that it was not an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's book**. It also means that Kubrick not only had control over how to visualise the story as a director but also to actually create it including as many of his own ideas and concepts as he wanted. And it was very much Kubrick's idea to create a film that would be as scientifically accurate as possible, which was also the main reason for him to invite Clarke as a consultant more than anything else. The starting point was one of Clarke's short stories - The Sentinel, which matched Kubrick's desire to depict alien, intelligent life forms in a shape that would be as removed from the predominant anthropomorphic personification as only possible.

As for that scientific accuracy though, a few words of mild criticism must be said. Although it's probably less of a criticism of Kubrick than of the options available for SF in general. The main trap, which Kubrick did not manage (might not have been trying to, even) is a straight extrapolation, which probably feels as a natural tool to use for someone just accidentally dabbing into the world of SF. Especially when coming from a technology based starting point. It's also a matter of principle - the author needs to decide whether he/she is trying to imagine what a future world has the biggest chance to look like (futurology) or to use SF as a cloaking device to bring our attention to here and now but by exposing chosen elements, by putting them in the context of imaginary future. As a result, we risk creating (more and less serious) anachronisms, parachronisms and OOPArts. I can't determine without further and much deeper research, whether, for example the existence of the Soviet Union in the 2001's reality, is Kubrick's genuine, mistaken prediction or is being used intentionally to point out the trauma which the Cold War was causing the world at the time of writing the story. And in this context, it would make all the difference between a part of the story's message and a mistake. There are also some less profound ones, like a film-based camera that is being used on the Moon to photograph the monolith. The actual scientific errors are few and far between. It seems that Kubrick couldn't stand the idea of the empty and cold cosmic space and therefore in most of the space shots there is always either Moon or Earth made visible. Sometimes it results in having the Earth equally present on the screen even if the scenes were shot at contradictory angles. The most annoying though would probably be the absence of Moon specific gravity but then again, let's not forget that the SPACE ODYSSEY was released the year BEFORE Armstrong's and Aldrin's historical frolicking. I guess a little bit more work and attention could have been put into that element but hey, can't have everything and it's still not enough to suspect Kubrick of sloppiness in any way. Apart from that there are only a few minor technical mistakes, like rubber bones used by the proto-humans or visible stitches on the background screen in one of the African landscape scenes. And yet again, this is actually a very profound example of how much of a perfectionist Kubrick was. Unhappy with the quality of visuals achieved by popular at that time techniques, he decided to shoot the in-studio backgrounds (and actually, in the whole film there is only one scene filmed outdoors) using front projection instead of rear projection which is far too obvious and easy to spot (as in all those naff driving scenes with a film projected onto the screen behind a motionless car). This technique allows for a much sharper, clearer and more vibrant background picture but is far more difficult to set up and before Kubrick no one has ever tried to use it on such a grand scale. Which, as many things done for the first time ever, brought upon the crew completely new set of challenges. Because of the sheer size of the screen and very specific properties of Scotchlite, the seems where sheets of the screen were joined were highly visible. Kubrick managed to minimise the problem by cutting the sheets into less regular shapes but even then in one or two scenes the background screen can be made out. And then, at the same time, some other issues were resolved absolutely brilliantly. In one of the most famous scenes from 2001 we can see a pen drifting in the air in zero gravity. This, even today impressing effect was achieved by attaching said pen to a sheet of glass which was then rotated in front of the camera. It's only when the pen gets picked up by the stewardess we can see a slight awkwardness in the way she tries to pick it without hitting the glass. All that attention to detail and care for the scientific accuracy (no sound in space this time!) produced a masterpiece and an absolute milestone in film-making. At least technically.

As for the story and interpretation, the opinions and judgements are, quite obviously, much more objective and as a result less definite. Again, it needs to be pointed out, that there are some small but significant differences here between the script and the book. For those who are desperate to know what it was all about, Clarke provides much more information in a way of explaining the monolith's function and origin. Being a science fiction author he was much more used to having a story put within the book-ends and explained. For Kubrick, on the other hand, the SF element was just a specific language which he used to tell a more artistic and open story. Not only he doesn't give us too many clues visually, he also provides us with an absolute minimum of dialogues which in turn keeps the characters from revealing too much to the viewer. Not that they were any good (especially in the second part of the film), so it's even a kind of blessing really. Kubrick himself stressed on many occasions that it was his intention to leave as much room for personal interpretation as only possible and it was a direct reason behind this austerity. Which, I believe, we should all be thankful for as there is enough depth in Kubrick's version to keep people busy for decades (which still seems to be a case). Personally I don't actually see too much of the Cold War reference which many people seem to be desperate to find. From the argument about the satellites orbiting Earth at the beginning of the second part of the film and whether they were or were not military vessels equipped with the nuclear weapons to the removed ending (by Kubrick's decision) in which the Star Child destroys humanity's atomic arsenal, I believe that Kubrick gives us enough clues as to his intention of moving away from the military context. I think he's smarter than that and tries to go deeper. Yes, he does define the first turning point in the history of humankind by the invention of a weapon (why on Earth people insist on defining it a tool-weapon? What sort of a tool a large, heavy bone can be? A spanner? Jigsaw? Pliers? It's a bloody weapon and nothing else, for crying out loud. All it's used for in the film is killing and killing only, not making benches or fixing a chair leg...), but the second seems to be the space travel and dare I say the third - the invention of Artificial Intelligence. I find it also symptomatic how symbolic the monolith appears to be. Every time we see humans encounter it, the contact is strikingly superficial. We always seem to only touch its surface and from that moment race forward in great leaps but without much thought or contemplation. It always accelerates our progress but in that shallow, no more than skin-deep way. And it's almost as we're just about to bring a bane on ourselves with the dawn of the HAL's A.I. (the use of the charmingly old-fashioned term 'machine intelligence' suits here as another example of future anachronism) and it's only due to his own imperfection that in the end we do get a second chance. Should HAL not fail (after being programmed by humans after all), would we really see the Star Child at the end of the film? Or would it be the red-gleaming lens instead? And this is also why when watching the SPACE ODYSSEY this time I've actually not noticed any aliens. First of all, we as mentally limited creatures, have a big problem with understanding the Universe. We like to see someone pulling strings, as it gives us much needed comfort and takes off the edge of that overpowering panic when we're faced with the simple fact of being rather insignificant animal life forms with intellect instead of fangs or claws. And that's why we like to personify different aimless forces, we like our concepts of god(s), fate, destiny, karma or whatever else we like to call it. Even those slightly more educated among us who have less of a problem with grasping such concepts as evolution for example, still can't shake off that need to see it as directional process. As if there was someone steering it. And that's all there is to it. Without the sense of at least rudimentary purposefulness for the whole Universe business we're just lost, whimpering and bed-wetting. The 2001's 'alien intervention' is for me nothing but such projection. It's that cosy blanket of thought that there is someone out there looking after us and maybe even approving of some of our measly attempts at conquering the great, dull emptiness that is The Space. Which is just as good because if you imagine the aliens as purely spiritual, omnipotent (or nigh on) beings gazing upon the ape-men in their puny space shuttles, suddenly there's not enough difference between them and the concept of god to argue about. Quod erat demonstrandum, we've gone full circle. So that's that. No one's watching us, but maybe what Kubrick says, is that instead of counting on aliens maybe we should start do the watching ourselves. Not just touch the monolith and immediately run to build civilizations, but stop and think more; the monolith becomes a symbol of our skipping stones progress, of our skin deep knowledge and that run-like-mad haste with technology while overlooking the progression of our human nature. And that's again, what lets us down with HAL who (who?) works here as a perfect symbol of that empty technological progress. Yes, we are capable of creating machines complex enough to give them intellect and personality, but it takes much, much more to be human after all. Without a 'soul' to balance out the logic, consequences of glitches in the system are rather far reaching and merciless.
And since we're talking about HAL, I'm quite surprised that in every analysis I've seen on the possible reasons behind his breakdown, two very meaningful moments in the film seem to be totally overlooked. In first, HAL is questioning Bowman's confidence in the mission and after Dave denying any doubts HAL admits that 'it must have been a projection of his own concerns'. And in the second, HAL very directly says: 'This mission is far too important for me'. So there you go. Ambition, arrogance ('it is physically impossible for me to be wrong') and stone cold logic result in an aftermath deadlier than children playing with matches in a confetti factory. Is there any wonder then that after we've ended up creating such a hideous caricature of Victor Frankenstein's monster (see the mirror-like reflection? The not-so-obvious opposition? Ugly brute vs. pure intelligence. Desire to be human-like vs. cold sense of supremacy. Tormented soul vs. the disturbance of not having one at all. Am I going a little bit too far with it now?) we've hit a dead end and the only viable option to move forward is to start from the beginning? That, again, depends on how we're going to treat the Star Child at the end of the film. Some would opt for an elevated state of a human being, a leap evolution from an earthly being to interstellar, but in that case why are we watching Bowman ageing in an empty room just before that? Is that not to show us, that if we carry on on the same path there will be nothing else for us there than just wither and die in silence? Could the Star Child not be a being but a symbol, an allegory of the whole human kind? After all, the Child might be floating in space but its eyes are not watching stars, they're firmly set on Earth. And as I've said before, the message sipping through here is that the only way to progress is to keep on looking back. The only way to each the stars is to have a deep insight into ourselves first.

Which, after all is said and done, can be nothing more than just a load of bollocks. After all, the Great Master Stanley insisted that we draw our own conclusions and come up with as many interpretations as we all find fit. What in shorter words means: there is no right answer. But there's nothing more rewarding then coming to 'no answer' answer! And with that I could possibly conclude and run but there's probably one more little thing I owe you explanation for. The missing star. After reading all what I've said about this film you'd be more than excused to expect a full six-out-of-six rating, but no, there is actually something I'm going to complain about. First to put in a firing line are the dialogues and acting. They're dodgy. I appreciate Kubrick's idea of reducing the former in order to achieve a specific effect but nothing justifies just how wooden they are. And as for the latter, not all is bad news but William Sylvester, who's pulling the whole second part of the film as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd is really just bad. So are nearly all the actors cast in the episodic roles. The only good or at least decent performances come from the professional mimes who are depicting the ape-men and from Keir Dullea as David Bowman. And the second disappointment comes from actually Stanley Kubrick in generaly. What I find about his films is that he can sure deliver the goods. The matter is top notch. But the packaging can be pretty drab. And I don't mean the visuals. Here, the SPACE ODYSSEY is an absolute marvel with Kubrick's obsession with symmetry, central focal points, saturated, contrasting colours etc. But his films, and 2001 is not an exception, can sometimes feel just that little bit boring. Well, all right, quite boring indeed.

And to finish writing about the film itself, I was thinking originally about mentioning its legacy, but to be perfectly honest, I feel out of depth here. For a work of art so influential the impact is simply far to huge even to try to touch upon. The bone-to-satellite scene, the HAL references and quotes were a subject of such reverence that to this day they exist way out of their original context. And just to show you how much I really love this film personally, here is a little screenshot of my actual desktop at work:

And one more thing at the very end. Yest, it's that wretched book again. The SPACE ODYSSEY entry is one of the worst pieces of synopsis writing ever. It is so bland it would make the Aldi sausage roll taste like a vindaloo garnished with scotch bonnet peppers. Whoever wrote it, clearly could not give a monkey about this film and simply put together a dry summary and a couple of totally meaningless slogans. It actually almost looks like that person has never seen the SPACE ODYSSEY and simply conjured up this pig's ear of an entry from what she or he read up on the Internet after five minutes of research. For such an iconic film and serious publication it is simply unforgivable. Shame, shame, shame on you!


* In those years Sir Arthur was standing in for C in the ABC of science fiction, where A and B were respectively Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
** The script is accredited to both Kubrick and Clarke while the book to Clarke only. Sir Arthur admitted though in one of his interviews that they both should be considered authors. 

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: Two or three things I know about her - Jean-Luc Godard, 1967


  1. A very interesting read indeed. I only watched 2001 for the first time a few years ago and the star child aspect is, for me, an on-going enigma. I do wonder if it might be an interpretation of one of our most deep-rooted archetypes: what Eastern philosophy has referred to as 'the un-carved block'. That's to say, the simplicity of the child with the wisdom of an ancient.
    Just an idea to see if it floats with anyone else...

  2. Confucius said that once a man has reached 60 (or was it even 70?) only then he's ready to start learning :)

    But personally, I don't think I'd find it plausible. Firstly because of that sequence with Bowman after encountering the monolith, ageing in an empty room. At the end of it he is definitely on his deathbed, and that, to me implies the finished cycle. If it is him indeed as the Star Child, then I believe a rebirth is far more likely here, than elevation to that new state.

    And secondly, I think I like my theory about the criticism too much. If we go your way then we're just following a curve: ape-men -> space age men -> Star Child. But the problem is that I don't find anything exciting about it. They're just like bus stops on Otley Road :) I just don't think such interpretation would be dramatic enough and does not imply (as I was suggesting in my post) that Kubrick is telling us that in general we've screwed up real good. But then again, it's always possible that I'm looking for something that's simply not there.