Saturday 23 February 2013

Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A visionary classic, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a graceful interpretation of the human desire for continuous exploration.

The opening Dawn Of Man sequence has no dialogue, and takes place among the man-ape predecessors of humans. Various tribes struggle for survival and compete for territory on a hostile ancient earth. A strange, smooth black monolith suddenly appears near one of the tribes, and a clan member discovers that bones of dead animals can be used as tools, and more importantly, weapons. After the first ever raid in which weapons are used, the victorious man-ape throws a bone into the air, and it is match-cut to a satellite orbiting Earth in 2001. Millions of years of evolution and innovation are spanned in one of the most famous split seconds in movie history.

The second part takes place in 2001. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) journeys to Clavius Base, a US outpost on the moon. He is there to inspect a remarkable discovery being treated as top secret: a strange, smooth, black monolith has been excavated. Scientists estimate it was deliberately buried around four million years ago. As Floyd and his team are taking photographs in front of the monolith, it emits a piercingly loud signal.

The next chapter takes place eighteen months later. As a result of the monolith discovery, American spaceship Discovery One is on a mission to Jupiter, commanded by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) while other scientists are kept in hibernation. HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) is the on-board supercomputer, apparently infallible and controlling every aspect of the mission. Communications with Earth are difficult and suffer a long time lag.

When HAL raises the alarm about an imminent equipment failure, Bowman and Lockwood are forced to undertake a dangerous retrieval job outside the spaceship using the EVA pod. Diagnostic tests hint that HAL was maybe wrong. With Jupiter fast approaching, Bowman and Poole have to prepare for an unimaginable situation: the computer controlling the entire mission may be faulty. The final, surreal 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey unfold near Jupiter, and again have no dialogue. The monolith reappears and Bowman is drawn into a new, stunning evolutionary reality.

Working with author Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick creates the first grand space drama. In this vision, exploration of the vast and empty space beyond the borders of the Earth and its Moon is a continuation of an unstoppable process of discovery, and defines the next massive step in human advancement, a most astonishing challenge filled with wonder, danger, possibilities, and the pure unknown.

Filled with astonishing special effects, the visuals leave the deepest impression. From ape-men environments to space ships and satellites streaking through space, the details include elegant, complex docking manoeuvres and humans operating in zero gravity conditions. Personal headrest screens, wireless audio-video computer phones, and tablet computers are innovations on display. A brilliant classical music score provides a grandiose backdrop. The past and future are linked through the anticipatory opening of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and then Johann Strauss' light-footed On the Beautiful Blue Danube, the waltz becoming a metaphor for sophisticated machinery performing an elegant coupling in space.

Dialogue is sparse, and when characters do talk in the middle segments, the interactions are stiff and almost robotic. In contrast, HAL has by far the most expressive and emotional role. Douglas Rain provides a tender, almost embracing tone, a jarring contradiction with the harsh lens and red pilot light representing HAL's omnipresence throughout Discovery One. When the battle erupts between human and artificial intelligence, Bowman operates with silent machine-like intensity while HAL continuously verbalizes his case.

The monolith is common to all the chapters, the large, foreboding, finely machined slab of blackness triggering fundamental changes in the human journey. Kubrick leaves the movie wide open to interpretation, and the monolith can represent external, extra-terrestrial intelligence or internal, intrinsic drive. Either way the irresistible force of change powers an ever broader expansion of abilities and horizons, with a startling ending where one phase of evolution merges into a rebirth to continue an expedition beyond known boundaries.

2001: A Space Odyssey is artistically and intellectually audacious, and a resounding, timeless triumph.

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