Saturday, 23 February 2013

Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A visionary classic, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece that not only redefined science fiction movies, but also gracefully explained human history and presented a dazzling vision of the future.

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 soon a member of that clan 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 and the enemy tribe is comprehensively vanquished, 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 emanating from that bone discovery are covered 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 take a first hand look at a remarkable discovery that is being treated as top secret: a strange, smooth, black monolith has been excavated. Scientists estimate that 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 of the movie 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 created the first grand space drama. The final frontier was no longer the domain of goofy aliens, overgrown monsters and aggressive invaders. In the vision presented by Kubrick and Clarke, exploration of the vast and empty space beyond the borders of the Earth and its Moon defined the next massive step in human advancement, a most logical concept and a most astonishing challenge.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a feast of visuals and music. Most of the movie has no dialogue, and when characters do talk in the middle segments, as Floyd makes his way to the moon and then Bowman and Poole travel to Jupiter, 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. And when the battle of intellect erupts between HAL and Bowman, it is Bowman who is completely silent, operating with machine-like intensity, while HAL cannot stop talking as he tries to make his case for survival - and therefore domination.

Kubrick leaves it to visuals filled with astonishing special effects to leave the deepest impression. From the realistic ape-men scenes, to space ships and satellites streaking through space and the futuristic controls and furnishings within them, to elegant, complex docking manoeuvres, and finally men and women operating in zero gravity conditions, 2001: A Space Odyssey never ceases to enthral. Among the items and gadgets predicted by the movie are personal headrest screens, wireless audio-video computer phones, and tablet computers.

And then Kubrick demonstrates true genius with a brilliant music score, setting the exploration of space to classical music, providing a grandiose backdrop to mankind's quest. Kubrick forgoes anything futuristic and magically links the past, the present and the future through the brilliantly 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.

The monolith links all the chapters of the film, the large, foreboding, finely machined slab of blackness triggering fundamental changes in the journey of man. 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 man to ever broader expansion of abilities and horizons, with a startling ending where one phase of human evolution ends, only to signal a rebirth into a seemingly much more powerful form of being to continue an expedition beyond known boundaries.

2001: A Space Odyssey is artistically and intellectually one of the most ambitious films ever made, and a resounding, timeless triumph.

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