It’s taken me a while to write about 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ll confess — this movie makes me tired. As I said in my title, I can recognize the things that make it an interesting and significant film, even an awe-inspiring one, but its slow, deliberate pace and somewhat downbeat tone make it rather long and weary haul for me. Another confession — French cinema, however challenging I may find it, is an open book to me compared to the films of Stanley Kubrick. (Though I’ve only seen two others — Lolita and The Shining). This despite the fact the interweb tells me that no other filmmaker has been as extensively quoted by The Simpsons (see my post on The 400 Blows).
I’m very glad I went back and listened to the commentary track by the movie’s stars, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, whose enthusiasm for the project is still strong after all these years. I love Lockwood’s story about how he told his football coaches at UCLA he had a traffic court appearance in another city so he could ditch practice and go see Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) instead. I like his stories about sci-fi conventioneers bringing in models of things from the movie they’ve painstakingly reconstructed via freeze frame. I should also say I’m puzzled by his reference to the number of people who’ve told him they went into computer science because of this film (though, looked at another way, that explains a lot about people in IT…)
So, what’s it about? There’s a big, black rectangle (or maybe multiple rectangles). One of them lands on prehistoric earth, panicking the local proto-humans but also somehow inspiring them to figure out tool use. (Which goes badly for the local tapir population — I thought the tapirs were adorable. There should be more tapirs in cinema).
Then, in the year 2001, humans find another rectangle on the moon. This rectangle sends out a piercing high-pitched tone (which sent the cat running from the room on my first viewing). In the movie’s version of 2001, you get to the moon via Pan Am, which is a nicely anachronistic touch. Also, people seem to care passionately about the design of their chairs, but to have lost interest in food, apparently being content with mushy ersatz stuff in TV-dinner trays.
A few months later, a space mission sets off for Jupiter (apparently where the signal came from), manned by Gary Lockwood, Keir Dullea, and the famous computer HAL, who becomes paranoid and homicidal once they’re in space. Eventually Dullea makes it to Jupiter on his own, there’s a long sound-and-light sequence, and then Dullea spends the rest of his life in a Louis-XVI style suite with an illuminated floor. When he dies the rectangle visits him, and then he turns into a giant embryo in the sky.
I realize this summary probably sounds a bit dismissive, but the power of the movie is in its sounds and images, not in the narrative. Or to put it another way, that story one of my English teachers told about hippies dropping acid and then lying down at the base of the screen for yet another viewing back in the day make more sense now.
Certainly, the movie was constantly quoted in the visual culture of my childhood — especially the monolith (as the rectangle is properly referred called) landing among the apemen as Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra plays. You can now recreate that and other scenes with this monolith action figure, if you’re so inclined:
Apparently, the monolith represents an infinitely more advanced extraterrestrial intelligence; supposedly Kubrick went in this more abstract direction after Carl Sagan warned him off bug-eyed aliens. Kubrick’s collaborator on the script was Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story, “The Sentinel” Clarke had written in 1948 (and which Keir Dullea remembered reading as a sci-fi-obsessed teen).
It’s a truly impressive film. Yet I can also sympathize with those critics who, at the time of its release, had no idea what to make of it. (Pauline Kael hated it — no surprise there). I can see how and why it became a cultural touchstone, but I’m probably not going to watch it from beginning to end again very soon.
Fairly random postscript: While I understand Kubrick got there first with the “Dawn of Man” section of 2001…
… I still have a great fondness for the desert-primeval opening sequence of Paul Schrader’s much-maligned 1982 remake of Cat People (whose no-holds-barred looniness deserves to be more widely appreciated).