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If there is ever any doubt as to whether late American film director Stanley Kubrick was a genius, this ground breaking Science Fiction film is proof of the affirmative. Its incredible grace and imaginative, atmospheric perspectives are unparalleled, even now, despite the high powered special effects of today which are often a film’s real star. In addition to Kubrick’s self-designed effects circa 1968, which still inspire wonder today, he creates other-worldly, deeply emotional, physiologically impacting landscapes, both from the vast voids of outer space and our inner landscapes, entirely of his own making, and yours, if you wisely, put the prejudices of the ‘now’ aside and partake of this great cinematic journey.
There was a real sense of event at this screening - time has eased the original love or hate critiques associated with the film, and most of those in attendance were there out of love. As conductor André de Ridder took his place and the orchestra tuned their instruments, a thrill of anticipation rippled through the audience. A light, but chillingly expansive strain emitted from the musicians, preparing us, (if possible) for what was to come, as the credits began to appear. Then that ultra-famous, 2001 theme, Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ rumbled through the hall, as the blinding rays of the sun burst over the earth onscreen, and we mentally fastened our seatbelts for Kubrick’s ultimate ride through time and, space!
Our epic journey begins with ‘The Dawn of Man’, as apes interact, making a discovery which will one day come to plague mankind. After a tall black Monolith (advanced machines built by unseen extra-terrestrials created by Arthur C. Clarke for his Space Odyssey novels) appears among them, to which they are inexplicably drawn, and, in an evolutionary leap, an ape toying with some bleached bones realises one would make a weapon, quickly moving from killing for meat to violence for domination, with others doing likewise. Biblical implications abound. More than a little ironic then, that the director of Dr. Strangelove (or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb) 1964, released this film at the height of the US/USSR space race, as the two nations were effectively, using technology as weapons of power.
Without any chapter heading to spoil the transition, when the discovering ape tosses his weapon into the air it seemingly, evolves into the bone shaped ‘Orbiter Hilton’ space craft with artificial gravity, on which Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) is on an investigatory mission to the moon, circa 2000. In true ‘60’s fashion, the doctor seems to be sporting a case of terminal cool amid this land of bubble hatted, orchid or white clad stewardesses, much in the way that TV’s James T. Kirk, commander of star-ship Enterprise had been since 1966. The atmosphere and interior of the craft is, more or less, like those we continue to fly in today, enabling a sense of comfortable recognition. We’ve been carried swiftly, but somehow seamlessly, away from that primal, disturbing scene (made more so for its’ recognisable attributes) into a much more technically sophisticated one, four million years later, as we find ourselves looking towards the moon from somewhere in space, above the earth. Fritz Lang’s dystopian classic, Metropolis (1927), the most expensive silent film ever made, was also set in the year 2000.
One very effective, perspective establishing device Kurbrick uses in this film is to move smoothly and habitually yet, still, unexpectedly, between the vast voids of outer space and fairly tightly orchestrated scenes involving interiors and/or characters, which make us feel as though we’re right in there with them. Much, if not all of the gadgetry shown on the moon flight, like ‘Bell Picturephones’ which enable you to see who you’re speaking to on a screen, and talking entranceways, are now nearly part of the technological furniture of our homes and offices. No doubt Kubrick’s appreciation of 1950’s Sci-Fi and the input of seasoned NASA advisers combined heightened the sense of slightly kitsch realism in these scenes. There are also several foreshadowing signifiers visible along the way, among them, a sign on the door of a space pod the astronauts use for repair duties casually stating, ‘danger exploding bolts.’
Now that we are in out in space, it’s possibly, a somewhat easier task for Kubrick to link us up with, what is described as ‘a futuristic, eighteen month journey to Jupiter,’ where American astronauts Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) go about their daily tasks in the space craft where three of their elder comrades have been cryogenically sleeping for the past three months with the help of Hal, an allegedly glitch-proof (save human error) series 9000 computer. It’s the very banality and routine of life inside the space station which renders the threats without (and within) so frightening. Suffice it to say that if you have yet to encounter Hal, your cinematic and dream lives (as in nightmares) are lacking. It’s actually some of the moments in which Hal’s activities are indicated merely by flashes of text on screens, i.e. ‘Malfunction’ which are among the film’s most terrifying. Though, after a certain point, the sound of Hal’s honeyed voice is also apt to prompt shivers.
As any film buff knows, music is an integral part of 2001’s magic. You really haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the mystical ballet of planets and technical apparatus Kubrick concocted to accompany that beloved Viennese ballroom piece, Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube Waltz.’ Other pieces which lend senses of impending doom and/or wonder as needed, which the Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices performed marvellously here are György Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra’ and Aram Khatchaturian’s ‘Gayane Ballet Suite.’ One of the main reasons music is so essential to the success of this film is that it only contains forty minutes of dialogue in total; in many scenes, either silence (a reality in deep space) or the close, heavy breathing of an astronaut is the norm. It’s not surprising that Kubrick’s friend and fellow director George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, dubbed this landmark film ‘a silent movie with sound.’ Every scene has music or dialogue (or silence), but no scene ever pairs music with dialogue.
It’s the film’s final segment, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ which is its’ most ambivalent and open to interpretation, and the one in which artistic license is most in evidence. Being a fan of surrealist Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman helped me assimilate this segment. More than one account of the film’s 1968 reception alleges that young hippies watched 2001 from blankets spread in front of the first rows of movie houses all across America, while, presumably, high on illegal substances. Having missed the opening of Kubrick’s masterpiece in my extreme youth, I was later frightened by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), one of the many films influenced by this stellar, authentically detailed fore-runner which its’ Special Photographic Effects Supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, also worked on. 2001, nominated for Best Director, Art Direction, Original Story and Screenplay, won for Visual Effects only. In 1968, an Honorary Oscar was given to Planet of the Apes in a category that was started in 1981 – makeup.
The harmonic marriage between music and film, as well as past and future in 2001, even in terms of what are now, past notions of the future, is definitive to the point of classicism, and the colouring and look of the film seems meant to reflect the, from a human perspective, sense of unreality inherent to the reality of its settings. It’s as though, in some ways, watching vintage Sci-Fi prepared many of us not to question the stark unusualness of a film aiming to depict the nuts and bolts of the realities themselves. We were, in effect, primed for Kubrick’s cinematic flair for exploring the unknown.
Arthur C Clarke wrote three sequels to 2001, 2010: odyssey two, 2061: odyssey three and 3001: final odyssey and a much lesser film (Directed and Produced by Peter Hyams) was made from the second book in 1984 (with Roy Scheider as Dr. Floyd), and brief moments of Kier Dellea as Dr David Bowman (on a screen in a space craft), but Kubrick’s film stands as the abiding masterpiece. No mean feat considering the fact that Clarke and Kubrick, who first met in New York in 1964, collaborated on the novel based on Clarke’s short story, ‘The Sentinel’ during two years of brainstorming and intense research before the screenplay based on it was finalised. Clarke, credited with writing the novel himself, later stated that “the nearest approximation to the complicated truth” is that the screenplay should be credited to “Kubrick and Clarke” and the novel to “Clarke and Kubrick”.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one film in which the mammoth tasks involved with making it nearly threatened to equal or surpasses the sum of its storyline’s interpretations. And yet, forty three years after it’s opening, it still has the power to astound. There’s only one word I can think of to commend the awe-inspiring experience of watching this nearly indescribable film in tandem with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices animatedly playing its score, and it’s an unforgivably earthly one – BRAVO!
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