Open the pod bay door, HAL

Our future contained less odyssey, more oddity

Published: Apr 12 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, April 12, 1968
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Written by Arthur C. Clarke, based on his short story The Sentinel (1951). Music by Aram Khachaturyan, Gyorgy Ligeti, Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Running time: 161 minutes.
HIS AMBITION IS amazing. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick attempts to make a marriage between what C.P. Snow calls The Two Cultures, the arts and science. Or, to be more precise, between the high-art tradition in cinema and the pulp entertainment we know as science fiction.
    Based in London since leaving the U.S. in 1961, Kubrick courted controversy with his 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's erotic novel Lolita, and with his anti-war satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), in which he mercilessly mocked MAD, the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction that is at the heart of current American nuclear-weapons policy.
    Now, in a feature that coincidentally celebrates last month's [March, 1968] renewal of TV's Star Trek for a third season, Kubrick coldly goes where science fiction's many New Wave writers have gone before. In it, he flirts with a kind of secular spirituality, speculating on humanity's origins and ultimate destiny.
    And, of course, his wedding plan includes the somethings old, new, borrowed and blue.
    His "something old" includes a tribute to silent cinema, an affirmation of the idea that movies are a gloriously visual story-telling medium. Belying its futuristic promise, 2001 opens with a title card that says "The Dawn of Man." In a wordless sequence that runs for at least 20 minutes, we are introduced to an ape troop hanging about a water hole.
    Is Kubrick (who featured comic actor Peter Sellers in his previous two movies) having us on? After establishing that his apes face danger from a marauding leopard and a second ape troop, he has them awaken one morning to discover a huge black slab standing outside their cave.
    In place of the natural sounds that have accompanied the film's visuals to this point, we suddenly hear the Kyrie, from Gyorgy Ligeti's modern classical composition "Requiem" (1965), suggesting that the slab is some sort of alien jukebox that's been set in place to creep out the prehistoric primates. One ape approaches the thing, reaching out to touch it (perhaps in search of the off switch).  
    Instead of getting a shock, he gets an idea. Picking up a bone, he looks back at the slab, then hefts man's original tool. In short order, he has weaponized it, first killing an animal (for food), and then another ape (for dominance). In triumph, he flings the bone into the air.  Kubrick's camera follows it up and up until . . .
    Something new. With a jump cut, the bone becomes a space satellite, orbiting the Earth. We now are 33 years into the future where, aboard a space ship with the Pan American Airlines symbol on its hull, a man is strapped into a passenger seat, napping.
    As he dozes, we have yet more time to wonder what Kubrick is up to. Perhaps he is channelling Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan.
    Last year [1967], on McLuhan's remarkable Columbia LP The Medium Is the Massage, we were told that "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools ape us." So far, Kubrick's movie seems to bear this out, both in its technique and story content.
    Filmed in the latest version of the giant screen Cinerama process, 2001 uses every trick in the special-effects book to convince audiences that the wonders we see are real. The PanAm passenger, later identified as Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), is on his way to an orbiting space station for a connecting flight to the moon.
    There, Floyd will encounter a second black slab, one that has been buried beneath the lunar surface for an estimated four million years. He experiences a disorienting blast of sound, and we hear Ligeti's Kyrie again. The movie cuts to another title card: Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later.
    Aboard The Discovery, en route to Jupiter, we meet astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and learn that the ship is largely under the control of a sentient computer, the HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain). A congenial electronic brain, HAL is indeed a tool designed to ape us.
    Which brings us to Kubrick's "something borrowed." Despite the fact that his London homebase is the epicentre of SF's literary New Wave mentioned above, Kubrick entered into a collaboration with one of the genre's traditional greats, author Arthur C. Clarke.
    If science is the modern faith, then science fiction is its mythologizing scripture.  Acknowledged as its holy trinity are the writer/scientists Robert H. Heinlein (father) and Isaac Asimov (son). Clarke, with his special interest in the intersection of faith and science, qualifies as its holy ghost.
    In his 1955 short story The Star, Clarke speculated on "the truth" about the star of Bethlehem, while in his novel Childhood's End (1953) he mused about angels-as-aliens. Kubrick's 2001 is specifically based on The Sentinel, his 1951 short story about the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon.  
    The movie expands his story back (to the "Dawn of Man") and forward to include the "space odyssey" in search of the sentinel's source. The title card "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" introduces the picture's most talked-about sequence, a light show that astronaut Bowman experiences at the end of the journey.
    Borrowed? Well, we do know that Kubrick was greatly influenced by the National Film Board's Oscar-nominated short subject Universe (1960), and that he hired Wally Gentleman, its special effects wizard, and Douglas Rain, its narrator, to work on 2001. Similarly, its famous "star gate" experience is an explosive homage to the works of innovative underground and exploitation filmmakers, such as Jordan Belson (and his experimental short Re-Entry from 1964) and Roger Corman (the 1967 LSD feature The Trip).   
    With some $10-million of MGM's money, the director was able to translate all of his ideas to the screen in a motion picture event that manages to be stunning and stupefying at the same time. And, of course, "something blue."
    After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, I'll never be able to listen to the Strauss "Blue Danube" waltz without seeing the PanAm Orion space plane approaching the orbiting space station. Such is the power of the motion picture sound and image.
    As to whether Kubrick's cinematic marriage survives the test of time, only the box office will tell.
 The above is a restored version of a Canadian Register review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1968. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I was fortunate enough to see 2001: A Space Odyssey during its premiere engagement at Loew's Capitol Theatre in New York, before it was trimmed by 19 minutes. Having interviewed Arthur C. Clarke in Toronto during his promotional tour on behalf of the film, I was prepared for a life-changing experience. Imagine my disappointment at sitting through nearly three hours of pretentious codswallop. Yes, at the time I felt the need to offer filmgoers something to think about during the picture's more documentary moments — moments that stretched on and on — and there was a great deal to draw upon. Kubrick, one of the most outrageously overrated filmmakers of the 20th century, was a cinematic jackdaw. His was a career built on timely borrowings (theft is probably too harsh a word), and the pack journalism of critics who felt the need to take him seriously. In the fullness of time, we have come to understand that 2001's landmark status had as much to do with a generation's discovery of mind-altering drugs as it did with Kubrick's art.

See also: My review of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, and of director Peter Hyams's 1984 sequel to 2001, the more down-to-earth 2010.