Release Date: April 3rd, 1968 (US limited)
Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain
Where to begin?
The beginning of time, apparently. A group of apes, shepherded by an apparent leader, are growled at and hounded from their waterhole having already lost a member via the scissor-like teeth of a leopard. It appears; seemingly from nowhere, from nothing: a large and brooding object, known as the monolith. The beasts shriek, cower and then gain strength in its presence. Shortly thereafter, the now tactical, abrasive early hominids have reclaimed their waterhole. Clutching a bone, envisioning a tool, the leader tosses his symbol of construction, destruction and all else into air.
We’re floating in space.
It truly is a remarkable opening sequence, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of premature life dissolving into an achievement-driven existence, an existence embodied by the amazing feat of spatial prosperity. By squashing life’s inception all the way through to thriving humanity into only a few minutes, is Kubrick trivialising said time period? Is he playing down the importance of thousands of years in anticipation of what is to come next? Perhaps. Yet it is the black structure, the monolith that is most intriguing. So odd in its appearance, the edged object turns ominous; what of its instantly empowering effect on the apes? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential pieces of cinema, of art, to be born out of the last century, and in less than 10 minutes it pillages viewers with more questions than answers. Over a two hour and 40 minute run-time these questions double, treble, as Kubrick raises issue after issue including our reliance on machines, mechanical manipulation, the significance of alien existence, of shapes even. He does all of this whilst celebrating humankind and our limitless prerogative. It’s wonderful.
Zarathustra, speak. Cue the brass…
Across four far-reaching periods of time, each one linked existentially and thematically to the next, 2001: A Space Odyssey engages in a tale — the tale — of life. After encountering the early hominid creatures, we ascend over the horizon into space and join Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) are he prepares for a mission to Clavius Base in the midst of some abnormal goings-on. The narrative sprints ahead thereafter, to the Jupiter Mission, doctors Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and their increasingly claustrophobic relationship with ship computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Finally, Kubrick takes us on a peculiar and tantalising journey across, through and around the cosmos, blanketed in an array of magnificent cosmological phenomena.
This collection of chronological mini-movies, although odd at first glance, succeeds two-fold: in compounding the monumental story being told, and in detailing the development of mindful curiosity, technological prowess and emotional manipulation. The first strand — the only section to be located on land — portrays everything primitive. The ape, soon to become man. The waterhole, soon to become territory. The bone, soon to become a sword, and a sceptre, and a hammer. It’s smart, cunning almost, as the sequence sets your brain clogs in motion. And the viewer’s mind is certainly going to need to be switched on, as the black vacuum above plays host to everything that follows.
An iconic image: the bone thrown and subsequently plummeting through the air, snappily followed by a space shuttle harnessed by gravity. Perhaps an indication of humankind’s selfishly perceived stability all these years later. Selfish in their control over nature, and negligence of mechanical reliance. Machines that seemingly have a “dependence on people,” at least that’s the view of Heywood, and later both Frank and David. Kubrick switches his line of questioning, batting that now aged-old ‘man versus machine’ adage that was gaining prominence around the film’s release in 1968. The internal AI system, HAL, is essentially the ticking heart of Discovery One, Frank and David’s space liner — HAL’s physical appearance burns a bright reddish-orange, symbolising the sun. Yet the system is almost secondary to the humans on board, simply a part of their routine; machinery assists in cooking food (unlike the raw meat off the slain bone eaten by apes), in steering the ship, providing entertainment (HAL wins at a game of chess), and almost all else.
This notion of machine-driven consumption prevails throughout the film, climaxing in HAL’s eventual devilishness and therefore implying both that machine has absolute rule over man, and that it is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of life. Douglas Rain is deadpan as the system’s voice, verbalising in an incredibly unassuming-turned-condescending manner (“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult”). Coincidentally, this converging relationship between man and machine has once again reared its societal hand recently, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a story about a man who falls in love with his AI system. The topic is an intriguing one, and Stanley Kubrick tackles it as well as anybody has done (or will do).
There are also other subtexts rummaging around, including our intrinsic attraction to the search for alien existence, conveyed by how characters interact with the menacing monoliths scattered throughout. Another irregular data byte comes by way of shapes — the sphere: HAL, the ship’s centre, and planet Earth indicating a form of coming full circle; the rectangle: those brooding and dangerous monoliths, offering no leeway; and the picturesque octagon: part of Discovery One’s walkway, an uncommon shape signalling strange happenings.
Interspersed within this ocean of thought-provoking query is a soundtrack as wide-ranging as the eon covered, yet one that maintains a common brassy undertone. Celebratory and grandiose, Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” blares as a triumphant recognition of achievement. Conversely, scores of haunting, ghostly tones wail out like human souls in fear of extraterrestrials; it’s the ambience of the unknown. Geoffrey Unsworth has a whole universe to work with, and his cinematography is marvellous. The special effects, though obviously not up to present day standards, are admirable in their imagination — the influence of the camera work on show here can be seen propelling modern movies like Gravity. Performances from Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester are by no means the centrepiece of proceedings, but Dullea in particularly stands out depicting of the authority-battling and bearings-losing Dr. David Bowman.
Stanley Kubrick films are renowned for offering more questions than answers. This potentially problematic mantra shows no sign of miss-deployment here, instead thriving in tandem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that encompasses all of time and that debates the multitude of lives lived throughout.
Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer