There have been film directors that were as great, in their own way, as Stanley Kubrick- think Orson Welles, who made great films on a shoe string budget. There have been filmmakers as obsessively controlling- think of the visual compositions of Yasujiro Ozu. There have been film directors who have wrought as many great films, and more, in many genres- think of Akira Kurosawa. And there have been filmmakers who have as intensely explored the human condition as microscopically- think Ingmar Bergman. But, no filmmaker had all of those qualities together, the way Kubrick did. And this is not to state that he is the greatest of his profession, merely that, from his earliest glimmers of greatness in Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, through his final masterpiece in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick was singular. There simply will never be any more remotely Kubrickian films. It’s not as if there are Kubrickian films the way there are Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets.
And, of all the great films that Stanley Kubrick wrought in his lifetime, now more than a decade gone, there is no more singular Kubrickian film than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It simply stands alone and apart, not only from Kubrick’s oeuvre, but from the rest of filmdom. Yes, there are moments in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris that rival the best in 2001, but only for those moments. As science fiction, 2001 is still filmically nonpareil. And, while Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is, by far, the best satire ever committed to filmdom, the gap between it and runners-up like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or the anarchic South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (note even the sly phallic bris reference in that title) is far smaller than that between 2001 and all comers.
Most people know the basics of the tale, which, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, is patterned after Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, but herein a brief summary: the film is in 4 parts. Part 1 is The Dawn Of Man, wherein man-ape tribes battle over a watering hole. One tribe wakes to find a large black monolith- either an analog for an alien presence, or an artifact of it, and its members learn to use weapons to kill rivals. One of the triumphant man-apes tosses a bone into the air where a quick match cut takes us to an untitled second part of the film, as the bone becomes an orbiting satellite, possibly a weapon. The year must be 2000, since the rest of the film, 18 months later, takes place, ostensibly, in 2001. In this portion of the film we get the most information fed to the audience, as we follow an American scientist, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester), headed to an orbiting space station, then off to the American moonbase. At the space station he is grilled by Russian scientists, but demurs telling his real intent. A cover story of an epidemic has been concocted. The reason is the discovery of a 4 million year of black monolith, just like the one in part one of the film, buried in lunar sands. At the monolith site, Floyd and other astronauts inspect it, and it lets out a shriek headed toward Jupiter.
Part 3 is called Jupiter Mission: Eighteen Months Later. Three hibernating scientists, a shipwide computer call HAL, and two waking astronauts, Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) are onboard Discovery One, headed for the planet Jupiter. After some introductory scenes HAL tells the astronauts that the AE-35 unit- the communications antenna, is going to fail within 72 hours. Checking this, they discover the computer has erred, for the first time in its history. The astronauts go into a pod for privacy and discuss shutting HAL down, but the computer sees and reads their lips through the pod’s portal. The film then hits intermission, and Part 3 continues. While putting the unit back in place, outside the ship, HAL has the pod Poole was in sever his oxygen hose. Bowman rushes to retrieve Poole’s body, and in doing so forgets to bring his astronaut suit’s space helmet. He does so, and HAL terminates the life support for the three hibernating astronauts, then refuses Bowman re-entry to the ship. Bowman then re-enters the ship via the air lock, and proceeds to disconnect HAL’s circuitry in a glowing red room. HAL objects, and slowly its speech slurs and slows, and the computer starts singing a song, Daisy Bell. As HAL dies, Bowman sees a secret transmission re: the lunar monolith as evidence for the first human contact with extraterrestrial life.
This leads into the film’s fourth and final part: Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite. Bowman’s pod leaves Discovery One, and heads toward a black monolith floating between Jupiter and its moons. It then seemingly enters the monolith and a series of phantasmagoric images appear for several minutes. When this visual delight ends, we see the pod and Bowman in a Victorian suite with a white lighted floor. Several successions of an aging Bowman are seen, until the oldest bedridden version points to the monolith in front of him. The camera enters the black field, as the last shot of the bed shows a Star-Child, not Bowman. Then, we see the Starchild hover above Earth, and the camera ends with the fetus looking into the camera.
Without doubt, this is one of a handful of films, including Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Andre Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, and Bela Tarr’s Satantango, that not only touches greatness, but helps to alter consciousness as it does so. Marker’s film is in still photos, and forces the mind, upon recall, to animate it; Malle’s film is all spoken, yet, in recall one remembers scenes described, not spoken; and in Tarr’s film moments are obsessed on so long, in the mammoth film, that in recall the mind presses out extraneities (a process that 2001 does to a lesser degree, albeit a quarter century earlier). In Kubrick’s film we get a different tack, other than playing with memory. Kubrick’s film plunges one into the world of über-symbolism. Not only do things all mean more than one thing, but so do characters and actions. The names of characters take on meaning, the fact that technology subverts humanity, only to end in the reverse, only to be subverted by an X Factor, all takes on meaning, etc. The film has been so dissected amongst film fans and cinemarati that there seems to be little more that can be added to the canon. But there is. One of the more interesting takes on the film comes from a pair of videos, by Rob Ager. He makes an interesting claim that the monolith symbolizes the film screen itself, arguing that its dimensions are equal to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of widescreen films, and that the film’s opening and intermission represent that black screen as monolith, if turned horizontally. While an ingenious ploy, it is demonstrably wrong. First, to say that if we do something to change a thing (like turn a monolith on its side, it becomes something else, gives infinite elasticity to an argument that is specific. Second, Kubrick’s film is not filmed in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but 2.20:1. Also, in the video evidence presented by Ager, the monoliths are clearly between 4-5 times as long or wide, on one side, as they are in relation to the other. Or, they are almost or greater than twice the ratio of widescreen films. End of Ager’s theory of symbolism. However clever or novel a claim is, if it fails its own claims, it is wrong. And, clearly, the visual evidence that Ager presents is simply and irrefutably wrong. But, bonus points for the attempt, on a film that seems to bring out theories by the bushel.
But, Kubrick’s film is great for many of the reasons people say it is not great. First, it has a GREAT screenplay, even though no dialogue occurs till a few minutes into the film’s second part. But, the dialogue is never banal, as many critics claim. It is simply pointed. Banal means clichéd, but really listen to the exchanges between the astronauts in the pod, when they attempt to subvert HAL, and listen to Floyd banter with colleagues as they are taken to the monolith site on the moon. It is filled with wit. It is, in short, the antithesis of banal, which suggests that many critics simply do not know definitions of simple terms they employ. Then, look at the economy of scenes. Look at the scenes between HAL and Bowman. Three key points best illustrate this greatness, and they come near the film’s end (although I could choose other, earlier points, as well): Watch when HAL refuses Bowman re-entry into Discovery One, after Bowman has retrieved Poole’s body. Keir Dullea shows great acting with the eyes and face alone (a technique most modern film actors are incapable of), but the key point is the character’s amazement at the computer’s felicity and self-preservation instincts (after all, if HAL is alive and sentient, his killing of Poole and the other astronauts could be argued as self-defense). He has to literally swallow, then tight-lippedly asks where the hell the computer got that idea. HAL reveals he read the astronaut’s lips. Bowman is stunned, and especially so when HAL almost seems to mock him, and abruptly informs Bowman that further conversation can serve no purpose. Rarely has one scene contained so much information unstated, yet reacted to as greatly by another character. And Bowman’s reaction is great character development. The fact that it is not scenery-chewing, but realistic, makes it no less spectacular a job of writing and acting. But, theatricality wins Oscars, not great acting. Yet I ask, who, in 1968, gave a better onscreen acting performance than Keir Dullea?
The second moment of great screenwriting comes in the very next scene, where Bowman basically commits an ‘honor killing’ of HAL, in revenge for Poole’s death, but listen to the computer’s supplications, as it knows it is going to die. Then watch Bowman’s face, behind the helmet visor. There is great conflict in his eyes. This is great acting coupled with great writing, again. Why? Because HAL is not just a computer. HAL is a being, one which Bowman must terminate to save himself and the mission, and he LIKES HAL. They are friends, as witnessed by earlier scenes of camaraderie. There go the claims that HAL is more ‘human’ than the humans. Bowman is clearly conflicted by and disturbed over what he is doing. Also, the viewer is, as well. And here is Point 3: when I first saw this film, over thirty years ago, I recall the HAL ‘death scene’ as one of the few filmic moments to ever cause me to tear up in sadness. Imagine that! The non-physical death of a character on film causes sadness, and yet the film is often accused of being cold and sterile. And, in the intervening years, I have, in film talks, found that the same scene caused the same emotional reaction in many other viewers. I was not alone. Any film that can both enhance one’s consciousness and touch one’s emotions, simultaneously, evinces greatness. 2001: A Space Odyssey simply has one of the greatest screenplays ever penned, and the screenplay is the skeleton that supports the filmic flesh.
The two disk DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, is terrific. Disk One has the film, and it is pristinely transferred, with the original theatrical trailer and a really good commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. They seem to have been recorded at different times, then merged together. Lockwood’s commentary dominates until his character is killed off, and then Dullea dominates. Dullea seems laconic and reflective while Lockwood is a more opinionated ’man’s man.’ The actors reveal that many of the seemingly realistic scenes in the man-ape sequences were not filmed in Africa, because Kubrick feared flying, so he sent photographers to the Dark Continent, and still photos were used in retroflective matting, or front projection. This is seen when one notices no movement in the background. Revelations on how numerous effects were done- like Floyd’s free-floating pen, or rotating parts of spaceships, are well done and explained. Among the more interesting moments in the commentary is Dullea’s claim that there is a chess move mistake in the film that Kubrick deliberately put in, and Lockwood’s belief that humanity will destroy itself, as well as his pointing out that much of the film’s greatness, indeed, does come from moments that most critics overlook and/or dismiss.
The second disk features a bonus documentary, 2001: The Making Of A Myth, 4 smaller featurettes on aspects of the film and its legacy, a piece on the special effects in the film, a classic promo film called Look: Stanley Kubrick!, and a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick. All the features are top notch, and this is one of the best DVD packages on the market, fitting for one of the best films ever made. The lone downer is an appearance in one of the documentaries by social critic Camille Paglia wherein she speaks little of the film, only to try to put it in a political box it does not fit into. The cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth is spectacular, although Kubrick played a much greater role than most directors do in such, and the Classical music scoring of the film, chosen by Kubrick, is amongst the most memorable in film history. After all, how many films use Classical music, but how many of them, after their release, have the music associated with the film, rather than the film associated with the music?
Like most Kubrick films, this 148 minute long film was panned at its release, only to rise dramatically in critical reviews since. And it won its lone Oscar for Best Visual Effects, even though many of its predicted technologies have not materialized (most notably moonbases and manned trips to the outer solar system), whereas other technologies went unforeseen (most notably the Internet and extreme miniaturization of computers). Similarly, the Soviet Union disappeared, as did Bell Telephones and Pan-Am Airlines.
Here is an annotated sampling of critical takes on the film. From James Berardinelli
It's questionable which element of 2001 stands out the most clearly: the pacing, the music, or the visuals. In truth, the three are inseparable. Like a skilled chef, Kubrick blended them together to form a dish of incomparable excellence. They are unique ingredients, yet, once mixed, they can no longer be reconstituted into their original forms.
This is an excellent point, but then he whiffs on another:
I can think of two other movies that have consciously borrowed aspects of Kubrick's 2001 style. (There may be others, but either I have forgotten them or I never knew about them to forget.) They are Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Contact. Both slowed their pace to awe the viewer with a cavalcade of visual images.
Yet Star Wars (which he mentions in his review) consciously mimics its first shot of a long spaceship after 2001’s first shot of Discovery One. By contrast, conventional reviewers of the time, like the New York Times’ Renata Adler, could not even construct coherent responses to the film. Witness:
The whole sensibility is intellectual fifties child: chess games, bodybuilding exercises, beds on the spacecraft that look like camp bunks, other beds that look like Egyptian mummies, Richard Strauss music, time games, Strauss waltzes, Howard Johnson's, birthday phone calls. In their space uniforms, the voyagers look like Jiminy Crickets. When they want to be let out of the craft they say "Pod bay doors open," as one might say "Bomb bay doors open" in every movie out of World War II.
Huh? Jiminy Crickets? Roger Ebert hit the nail better, even if he does cheapen things with the amorphous catch-all term genius:
The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,'' but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations.
But, the very reasons 2001 succeeds as a great film is not because it simply awes us, although moments do, but because, like all great films, it touches us, and deeply, in ways that many viewers are not even aware of, and none that require genius. The film succeeds in myriad little moments that all can relate to. I mentioned Dr. Floyd’s banter with colleagues on the way to the monolith site, but there is the ecstatic ‘first violence’ in the murder of the rival man-ape early on. This is a vivid redo of the Cain and Abel myth, and how many of us wish we were so excited that we could toss an object into the air like the murderous man-ape does his bone weapon? Then there is Floyd with his daughter on the space videophone, and a circumspect Floyd being confronted by the smiling Russians. There is the scene where Poole gets a video birthday wish from his parents, and acts ho-hum about it. There is the scene where Bowman must release the recaptured corpse of his friend to outer space to save himself and the mission, and the very fact that, despite being on the mission for his cool demeanor, Bowman hurriedly forgets his space helmet to retrieve the body in the first place shows a deep connection between emotion and action that a didactic spoken resolution could never achieve. There are other moments, as well, but it is in these moments, often dismissed as banalities, that the film actually pulls the viewer into the tale. That so many critics miss these rather obvious connections shows just how attuned to lowest common denominator action, violence, and bluntly obvious things, most filmgoers are. Yet, it’s the parallax of this lack against the grandness of the other parts of the film that pulls the mind like taffy between the antipodes. And it is this stretching wherein the film’s greatness lies.
Another point that goes unnoticed is how and why, if HAL is so ‘insane,’ the computer simply does not turn off all oxygen and heat inside the spaceship when the two waking astronauts sleep? Perhaps one of them needed to be awake while the other slept and would have simply unplugged HAL, but it does seem that HAL’s flaws in programming, the ones that make him more ‘human,’ also make him a flawed antagonist. And this is yet another aspect of the film, lost in all the talk of its grandeur, and superlatives, that is lost on most viewers and critics, yet part of the doll within doll within doll like nature of the film that buoys its claim to all time great status. There’s simply no doubt, after watching this film, that both it and its creator deserve the label great. Unfortunately, too few, these days, even attempt such, whether Kubrickian or not.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.