2001: A Space Odyssey


The corridors of genius.

The corridors of genius.

(1968) Science Fiction (MGM) Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain (voice), Frank Miller (voice), Bill Weston, Edward Bishop, Glenn Beck, Alan Gifford, Ann Gillis, Edwina Carroll, Penny Brahms, Heather Downham, Mike Lovell. Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Sci-Fi Spectacle

There are those who insist that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I suppose that will depend on how you define greatness; to my mind it is certainly one of the greatest and arguably the most artistic.

It is without a doubt one of the most influential movies of the last half of the 20th century, celebrated by film critics, filmmakers, scientists and movie buffs alike. Kubrick had wanted to make a science fiction film that was smart. Up until that time with the notable exceptions of Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Things to Come most sci-fi films were absolutely horrible and rarely did much business at the box office.

Kubrick changed all that. He enlisted noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to write the screenplay which he based partially on his short story “The Sentinel” (as well as five others to a lesser degree). Kubrick filmed the movie in three distinct parts: The Dawn of Man which depicted a group of proto-humans who encounter a mysterious black monolith which somehow inspires the apes to begin using tools. One of them, being an ancestor of humans, uses a tapir bone to smash in the skull of a rival. Our first tools are used to kill. Just perfect.

The second part, untitled, takes place on a wheel-like space station orbiting the Earth in the year 2000. Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) is on his way to Clavius base on the moon. At the station he encounters Russian scientists Dr. Smyslov (Rossiter) and his colleague Elena (Tyzack) who are concerned about rumors of a plague at Clavius. Dr. Floyd tells them he’s not at liberty to discuss it but we find out later that the plague is a cover story to keep the Soviets away from the base. In fact, something has been discovered buried in the Tycho crater near the base.

When Dr. Floyd arrives at the moon he goes out to the crater to see the artifact and we see that it is a monolith similar to the one we saw in the previous portion. When they pose for a photo in front of the artifact, the monolith emits a high-pitched noise which turns out to be a radio transmission aimed at Jupiter.

Eighteen months later begins the third portion, entitled Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. A giant space ship, the Discovery has been sent to Jupiter to find out what the signal was broadcast to and what, if anything, did the broadcast accomplish. On board are three scientists in cryogenic sleep and two astronaut/scientists, Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Lockwood). Overseeing the day to day running of the ship is HAL (Rain), a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer.

During the voyage, HAL grows paranoid and murders the sleeping scientists. He also manages to kill Poole but Bowman disconnects the supercomputer before it can kill him. Thus Bowman is alone when the Discovery reaches Jupiter. He finds there another monolith, floating in space near Jupiter. Bowman takes an EVA pod out to investigate and there he will find a great mystery, one that will transform him.

The movie has remained a favorite not just of the aforementioned film buffs, filmmakers and scientists but also of the 60s drug culture who saw the movie in record numbers, often on perception-altering drugs. The sequence in which Bowman examines the monolith, leading him into a vortex of light, color and strange images has been described as “an acid trip without using drugs” and one can only imagine what the sequence would be like on drugs.

The plot is a bit threadbare and much of it leaves a great deal to the viewer’s imagination, particularly the ending which was mind-blowing at the time but even Kubrick wasn’t quite sure what it meant. The film tackles a lot of interesting subjects, including the dehumanization of technology, the question of man’s continuing evolution and what our place is in the cosmos. Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, was a big fan of the film and felt that it realistically depicted certain scientific realities although obviously the monoliths are fictitious – so far as we know.

Even today the effects remain impressive. It was one of the first films to allow product placement although it garnered no financial gain from it – the move was simply to depict the future as realistically as Kubrick thought was possible although in an unexpected way that ends up dating the movie somewhat. For example, the spacecraft Dr. Floyd uses to arrive at the space station is depicted to be a Pan-Am flight. Pan-Am ceased operations long before the film. The videophone conversation takes place on a Bell System phone but Ma Bell was broken up into AT&T and her many baby bells long before 2001. Of course, the Soviet Union was gone by 2001 as well.

Dullea and Lockwood mostly speak in calm, emotionless voices and seem to be so rational that any emotional response has been trained out of them. HAL speaks in a pleasant monotone that is meant to be reassuring but has come to represent the dangers of technology. One can see echoes of HAL in Siri.

I saw the movie during its initial release at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, one of the grand old cinemas constructed during the 1920s. At the time I found the movie to be somewhat boring and way over my eight-year-old head. My father, though, a science fiction fan, was upset by its trippy nature and disappointed overall, although he like millions of others was entranced by the vision of life in 2001. Although he didn’t live long enough to see what life in 2001 really turned out to be, I think he would have been impressed by some of the things that Kubrick got right.

2001: A Space Odyssey spawned three sequel novels by Clarke, the first of which was also made into a movie which was much more of a traditional type of movie. However, the original stands alone as a cinematic achievement. People love it or hate it; certainly it will evoke some sort of response. While I still find the stargate sequence to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily long, I can’t deny the movie’s continued power and impact. I suggest for those who haven’t done so yet to see this on a big movie screen the next time it appears at your local revival theater. This is one of those movies that benefit from the large screen, the theatrical sound and the overall overwhelming experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece, flawed in my opinion but a recognizable masterpiece nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some ape violence and human smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 88 minutes without dialogue on the film including the Dawn of Man sequence and the Star Gate sequence; it was also the last movie that depicted human presence on the moon released before Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc Special Edition DVD contains an audio interview with the late Stanley Kubrick, conceptual artwork of the special effects, Dullea reading varied interpretations of what the film means including one by Kubrick himself and a video interview with author Arthur C. Clarke from his home in Sri Lanka, who had a full-sized monolith in his garden – which monkeys play on!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $57M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: November Man

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Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

2010


2010

Jupiter should have used SPF-50.

(MGM) Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice), Madolyn Smith, Dana Elcar, James McEachin, Elya Baskin, Taliesin Jaffe, Mary Jo Deschanel, Natasha Shneider. Directed by Peter Hyams

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be one of the pre-eminent science fiction movies of all time – in fact, many see it as one of the best movies of all time period. In 1984, director Peter Hyams (Outland) took on the ambitious and daunting task of filming the sequel, which author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1982. While Hyams added his own elements and changed many of Clarke’s, nonetheless the framework was unchanged and the message remained the same.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (Scheider), former head of the NCA, was the catalyst behind the ill-fated voyage of the U.S.S. Discovery to Jupiter following the discovery of a black featureless rectangular monolith buried in a lunar crater back in 2001. During that trip, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Rain), the most advanced artificial intelligence ever designed, went psychotic causing the deaths of Astronaut Frank Poole and the scientific team in hibernation onboard. After Astronaut David Bowman (Dullea) disconnected the computer, he encountered a gigantic monolith – with the exact same features and dimensions of the lunar monolith – floating in space between Jupiter and its moon Io. After going out to investigate, Bowman disappeared but not before leaving behind a puzzling final transmission: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

This has haunted Floyd in the nine years since the Discovery incident. He has left the NCA for an academic position. One afternoon, he is visited by a Russian scientist (Elcar) who chats cryptically about the Discovery and informs Floyd that the Russians are planning a mission to the Discovery that will arrive a full year ahead of the American one. He proposes that the Americans tag along on the Russian vessel. Floyd is skeptical, but then the Russian points him in the direction of a shocking new development; the Discovery has changed its position and has moved towards Io and is in danger of crashing to its surface. There is no explanation as to why it had done that.

A joint Soviet-American mission is a lot more of a difficult sell than you can imagine. Tensions between the two countries are at an all-time high due to an unspecified ongoing crisis in the Honduras. The leaders seem ill-disposed towards acting sensibly and nuclear war is a very real possibility. Most of the people on the planet are in fear for their lives. Still, after Floyd goes to the new head of the NCA (McEachin) with the information, he manages to convince his replacement to go to bat with the president for the idea – with Floyd one of the astronauts to be sent to Jupiter to discover just what went wrong aboard the Discovery.

Accompanying Floyd will be Dr. Chandra (Balaban), the brilliant designer of HAL 9000 and its successor SAL 9000, and engineer Walter Curnow (Lithgow) who designed many of the systems aboard the Discovery. Commanding the Leonov is Commander Kirbuk (Mirren), a hard-as-nails by-the-book military commander (notice that Kirbuk is Kubrick spelled backwards – sorta) who butts heads with Floyd from the beginning. Suspicious of the Americans, she and her crew are not the most co-operative of sorts. However, they do grudgingly confirm that they have discovered the presence of chlorophyll on the surface of Europa – an icy moon of Jupiter where no signs of life previously existed. The Leonov sends a probe to investigate but this ends in the destruction of the probe before any meaningful data can be discovered.

At last, the Leonov reaches the Discovery and at last the mystery of the monoliths and the madness of the computer might be explained. However, you know what they say about curiosity – and finding the answers to these mysteries may cost the crew of the Leonov their lives.

The tendency is to compare 2010 with its predecessor and in many ways that’s quite unfair. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, as I mentioned, one of the most honored films of all time. It’s a lot like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone with the Wind; the former is a solid film on its own merits but doesn’t really compare to the classic latter. Hyams is a competent filmmaker in his own right, but he is no Stanley Kubrick, as Hyams I’m sure would be the first to confess. His storytelling technique is more straightforward, which makes 2010 a more accessible movie in a lot of ways.

By our standards, the special effects are primitive, although they were cutting edge for 1984 when the film came out. Still, taking that into account, it’s still a very watchable film, even if the computers look clunky when compared to, for example, iPhones. One has to look past that and try to concentrate on the story and the performances.

While the Soviet-American tensions seem hopelessly dated (the Berlin Wall would fall a mere seven years after the movie came out but while it was being made, the ideological conflict was in full bloom), some of the other aspects of the movie are prescient; for example, widespread use of portable computers and voice activated controls. We are finding out more about Europa and its potential for harboring life.

Scheider was one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads, having done such films as Jaws and Hyams’ own Blue Thunder. He is in his element here as the irreverent and maverick scientist Floyd. He plays nicely off of Mirren, who hadn’t yet reached the stature as an actress that she has today. Her character is essentially one-dimensional, but Mirren gives her at least as much depth as the script will allow. Fluent in Russian (Mirren’s father was Russian-born – her birth name is Mironov – and Russian and English were both spoken in her home), Mirren lends authenticity to her character and while she is something of a cliché (the Americans are always right, the Russians are always mulish), she remains someone you want to root for even if the writers didn’t always allow you to.

Its eerie seeing Keir Dullea as Bowman, the role he originated 2001. De-aged by make-up artist Michael Westmore, he looks uncannily ageless. When I first saw the film in theaters, I actually got shivers up my spine.

I will admit to being somewhat overly lenient towards science fiction films, so do take that into account when reading this. There’s something to be said for watching two enormous spacecraft orbiting near Jupiter. While some of the movie seems dated (which seems odd for science fiction which is intended to be forward-looking), certainly it remains a very watchable, mostly enjoyable science fiction movie. Some of the intelligence of Clarke’s original work remains, but this is meant to be more entertaining than illuminating. For what it is meant to be, it succeeds. Just don’t expect to see psychedelic visuals at the first strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by most of the cast. The de-aging of Dullea as Astronaut David Bowman is astonishing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the special effects, while cutting-edge for their time, are laughably primitive. Those who measure this by Kubrick’s movie are going to find this sorely lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: By 2010 standards, there’s nothing in this movie that a good parent would object to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the SAL 9000 computer during the University of Chicago Computer Lab scene is voiced by Candice Bergen, operating under a pseudonym. She is credited, somewhat cheekily, as Olga Mallsnerd, combining the names of her then-husband (director Louis Malle) and one of her father, Edgar Bergen’s, most beloved characters Mortimer Snerd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Did You Hear About the Morgans?