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

Color Me Kubrick


John Malkovich doesn't think much of the reviews.

John Malkovich doesn’t think much of the reviews.

(2005) Dramedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Honor Blackman, Richard E. Grant, Bryan Dick, Burn Gorman, Leslie Phillips, John Leyton, James Dreyfus, Marisa Berenson, William Hootkins, Ayesha Dharker, James Faulkner, Jim Davidson, Henry Goodman, Rebecca Front. Directed by Brian W. Cook

 

Once upon a time there was a con man named Alan Conway (ironically enough) who made his way through London by convincing people he was the legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Although looking nothing at all like him, he managed to pass himself off to a number of people with a combination of charm and brazenness until he was discovered.

Conway (Malkovich) uses his assumed identity for everything from drinks to sexual encounters with young men. He makes vague promises about roles in movies in both cast and crew; he gets in tight with a renowned stage artist named Lee Pratt (Davidson) on the promise of developing a show in Vegas for him. At last the New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (Hootkins) helps expose Conway’s ruse.

While the events are real enough, Cook and writer Anthony Frewin took enough liberties with the story to make the film, as they describe it, true-ish. The real Kubrick became aware of Conway but was helpless to do anything about it as his victims refused to press charges out of sheer embarrassment.

This is Malkovich’s film and he turns in a performance that is equal to any of his best-known works. He is obviously having a good time with the character who in turn was having a good time with his deception. One gets the sense that Conway was amazed at how taken in people were by his shenanigans and got a big kick out of it. Malkovich is also getting a big kick out of it and that not only contributes to the enjoyment of the movie but is almost entirely the raison d’être for the film.

Unfortunately, there’s a little too much of Conway doing his thing and it’s often the same thing. There were a lot of scenes that seemed unnecessarily repetitious and I found my attention wandering at a few points in the movie, never a good sign. Fortunately, they had Malkovich to regain it and over and over again he did just that.

Personally I would have liked to have seen more of the aftermath of his doings; basically they’re treated as harmless and amusing by the filmmakers and I suspect they were anything but. We also get no sense of what Kubrick thought of all this, whether he was amused, annoyed or angry – all we know is that he wanted it to stop.

This is certainly worth checking out if for no other reason than to watch Malkovich at his very best. The movie overall is good fun, mostly harmless but certainly there’s a devilish edge to it that makes you feel wicked for enjoying it quite so much. It’s not quite a guilty pleasure because it’s actually a pretty good film – but you feel guilty for taking pleasure in watching it just the same.

WHY RENT THIS: A deliciously arch and twisted performance by Malkovich.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lost my interest in places, a big no-no.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both the director and writer of the film worked with the real Stanley Kubrick on several of his films near the end of his career.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing really but footage of the real Alan Conway turns up on the making-of featurette which gives you a little more reason to watch it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $497,009 on an unreported production budget; it’s unlikely the movie turned much of a profit if any at all.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch Me If You Can

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Johnny English Reborn