2001: A Review of the Space Odyssey
Every so-often we reach a particular point in time that a writer in the past chose as the stage for their story. Such was the case in one of the original Star Trek episodes, where Ricardo Montalban played the part of “Khan”, the genetically engineered super-human leader of a group of criminals who, as the story was told in 1965, were put into hyper-sleep and launched from earth in a spacecraft in 1997 A.D.. Alas, when 1997 rolled around in reality, no criminals were banished to space. The science of cryogenics hadn’t even tested successfully then. But this was only a projection by Gene Roddenberry of what the accomplishments of man would have reached at that time in the future, which was a perfectly valid estimation when he made it. Another example is that of the war called “Judgment Day”, as written by the makers of Terminator I & II, where on August 29th 1997, Skynet cybernetic computers, which flew unmanned stealth bombers, launched nuclear missiles in order to protect themselves from their creators who tried to shut down the system. Of course, when August 29th came, the world didn’t come to an end. It’s fun when these dates show up on our calendars and we compare our reality to what people thought the future would be like. Which brings me to my subject, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. I will evaluate it both as a film and how accurate it is as a portrayal of the future.
Before the movie really begins, there is an overture which is almost three minutes long consisting of an atonal, non-metrical score that is extremely annoying to sit through, because it’s not music, it’s noise. I don’t understand its function in the show. Maybe the director was trying to establish a mood. Perhaps this is another occasion where someone tried to make the audience think, but just ended up annoying them. In any case, this can be interpreted as the first sign of a bad movie. The beginning credits were played over a picture of an orbital sunrise above the moon accompanied by the song "Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Strauss. 2001 was the first movie to use this song and so it is the origin of what the other shows copycat and make fun of. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a powerful song and fits the scene, but has more movement than what you are shown: a single steady shot of the sun, panning up from the moon. The unequal balance of the two leaves you grasping for more than what they give you. Oh well…
In the first part of the movie they show a bunch of scenes of deserts, monkeys, and animals. It plays out in near silence as though you’re looking at a picture book about the dawn of man, which is okay, I guess, if you like books. But the absence of some traditional things you expect in a movie like sound, music, and dialogue makes you wonder, “What’s the point?” After a while the restless audience is relieved to see some action when the dumb monkeys, actually actors in anatomically correct costumes, start fighting each other over a waterhole and with other animals. But the noise of the monkeys yelling is so loud it begins to wear your patience thin. Thank God they give us a break when they go back to more quiet pictures of the monkeys going to sleep. Later, eleven minutes into the movie, the first musical score appears along with the monolith: a large, rectangular-shaped thing which just stands there. The song is another noisy mess that plays while the monkeys wake up and discover the monolith. Everything is so abstract as they explore it, it makes you laugh and wonder if the directors were making a joke or not. The song ends abruptly with that scene. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” makes its second appearance (unaltered from the first version), as the lead monkey, apparently inspired by the monolith, learns to use the bones of a dead animal as weapons. This is the second time we hear this song, but it has such a good theme, we’ll be patient and endure it. Next, more monkey fighting and yelling at the waterhole, only this time, the clan with the monopoly on knowledge, supplied by a source from an unknown origin, prevails.
After nearly 20 minutes, we finally get to see something that has to do with space. Because of this movie, everybody connects “The Blue Danube” with space travel and the slow motion body movement people experience when there’s no gravity. One of the qualities of this movie is that it is the instigator of what became a running gag in entertainment. With this song, we are shown more picture-book-like scenes of the earth, moon, satellites and the rotating space station. After 5 minutes of that, we hear the first words of the human language in the movie, but they sound as though the blonde actress who is speaking them is drunk or space sick. The dialogue is hard to hear, which is common of films in the 60’s and 70’s, due to poor engineering, editing, and technology used in that time. If you want to hear what is being said, you’ll have to get up and turn up the volume.
One of the characters makes a picture phone call to the earth using one of Pacific Bell’s phone booths. Pacific Bell does not exist any more. It merged with a larger business in the 80’s. But it is possible to make picture phone calls today. It's not as popular, and the resolution and quality of the picture is not nearly superior as what you see here. There is also an international space station today, but it’s nowhere as luxurious as portrayed in the movie. There is no hotel, phone booths, artificial gravity, or elevator operators. It’s not as accessible, either, for traveling businessmen, doctors, and there are no job opportunities for administration or security officers.
In this part of the movie, the audience is informed of some unexplained phenomena at a base on the moon and a cover up to hide the facts, which is an arousing plot, but in our reality there are no bases on the moon, no humans, or technology. Astronauts do not wear velcro shoes so they can walk in spacecraft, and do not eat mush space food. If they want to eat soup, they may have to drink it from a container, but otherwise they’re allowed to eat pretty much what we eat here on earth. Another annoying atonal musical score consisting of female voices singing “oooo” is played during the space flight to the sight of a newly discovered monolith on the moon. The song is back up to normal volume, so if you turned it up before, you’ll have to jump up again to turn it back down. Finding a second monolith on the moon when we’ve only seen one back at the dawn of man is kind of creepy. That’s another plus for the movie. But when the science team reaches the sight of the monolith, they play the same pain-in-the-butt song they played when the monkeys discovered the first one. This show’s musical score does not have much going for it so far. The scene and music oddly ends abruptly again when the monolith objects to having its picture taken with the science team.
Finally, after nearly an hour, we get to the heart of this movie, “The Jupiter Mission”. This is where you hear one of James Horner’s original scores. It’s a song for strings which sounds only one or two notes at a time, another atonal theme that is played as you’re shown slow flyby shots of the Discovery, the spaceship, and a peculiar scene where Frank Poole, the copilot jogs around inside the sphere-shaped deck of the craft. The song is rather depressing which portrays the loneliness of deep space travel. It continues later as Frank views a message from Earth in which his parents sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Listening to a happy song played over a depressing song makes the audience feel awkward and sad for the guy, which is a good technique to be recognized and used by the makers of any movie. Unfortunately James Horner did not leave this song in 2001. He uses the same theme, manipulating it a bit, in other movies like Aliens 2, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, which is not good because it makes him look uncreative. Although it is interesting to see how the song evolves over time.
Anyhow, the Discovery spacecraft is controlled by a HAL 9000 computer and is transporting a crew of 5, including 3 men in hibernation at 3 degrees Celsius. Again, there is no working application of cryogenics or spaceships controlled by artificial intelligence in the reality of the year 2001. Although we are capable of cloning human beings, and there are unmanned planes flown by computers that are bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan today – woohoo! As to living in a spaceship controlled by a computer that can manipulate it’s interior environment according to any voice command given by it’s occupants, Bill Gates probably lives in a house like this. From what I heard, HAL was an IBM computer because if you take the letters “H” “A” “L” and move ahead one letter, you get “I” “B” “M”. Later in the movie, HAL made an analysis and printed the results up on an old style cardboard IBM card. IBM cards in 2001! That was laughable. Those things went out with Pacific Bell.
Immediately after the computer displayed an emotional concern about the bizarreness of the mission, the only means of communication with earth malfunctioned and had to be repaired. So in the next scene, we are exposed to the famous sound effect of gas and breathing as the pilot, Dave Bowman space walks and removes the damaged circuit. It lasts for eight minutes, without any words. The sound again is much louder than the previous dialogue. I hope you’ve got a remote controlled sound system. But the space walk is kind of cool for a movie that was made in the late 60’s.
It turns out that there was nothing wrong with the antenna circuit. This makes you think there’s something wrong with HAL. Being in a spaceship so far from home, where the main character’s lives depend on a computer that may be malfunctioning or going brizerk gives rise to concern in the audience for the crew. Now that the movie has our full attention, the two pilots isolate themselves in a shuttle pod to discuss their situation without HAL being able to hear their conversation. The only thing was that one of HAL’s camera eyeballs could see them talking through the pod window. As we are shown what HAL saw and how he saw it, we question even more the idea that HAL is going crazy. This is very good for the movie. Too bad this moment of glory lasts only a few minutes. For the show is interrupted by an intermission inserted by the movie’s own makers, and the same sickening overture that was shown at the beginning is played again. Why? It’s annoying! That move cost them the points they just earned.
The movie continues again with more loud gas and breathing sound effects as Frank leaves his pod to reinsert the supposedly damaged circuit into the antenna. When he reaches the satellite dish and begins to work on it, the pod starts to move on it’s own. It slowly turns around and moves toward the unsuspecting co-pilot, while opening it’s retractable claw as it closes in on Poole. The sound suddenly stops. Dave Bowman looks out the cockpit window to see Frank and the pod tumbling away. This is the kind of thing that moviegoers want to see. It’s psycho! HAL has used the pod as a remote control to cut Frank’s air supply. The pod moving by itself is really creepy, and this action comes as quite a shock because the last 1&1/2 hours have been extremely slow paced. Bowman forgets to put on the helmet to his space suit and quickly jumps into another pod to retrieve his copilot. The audience has to sit in silence and watch as Frank struggles to fix his air hose and slowly dies. This is the most awkward and traumatic part of the movie that we must endure, but the boredom that permeates the show up to this point makes this incident that more affective in reaching the audience. Still, I have to ask, “Is this the way the director planned it?” We have to listen to the sound of the homing beacon for 3 minutes as Bowman closes in on Poole, but it’s a sound that you’ll never forget because of what just occurred. In fact, they used the same sound effect on Star Trek 5, The Final Frontier.
After Dave catches his expired copilot with the pod, HAL cuts the life support to the science team who are in hibernation. We must watch again as their life signs drop on the monitors and warning sirens go off for a minute until all the read outs are flat lined. Silence again. Dave is back outside with his dead copilot, asking HAL to let them back inside. "Open the pod bay doors HAL”, Dave repeatedly asks about ten times before HAL finally answers. “I can’t do that Dave.” This makes me laugh, because although it’s suppose to be serious, HAL’s voice is oddly calm and disconnected. This is something else that has been made fun of and used as a gag in other shows, and rightly so, because it is funny. The most exciting part of the film is where Dave opens an auxiliary hatch manually with the claw on his pod, and then jettisons himself through the vacuum of space back into the ship without his space helmet. Please note that there has been no musical score since the beginning of the Jupiter mission, and I think this part especially would have been more exciting with some action music.
Back inside the ship now, we hear more gas and breathing as Bowman goes into the core of HAL’s memory and turns him off. The entire process took about 7 minutes, and everything HAL says to justify himself as Dave shuts him down is hilarious. This is one of the funniest and unique parts of a film in the movie going experience. But again, one has to wonder if they were trying to be serious when they made this movie. After 10 minutes of that gas sound effect, your ears are left ringing.
The last 23 minutes of the show makes absolutely no sense. We hear the “EEE” sound track for the third time. This song may work well for scaring away trick or treaters on Halloween, but it doesn’t agree with the common majestic and relaxing perception of space. And hearing it again for a third time makes us want to strangle the composer. We see Dave in a pod going through something like a black hole, close ups of his eyeball shaking around forever and changing colors, two-plane sunburst and cloud graphics that remind me of Star Trek, The Motion Picture, which made more sense than this. And we see shots of the Grand Canyon in negative. Finally Dave lands in a horrible madhouse museum made somewhere by someone for him to grow old and alone in. When he appears to be on his deathbed, another monolith appears at the foot of his bed, and Dave turns into a fetus and floats away to the third hearing of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. The end credits roll to “The Blue Danube”.
The entire show is actually only 2 hours and 19 minutes long, but it seems to go on for 4 hours. The lack of music during most of the movie accounts partially for why it seems to last for so long. The reuse of the same 4 songs over and over again is partly to blame for why the show is so annoying. 99% of the shots in the movie are too slow, and are unaccompanied by dialogue or music. We might as well have been watching a slide show. The silence of the space scenes is accurate, but it makes them rather boring. Perhaps many of these things were an attempt by the directors at realism, but it truly ends up annoying us in the end. It’s an awkward and clumsy movie. Only watch this one if you’re with your friends and you’re good at heckling. If you watch it by yourself, by the end you’ll be chanting, “Kill Stanley Kubrick. Kill Aram Khatchaturian. Kill Gyorgy Ligeti.” A better movie to watch is 2010: The Year We Made Contact. It’s the sequel, it’s more entertaining, and it has Roy Sheider in it. As to this one’s accuracy on predicting the future, I’d have to say, “Close, but no cigar.” One last thing I forgot to note: Throughout the course of the year 2001 no major television network here in Denver has aired this movie, which was something I was really looking forward to. I did see a commercial selling new copies of the video, but it’s not the same thing and lacks the implications of the significance of this year. Oh hum.