Film 2018: 2001: A Space Odyssey

For the first and only time this year, Film 2018 has take place not on the peace and early quiet of a Sunday morning, but the dark silence of  Saturday night. That was always my intention when it came to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, whose themes and colours are not mean to be watched under natural light, but it fitted this weekend particularly as this is both a working Sunday and a day on which I’ve accepted a shift-slide, answering anticipated demand by doing a shift from 9.00am to 5.00pm.

I was too young for the film on its first release, in the year preceding that when Man walked on the moon and the deliberately downbeat, unsensational, ultra-realistic depiction of space travel on 2001 began its long-interrupted journey from fiction into real-life. I was to see it for the first time, a decade later, whilst living in Nottingham when, in the wake of the determinedly unrealistic Star Wars, it was reissued and I had the fortune of seeing it on the massive screen of the ABC1, an old-fashioned gigantic screen of the grand kind.

It was magnificent, truly the head trip it had long been reputed to be, especially the psychedelic Pink Floyd lightshow of the trip through the Star-Gate that leads the film towards its conclusion. Since then, I have only seen it on TV or DVD, and as I have done tonight, have made sure to do so without light from anywhere else but the screen.

It is still something of a mystery that a film so semi-mystical and indefinite came from the pen of one of SF’s hardest science writers ever, Arthur C Clarke. 2002 was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story, “The Sentinel”, in which the uncovering of a buried monolith on the Moon (in the shape of a pyramid), results in the sending of a signal into space. That’s all the story is: Clarke and Hard SF were about the science, the technology and the setting, not anything human or personal: what follows once the signal reaches those who placed what is potentially a warning beacon millennia earlier, is for the reader to speculate upon.

Kubrick, who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke, is clearly interested in that aspect, though he is not inclined to present any definitive answers. Kubrick displaces the monolith forward and backwards in time. It appears to a tribe of apes at the Dawn of Man, stimulating them to discover the most primitive of technology (in the form of bone clubs, used to kill first tapirs for food, then rival apes for tribal domination), and it summons the last mission survivor, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), into the Star-Gate at the end.

In between, Kubrick avoids the human, the emotional, the personal almost as rigidly as does Clarke in “The Sentinel”. Space travel is treated with rigid authenticity, as silent, slow and precise, and the little conversation that takes place, here and there, is either strictly professional or else determinedly flat and banal: as is the professional, come to that.

This was much criticised but it was a deliberate choice by Kubrick to de-emphasise traditional film-making methods and verbal storytelling. It tunes up, if you can put it that way, the film’s slowness – the modern audience, brought up on CGI and blockbusters – would most likely be screaming with frustration before we’d got half an hour in, especially with Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ so prominent on the soundtrack. But the hippies and the LSD-takers who embraced the film so happily were right to do so. I’ve never taken a trip in my life but I experience the film as an experience, its visuals creating a hypnotic trance in which the time the film takes becomes immaterial.

That’s why it’s such an irony that a film of this nature should come from the likes of Clarke, whose contemporaneously developed novel (which I read long before seeing the film) is decidedly more down-to-the-ground in its approach.

Fifty years after the fact, the special effects hold up magnificently. It’s all models, and the world of space is a preternaturally clean, highly plastic environment, again in keeping with its impersonal basis, but the few occasions where matte shots are needed, seeing ‘in’ through the windows of space vehicles, are seamless and effects like seeing people moving in artificial gravity that operates in multiple directions are simply and effortlessly achieved by affixing the camera to rotatable sets: for instance, Frank Poole does a training jog around the inside of a sphere, running past the camera, across the far side of the sphere and back ‘down’ the other wall effortlessly, by running along the bottom of a wheel on which the fixed camera goes around in a circle! Too bloody simple for me to work out, I had to be told.

Oh yes, and there’s the famous computer HAL (move IBM one letter back up) which breaks down and infects the mission, creating the only element of orthodox drama in the entire film, which leads to paradoxically so many famous lines (who would have thought that ‘Open the Pod Bay Door, Hal’ could become a meme before we even had memes).

The film ends with the StarChild, a much-evolved Dave Bowman, contemplating Earth. Where we go from here is where we go. Clarke wrote two sequels, 2010 and 2061, the former of which was also filmed. I have read neither nor will I read either, and I won’t ever watch the film: some people should really know better. I will stick with 2001, enjoy A Space Odyssey, and dream of where else we might have gone had the real year 2001 been anywhere near to the one of this film, rather than the sickening reality we came to bear.

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