Tuesday 15 May 2018

2001 - A Space Odyssey

Jupiter As Ending

2001 - A Space Odyssey
UK/USA 1968 Directed by Stanley Kubrick
MGM Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers, I guess, if you’ve 
never seen this masterpiece before.

I always find Stanley Kubrick a bit hit and miss as a director to be fair. Some of his movies are sheer genius while... certain others leave me cold. I’ve always had a soft spot for 2001 - A Space Odyssey but it’s been a while since I last saw it. However, as my father pointed out, now we have a high definition TV and a remastered blu ray release on the market, now would be the perfect time to catch up to this classic slice of cinematic science fiction again. So we did.

The film is one of those ‘fake Cinerama’ films where the process of shooting on three cameras for three screens joined together was dropped after being used for such features as The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm and the quite extraordinary How The West Was Won. Instead, a single camera widescreen process designed to be projected on a curved screen was used and there were a number of films using this ‘in name only’ substitution for the real Cinerama process at the time (although it’s only referred to as Super Panavision on some posters). I’ve seen it a number of times on a large screen but I think I only ever saw it projected onto a massive, curved screen once, though. That was a great screening, however.

The film was somewhat divisive in its critical reception, it seems to me but the popularity and growing audiences due to the amount of hippies doing drugs and watching the famous star gate journey at the end is what kept it in cinemas longer than originally hoped for and helped make it a hit. At least, that’s the story. Nowadays, of course, it usually places quite highly in lists of the greatest movies ever made and, in my opinion, it’s certainly worthy of that honour.

The film is split into four sections and there are jumps in time or space between them so that only the final two sections share the same protagonist (although the main protagonist from the second section also gets a few minutes on a television screen towards the end of the third section). The four sections are The Dawn of Man, TMA-1, Jupiter Mission and finally, Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite. That being said, the title of the second section is the only one which isn’t introduced typographically on screen, instead relying on the cut from one element in The Dawn Of Man to another element as a way to throw the audience into the next section of the picture.

Based on the short story The Sentinel by co-writer (for the screen) Arthur C. Clarke, the film tells the story about the manipulated growth and development of mankind as precipitated by the mystery at the heart of the movie - the black, rectangular, alien slab known only as The Monolith. This mystery element is enhanced by some fairly minimalistic, or perhaps naturalistic would be a better word, acting from various cast members and some spectacular yet often quite clinical cinematography. It’s also enhanced greatly by a score of needle dropped music such as Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Blue Danube waltz but the real stars of the show, musically speaking, are the tracked in cues by one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti... who I discovered from listening to the old vinyl soundtrack of this back in the sixties and early seventies (when I was between one and five years of age, I guess). Actually, it wasn’t until Ligeti saw the film in cinemas that he was able to successfully sue Kubrick since, for some reason, Kubrick had assumed Ligeti’s quite startling works were the work of a long dead classical composer rather than a contemporary artist (the composer actually didn’t die until 2006, almost 40 years later). It is Ligeti’s music which gives full weight to the scary mystery which is the heart of the film and, although I absolutely love what survives of composer Alex North’s rejected score to this, I think Kubrick possibly made the right call here. Nobody can out-Ligeti Ligeti!

The Dawn Of Man sequence is an amazing thing with ape men in rival clans living through their daily routine. Actually, I’d never realised before this Blu Ray screening (or even after I’d seen it at the big old curved screen of the old Empire Cinema a couple of decades ago) that this sequence was shot in a studio with rear projection. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view point) there’s a kind of moiré pattern on the backdrop visible on this new transfer and it kind of gives the game away. That being said, the picture is pretty stunning and I also noticed something else for the first time during this sequence... but I’ll get to that in a bit. After the appearance of the monolith, one bright ape gets an idea and weaponises himself and his fellow clan with bones with which they kill animals to eat and, of course, rival ape men. So the monolith is a catalyst for technology (which brings murder and violence with it, naturally).

The second sequence, known by some as TMA-1, follows Doctor Haywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester... who was replaced in the sequel by Roy Scheider) as he journeys to the moon and gives a briefing there. There is a cover story that a quarantine has broken out on the moon base but the true story is, as revealed at the end of the section, that a second monolith (although these characters aren’t to know it’s the second time mankind has had an encounter with a monolith) has been found buried under the lunar surface... and it’s been there for quite some many millions of years. The climax of this section is when the monolith lets out an ear splitting sound which, we later find out, is it beaming out a signal to... something... near Jupiter.

The third sequence, Jupiter Mission, is where the lead Protagonist David Bowman (Kier Dullea), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and three other hybernating crew members, are on their way to Jupiter... although they don’t know the true nature of thier mission yet. Accompanying them is their shipboard computer HAL900. Now, the reasons for HAL’s malfunction and attempt to kill all the crew members is not really blatantly touched upon here (and it wouldn’t be until the movie adaptation of the first of Clarke’s sequel novels, 2010) but he almost succeeds in wiping them all out during some intense sequences before the one surviving astronaut, David Bowman, manages to get himself back on their spaceship and disconnect HAL. After a nice little nod to the first song that a computer in real life ever sang, the disconnection of HAL’s higher brain functions triggers a video of Dr. Floyd’s deliberately delayed secret briefing to the astronauts, revealing the true nature of the mission to Bowman. To explore the area around Jupiter where the Monolith’s signal went and ‘make contact’ with whatever alien intelligence is behind it.

And then we come to the last sequence, Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite. Some time has passed again between sections and David Bowman is already out of the ship and in a small pod to investigate a floating monolith he’s discovered in the vicinity of Jupiter. Then comes the famous "star gate" sequence of special effects which is absolutely beautiful and fearsome at the same time... especially with Ligeti’s terrifying and awe inspiring music over it. Occasionally, frames of Bowman's face reacting to what he’s seeing as little half a second shots that pretty much amount to stills are intercut with this and... well it still, after all these decades, gives off a very uneasy atmosphere. And then, as if to compete with the quite long special effects sequences of Bowman’s ‘journey’, we have an extended sequence where Bowman is ‘a guest’ of the alien intelligence and we see him in an Escher-like existence as he intrudes on himself at different stages of his life as he ages to death in the space of five to ten minutes (in screen time). It’s a truly great artistic achievement and then, of course, with the return of the Thus Spake Zarathustra music which has become synonymous with this movie, he is reborn as The Star Child... a giant fetus in space. It’s interesting because you can see just how comic book artists like Jack Kirby were influenced by the film. Not only did Kirby do the Giant-Sized Marvel Treasury adaptation of the movie, which I still have... but also a continuation series which, after ten or so issues, mutated into a vehicle for his Machine Man character. But if you think of classic Kirby creations like The Watchers... you can see how this film must have been a tremendous inspiration for him.

2001 - A Space Odyssey is absolutely deserving of its reputation in the film community these days. The poetic and deliberate manner in which Kubrick moves his camera around the sets... and it’s not all just clinical whites, there are great bursts of colour in the set design too at regular intervals... is an absolute treat and its definitely a movie which stands up to many repeat viewings. It’s also a movie where it’s fun trying to figure out how they did some of those amazing, zero gravity effects sequences too. Some of these are as mind boggling as the open ‘space striptease’ sequence in Barbarella.

And talking about the camera work...

The thing I noticed this time around when I was watching The Dawn Of Man sequence is that the whole thing was done with static shots and cuts. There’s no discernible camera movement at all until you get to that one last, famous shot of the bone flying up to the air which Kubrick then cuts (on motion) to a nuclear satellite (as a grim reminder that we’ve gone from bone as weapon to full on nuclear capability). It’s at this moment that the camera then becomes free to roam as it does in the rest of the picture and this must have been a very deliberate and conscious decision on Kubricks part, I think. And an interesting one in a metatextual sense because it basically implies that the catalyst of the monolith in mankind’s progress has also freed the camera along with it... if you see what I mean. Technology plus violence equals camera motion as an unconscious enabler on the audience to absorb the implications on a level in which they’re partly complicit. And that’s a powerful cinematic tool which Kubrick really goes with here.

Other than that... not too much to say here. 2001 - A Space Odyssey has always been known as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made and it’s easy to see why. If you are already a fan of the genre and you haven’t seen this one then... seriously... what are you waiting for? A true spectacle of the cinema as art and an absolutely brilliant Blu Ray presentation loaded with a fair few extras too. It belongs on every cinephile’s movie shelf.

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