#1 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
This is a terrible way to start this retrospective, but this is the first movie on the list where I would consider replacing with another. My top ten list is political in nature in that it’s designed to drive those who are exposed to it to places in film that I consider important. Stanley Kubrick is a giant in the world of cinema, but I have two movies that he made that I love equally, the other being Barry Lyndon. That being said, let’s talk about the movie at hand.
I’ve never read a review of this movie that said it was poorly made. I’ve read negative reviews, for sure, but no one ever says that it’s poorly photographed, or that the effects look fake. It’s remarkable to me how uniform the opinion of the technical merits of the film are across the decades.
Stanley Kubrick was a photographer before he became a filmmaker. He learned how to frame a shot with a combination of simplicity and meaning that is often never replicated in most movies. I think that manifests in a common visual feel to his films where I get the sensation that he didn’t like movement in the frame. Kubrick didn’t film purely from a stationary tripod like Ozu, but movement was always combined with a certain stillness. Look at the introduction to life aboard the Odyssey. Watch Frank Poole running around the living quarters:
This stillness at the center of motion transfixes me. 2001 is a movie that if I catch a glimpse of on TV, I end up losing the next hour or two of my life to it, almost simply at the power of the visual images. I think that the ability to calmly focus on that which is most important in the shot is one reason that I find all of Kubrick’s movies, but 2001 in particular, to be so absorbing to watch.
Another point that no one seems to argue about is that the movie is big in both visual scale and in terms of ideas. Disagreement arises about whether the movie does anything interesting with the ideas it brings up, but I haven’t read anyone calling it small. And the ideas at its core are very big.
I think one way to figure out how to watch this movie and try to dissect what is there is to refer to the foreword to a book on Kristof Kieslowski, the Polish filmmaker who made The Decalogue and The Three Colors Trilogy. Here’s the quote:
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieslowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.
To Kubrick, his ideal was to dramatize ideas, not to talk about them. For that, I’m sure he’d prefer a conversation instead of a visual based medium. So, taking that point of view in mind, how should one approach 2001: A Space Odyssey specifically?
The key, in my mind, is the opening sequence, The Dawn of Man. From a traditional point of view, this extended dialogue free sequence that involves no named characters who appear later in the film seems superfluous at best. However, I would disagree, I think it’s central. Man at this stage is little more than the beasts that it shares the barren landscape with. Man and beasts are picking at the ground next to each other, neither has an advantage over the other. When man comes into conflict with other man, there’s little more than impotent demonstrations of size. Then, the monolith arrives without explanation.
The monolith gave man insight, and when the monolith appears again tens of thousands of years later, man has progressed very far. No longer scavengers on the ground, we have mastered the Earth and reached the moon, where the second monolith is buried (“intentionally”). The next push by the monolith is more complex, sending man to Jupiter.
Without the Dawn of Man sequence, the monolith seems more opaque to me. We, as the audience, are not supposed to fully understand what the monolith wants, but that opening provides greater dramatic context about that idea. The monolith is pushing human evolution. First it took us on the first step to conquering the Earth, what will the next monolith teach us?
Here’s something about 2001 that I think bothers a lot of people. If they get through the dramatic interpretation of what’s on Kubrick’s mind to find the ideas, all they end up finding are questions without any real answers.
What is the monolith? Where did it come from? Where is it taking us?
There are no explicit answers to those in the film itself (there’s more explanation in the series of books by Arthur C. Clarke and in the movie sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact), but it does provide us with something a bit more interesting. This is where we get to the “whoa” part of the film, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.
But, dramatically, you need to go back to The Dawn of Man to see what’s going on. In the first sequence, the monolith provided early man with the knowledge of tools, something mundane to us but which was world changing to them. What’s the next step up from where we are now? I don’t know, and I imagine that you don’t either. The light show (especially in combination with the choice of music, Ligeti’s Requiem) shows us the character, Dave Bowman, moving from that which we can understand to that which we cannot until he suddenly appears in that hotel room.
It is here that we see Bowman live out the rest of his natural life in a comfortable and knowable environment (whether that actually plays out in real time or if he actually spends decades in that room is unclear as it should be) until he makes the next evolutionary jump. He must die before he’s reborn, an implication that the human race, in order to evolve to our next stage of life, must die first.
It pains me whenever I see HAL 9000 on a list of movie villains.
To me, HAL is the one sympathetic character in the film, and I think that was by design. The humans in this film are all played fairly flat by the actors. They’re almost non-entities. Frank and Dave are largely interchangeable. They look a fair bit alike and there’s no real indication that they do anything different on the ship. In fact, when it comes to mission actions, they each go out to the satellite dish and perform the same task (first Dave, then Frank) as though neither one has any advantage over the other.
HAL, though, is different. He’s engaging, shows emotion, and is central to the mission in ways that neither Frank nor Dave are.
Looking at Frank, Dave, and Dr. Floyd from earlier in the film, we see bland people who represent the character of humanity in this vision of the future. They are mostly boring. HAL is humanity’s attempt at the next step in evolution, and they created someone more interesting.
But, the devil is interesting and it doesn’t make him good. Why do I consider HAL to not be a villain?
If you look at the sequence of events that leads HAL to murdering the entire crew, I think it’s easy to see. HAL detects a fault in a unit on the satellite dish. Dave brings the unit back and they find no fault. They all agree to put the unit back. Frank and Dave then go into a pod to discuss without HAL overhearing them. In that discussion, they decide to effectively kill HAL. HAL can also read lips, by the way.
HAL read their lips and figured out what they were going to do, so he kills Frank and attempts to kill Dave (unsuccessfully). And, in a fit of cold logic, kills the hibernating three scientists on board knowing that they would deactivate him after waking up to find that he had killed the other two crewmen.
If you ignore literally everything leading up to HAL’s decision to kill Frank, he’s obviously a bad guy, but including everything before hand makes him a far more sympathetic character. He was acting in self-defense, and when Dave Bowman goes into his brain to begin to pull bits out, killing HAL slowly and regressively until he’s no more than a baby, singing “Daisy” like he did when he was first introduced to the world, it’s tragic. Killing HAL is not a victory.
Let’s Wrap this Up
There’s so much to appreciate in this film. It’s complex, simple, beautiful, ugly, cold, and warm all at once. It’s a masterful achievement that proudly sits atop a master’s filmography (seated right next to Barry Lyndon of course).