Monday, March 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.8: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 100 (A)

Not very many movies can claim to have changed the form of cinema, but Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the few. Kubrick made the definitive film about the nuclear age, only to follow it up with what’s not only the definitive film about the space age, but perhaps the definitive film of its era. Teaming up with acclaimed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick sought to make the “proverbial good science fiction movie”. Kubrick and Clarke worked together adapting Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” into a feature-length novel and film, to be released concurrently (the film ended up beating the book by a few months). Like many Kubrick films before and since, 2001: A Space Odyssey was met with mixed, often scathing reviews (Pauline Kael called it “a monumentally unimaginative movie”, a line that has never made sense to me).

 Others, however, flocked to it, lauding its revolutionary special effects, its ambiguous, often puzzling story, and its unique vision. The film would go on to influence Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, along with a host of other filmmakers. More than anything, though, 2001 remains a high water mark for film, a game-changing, beautiful film with an almost impossible level of ambition and near-perfection. Any number of films could land on a list of greatest movies ever made. 2001 is something rarer: one of the few movies that could lay legitimate claim to the title of “Greatest Film Ever Made”.

2001’s plot is not as tightly structured as his past efforts, as Kubrick came up with a  new concept in storytelling: six to eight non-submersible units, or plot points that could not be reduced. While they may be loosely connected at first appearance, they make up part of a larger, greater whole, like a group of movements making up a symphony. As it’s pretty much impossible to discuss 2001 without discussing these segments, I’m going to tackle each one individually rather than tackle each theme via paragraph as per usual. One could argue about which segments should be broken up which way, but I’d argue that the non-submersible units in 2001: A Space Odyssey consist of:

1.     The Dawn of Man: a group of apes live as scavengers, eating plants and bugs. Their lives are not easy: leopards abound and frequently pick off members of the pack, and a rival group of apes force them off their watering hole. One morning, a strange, large black monolith appears in their encampment. Initially startled, the apes gather around it. The slab inspires something in one of the apes (dubbed Moonwatcher in Clarke’s novel) as he picks up a bone and realizes he can use it as a weapon. The apes now have a way to kill for food, but this also inspires something terrible as Moonwatcher uses the first weapon to kill another ape.

2.     TMA-1: The film shifts to the future, where man has mastered space travel. Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to a space station outside of earth, where there are a number of whisperings about a possible epidemic at Clavius, the U.S. base on the moon. Floyd keeps his mouth shut as he travels to the moon, where the “epidemic” has been used as a cover story for the appearance of an alien artifact, deliberately buried four million years ago. Floyd and his colleagues examine the artifact, a monolith identical to the one that visited the apes. As they take a photo in front of it, the monolith emits a high-pitched radio sequence towards Jupiter.

3.     Jupiter Mission: 18 months later, in 2001, the American spaceship Discovery One is headed for Jupiter. The mission is headed by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), while three other crew members wait in cryogenic hibernation. Discovery has a sixth crew member: HAL 9000 (the voice of Douglas Rain), a super-intelligent computer that controls most of the ship’s functions and serves as a companion to Bowman and Poole. HAL claims to be foolproof and incapable of error, and he seems to take a near-human quality of pride in his ability to work with humans and in his own intelligence. HAL speaks with uncertainty about the secrecy of the mission’s nature, but his attention is diverted when he informs the crew that a piece of equipment is about to fail. When the astronauts cannot find anything wrong with the part, they grow concerned and enter one of the ship’s EVA pods in order to plan shutting down HAL without him knowing. HAL does not hear them…but he does read their lip movements.

4.     HAL: Poole attempts to replace the EVA unit while on spacewalk, at which point HAL severs his oxygen and sends him flying into space. When Bowman tries to rescue him, HAL locks him out of the ship. Bowman reenters the ship via the emergency airlock. He then moves to HAL’s processor core, where he shuts down HAL’s functions as HAL pleads for his life. When HAL is disconnected, a prerecorded message from Floyd plays, revealing to Bowman the story of the monolith, “its origin and purpose still a total mystery”.

5.     Jupiter/Stargate: Another monolith appears near Jupiter. Bowman leaves the Discovery in an EVA pod and is pulled into a tunnel of light within the monolith. He is shocked and terrified as he races through time and space, seeing strange visions of light and bizarre landscapes.

6.     Beyond the Infinite/Starchild: Bowman arrives in a strange hotel room of sorts employing classical design. He sees older versions of himself: one dining, the next on his deathbed. Another monolith appears. Bowman reaches for it and is transformed into a strange fetus creature enclosed in a glowing orb. The “starchild”, as he’s referred to, is transported by the monolith again, now gazing over earth.

Now assuming you’ve either skipped the plot synopsis after you saw how I broke the film up into non-submersible units or, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re intensely curious, you read a page worth of plot, let me state the obvious: while fascinating, the plot isn’t necessarily the main draw of the film (or of any film, I’d argue). What’s most remarkable is how Kubrick brought the fully-formed style he brought to Dr. Strangelove and perfected it here: the unnerving use of silence and dead air, the meticulous compositions, arrhythmic movement, and a visual storytelling sense like no other. That last aspect is particularly important: all Kubrick films essentially respond to the last, and while 2001 certainly takes Strangelove’s frightening technology to its logical conclusion (albeit with a more hopeful ending), its most critical difference is the emphasis on image over language. Where Dr. Strangelove had its phenomenal script to hold onto, 2001 is essentially a sensory experience- visual storytelling at its finest. As 2001 opens with an overture of Gyorgi Ligeti’s Atmospheres and a credit sequence set to Also Sprach Zarathrusta”, one thing is clear: we’re about to see something we’ve never seen before.


After that opening? Silence. Or, anyway, relative calm and stillness. There’s a perfect sense of environment as we see the vast landscapes of prehistoric earth. We hear crickets chirping, howling wind, and, as we zero in on the center of the first segment, the chatter and yelps of apes. Kubrick films this with simple static shots as the apes struggle to survive. Kubrick gets a day to day feeling of normalcy as he fades between days. Even as the main group of apes loses ground to a rival group, it’s less a monumental change than an everyday fact of life. As they cower beneath the caves, barely surviving, with nowhere to go (Kubrick’s recurring theme of entrapment), Kubrick focuses on their faces (remarkably realistic for 1968), it’s clear that the stakes are high.

As the apes wake up beneath the monolith, we hear music for the first time, as Ligeti’s odd modernist piece Requiem signals that something is very different. It’s a slow reveal of the object: we first hear the music while the apes sleep, and it’s deeply unnerving. What is going on? Then one ape awakes and reacts, followed by the group. We finally see the object: towering, obsidian, perfect in shape. Inexplicable. Here, 2001 introduces Kubrick’s interest in presenting strange, surreal objects without immediately explaining their meaning (something Spielberg would later use well in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among other films). There’s a perfect sense of symmetry as Kubrick lets the apes gather around it, tentatively stroking an object unlike anything they’ve seen before. Their experience mirrors our own: fear leads to confusion leads to intense curiosity. As the sun hits the monolith in a low shot, we’re overwhelmed by this awe-inspiring thing.

Kubrick then shifts to Also Sprach Zarathrusta again in a low shot by Moonwatcher’s feet. The purpose behind this piece is clear: inspired by Nietzsche’s piece of the same name, it signals the dawn of a superman. In this context, it is the first tentative step towards humanity. Moonwatcher’s initial expression, “What is this thing? How have I not noticed this?”, goes from baby-steps towards man’s first tool to a more confident, more powerful  strokes as the music builds to a triumphant peak. Moonwatcher is no longer a scavenger, but a hunter, a powerful animal capable of destruction (Kubrick’s Eisensteinian form cut of a dead animal as Moonwatcher smashes a skull is masterful). The monolith is not an enemy, but an instigator of change. It’s a beautiful moment.

But it’s also a terrifying moment. The ape has clinched initial survival, a necessary step towards evolution, but with humanity comes something new and horrible. As the apes take back their territory on the watering hole, a rival ape approaches Moonwatcher, who beats it to death. Kubrick lingers on man’s first murder: each thud of bone against skin is horrible. Technology has stoked the fires of humanity, but it has also brought about the dehumanizing aspects of war and death. Man is no longer a purely intuitive animal, but one that gloats over an act of aggression and pure brutality. Moonwatcher screeches horribly in an amplified yelp, throwing his weapon into the air with dominance…


…and into perhaps the most famous and celebrated match-cut of all time, an intellectual montage that brings the first weapon (the blunt object) and the ultimate weapon (a nuclear device orbiting earth) together in perfect sync, man’s earthly dominance now turning into space dominance. The threat of nuclear annihilation has carried over from Dr. Strangelove, and the weapons are even more advanced now. As they hover over an almost impossibly bright blue and beautiful earth, it could be the end at any moment.

But rather than dive into the horrific implications, Kubrick lets us contemplate this as he brings everything to a halt. Yes, there’s something horrible and frightening about man’s progress, but Kubrick sees the balance of overwhelming beauty there too. As Richard Strauss’ The Blue Danube starts up, Kubrick makes a gorgeous waltz inseparable from his images. It’s as if space travel were a waltz of its own, everything constantly rotating, as if it were dancing with the atmosphere. There’s a perfect precision to the cuts that bring together these motifs: a rotating space station leads to a rotating pen back to a space station, which another craft slowly leads up to. It’s less about theme than about pure, gorgeous aesthetics here as the perfectly crafted space stations meet. There’s an extraordinary patience and hypnotism that would be Kubrick’s MO for the rest of his career.

That patience gives also gives the audience a chance to luxuriate in the technology of the film, all of which is perfectly worked out in perfectionist detail, from the control panels to the velco-laced grip shoes needed to walk in zero-gravity to long, drawn-out instructions for how to use the toilet in space. Kubrick has clearly spent an almost ridiculous amount of time making sure everything works the way it might in the future, and he even anticipates future technological developments: a video phone-call between Dr. Floyd and his daughter (played by Kubrick’s own daughter) anticipates the proliferation of Skype decades later. Later in the film, Kubrick even gives Bowman and Poole small television tablets to watch the news on- looks like Kubrick invented the iPAD too, no?

It’s twenty-fives minutes into the film before the first line of dialogue is spoken, but even then there’s something slightly off in the human relations. Kubrick mastered the technique of using dead air and pauses to unnerve audiences in Dr. Strangelove, and he uses it to great effect in Floyd’s conversation with a group of Soviet colleagues. Floyd is reluctant to answer his friends’ questions about a supposed epidemic on the moon, and his professional front only barely masks that he’s lying about something. There’s a calmness to their relations, but it hints at a much more malevolent relationship that carries over from Strangelove- the Cold War is still on, it has dehumanized mankind, and no amount of pleasantries can hide it. The amount of secrecy in the epidemic cover story, maintained to the point where Americans on the moon cannot contact their loved ones, is not altogether different from the secrecy over the Doomsday Device in Strangelove: it’s another all-important, game-changing matter that one side keeps secret for questionable reasons (albeit less comic here), and it traps both sides into their neatly divided borders.

As Floyd and his colleagues approach the moon, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna plays, hinting at something truly mysterious around the corner. It is significant that modern, often atonal classical music plays whenever alien technology comes while Strauss and other more accessible pieces play for moments focusing on human technology: Kubrick wants to unnerve us, tell us that something is deeply strange and not right. It works perfectly as Kubrick transitions again to Ligeti’s Requiem and Floyd and company approach another monolith. As the men approach the monolith, their behavior is less panicked than that of the apes, but it is just as curious and similarly framed as they gather around it. There’s a perfect simplicity to the lighting that refracts off the monolith, framed in a lens flare, again towering over the men in a low shot, with the earth in the background. We are far from home, and we’ve found something like nothing we’ve ever seen before. After a strange moment of sensuality as Floyd touches the monolith, the men gather for a picture- and the silence in space is broken by a deafening high-pitched ringing that never fails to get me to bolt up in my seat, no matter how many times I see it. Someone is watching and listening, and they know we’ve arrived.

Jupiter Mission

Flash forward eighteen months, and the “main story” (or at least the most famous one) finally begins 54 minutes into the film. Kubrick does another slow, gorgeous reveal of the Discovery, of its human inhabitants (57 minutes in, we finally meet our protagonist), and of HAL, shown in a close-up as a watchful eye, creeping us out before Kubrick explains exactly what he is. The Gayane Ballet Suite plays, another accessible classical piece, but a much colder one than The Blue Danube. As Frank Poole runs on the rotating Discovery floor (perfectly shot by Kubrick using some innovative photographic trickery), there’s an unmistakable and profound sense of isolation. Even as the camera takes a low reverse-tracking shot, implying dominance, it’s very clear that this is a lonely place, made more pronounced by Kubrick’s detachment and odd camera angles and the fact that Bowman and Poole come across as functional, but otherwise robotic, human beings. We’re in the middle of cold, desolate space, with nowhere to go, and with only a pair of automatons as company.

Except, of course, for HAL. The computer program’s face is no less blank than that of actors Dullea and Lockwood, but within his relaxed monotone lies a subtle modulation that suggests more nuance and emotion. A newscaster back on earth interviews the three, and he notes a certain amount of pride within HAL’s responses. Bowman notes that HAL is programmed to mimic emotional responses, but that it’s impossible to determine whether they are real or not. Yet HAL seems to have a more emotional response to Poole’s birthday than Poole himself, more genuine interest in Bowman’s sketches than Bowman himself, and more worry over the secrecy of the mission than either of his human colleagues. When Bowman asks why, the hesitancy in HAL’s responses (“well…there have been some very strange stories…”) make Kubrick’s purposes clear: as technology has advanced, it has grown more human, while humanity has somehow grown less human.

After a deliberately paced scene of Bowman going outside the Discovery to replace a part (something that seems pretty damn accurate considering the complications of space travel), the astronauts find something shocking: HAL was wrong, for the first time in the program’s history. As the two insist HAL has made a mistake, a new tone comes through in his voice: panic. HAL insists that the mistake can only be attributed to human error, defending himself with his history, but he doesn’t sound so sure. Clarke’s novel explained HAL’s mistake as a technical hiccup after he was forced to keep the true nature of the mission (exploring the area the monolith sent a signal to) secret from his human colleagues, but Kubrick wisely eschews this explanation for a more ambiguous approach. Here’s my take on it: the monolith signals an evolution in whatever being it comes into contact with. Scavenging apes become hunters with tools, man turns to Star Child. Perhaps something in HAL’s proximity to the monolith has set off a change in him: he has gone from a perfect machine with human tendencies to a more human, but more flawed, being, one capable of serious errors and more visceral emotions.

That emotion- messy, relatable, sad- certainly brings a greater contrast between HAL and the astronauts, both of whom coldly decide to terminate HAL. Hell, as much as Kubrick later uses the famed Kubrick Glare with HAL staring down in the next segment of the film, he does the same thing to an even more chilling effect with Dave, whose measured responses and emotionless stare hints at HAL’s certain doom. One of my favorite shots in the film comes from Bowman and Poole in the pod, framed in perfect symmetry with HAL in the background between the two- a victim to two men plotting his disconnection. It’s out of self-preservation, no doubt, but there’s a coldness and lack of neuroses that contrasts with HAL’s later actions. But they can’t hide what they’re planning from HAL, as Kubrick takes his vision and pans between their mouths, reading their lips (something Clarke objected to for years until he learned that there were certain computers that could do that). As the film cuts to intermission and Ligeti’s Atmospheres starts up again, we know something terrible is about to happen.


Kubrick returns from intermission in a scene that’s a mirror image to the earlier “Bowman replaces a part” scene, with the same quiet space, ambient noise, and drawn out breathing as before…only now the context is different. We know something our “heroes” don’t, and they won’t realize until it’s far too late for Poole. HAL’s quiet murders of Poole and the hibernating astronauts are chilling in their cold detachment- silence of space for Poole, beeping of declining vital signs for the others- and Kubrick stages some of the most frightening scenes in his filmography. Kubrick also uses a slow-burning suspense to highlight how vulnerable his characters are- Poole out in the cold remoteness of space, Dave safely inside a pod but framed by the computer monitor light in a way that emphasizes that he left without a space helmet. There’s a frailty to the human body, unprotected or otherwise, and Kubrick exploits that perfectly in one of the film’s most famous scenes.

One of my favorite film critics, Mike D’Angelo, broke down the “Open the pod bay doors!” scene better than I could here, but it’s worth mentioning that Kubrick has done a pretty shrewd reversal of expectations (and power) in a short amount of time. HAL has gone from a machine made to serve humanity to its greatest threat, from a calm controller of ship functions to a cold and panicking murderer; Bowman, meanwhile, has gone from an unrelatable human being to someone the audience is far more likely to side with now that he’s been threatened. And yet HAL is still far more human than Bowman- he claims that he has eliminated his human counterparts in order to carry on with the mission, but his actions and behavior are far more in keeping with fear than anything else, his dismissal of Bowman (“this conversation can serve no purpose any longer”) is spiked with anger.

As Bowman reenters the ship and Kubrick takes a more uneasy hand-held approach, the film reverses our sympathies yet again. Bowman slowly makes his way to HAL’s control panel, and HAL’s voice goes from questioning and angry (“Just what do you think you are doing? Dave, I’m entitled to an answer”) to nervous (“I’ve made some very poor decisions…I feel much better now”) to pleading (“Stop, Dave. Will you stop? Please, stop”) to terrified (“I’m afraid, Dave…my mind is going…I can feel it…”) to mad and oblivious (he begins to sing Daisy in an increasingly slow-pitched voice as he shuts down). Douglas Rain’s performance never changes from the calm monotone, but he might as well be screaming. The humanity in HAL’s actions and begging are far more human than anything we’ve seen in the film yet, not to mention more horrifying as Dave slowly, coldly, shuts him down for good (until the mediocre sequel 2010 comes up, but never mind that).

And then, as HAL dies, we hear another familiar voice in a prerecorded briefing. Floyd finally gives Bowman some idea of what’s going on just a little too late (another example of Kubrick’s obsession with plans going terribly wrong) and Dave’s face gives a visual approximation of “WHAT THE FUCK?”. There’s something strange lurking around the corner as Floyd speaks of the monolith in the film’s final line, with 31 minutes left to go: “…its origin still a total mystery.”


Kubrick goes back to pure visual storytelling for the final two segments. Discovery looks positively tiny next to Jupiter…and next to a towering monolith, rotating in space as the space stations before it…but now to the tune of Ligeti’s Requiem rather than the more inviting Blue Danube. As the camera pans up and follows the monolith as it crosses against the planets and the sun, Kubrick draws out the tension and the mystery of the inscrutable thing. Are we going to see what this is? What its mysteries are? Where it leads to? Who mad it? As the pod bay doors open one final time, Kubrick builds up the atmosphere (ha) as Bowman boldly goes where no man has gone before…and where no man may even go again. The camera slowly zooms towards the monolith as darkness overcomes the screen. And then something rather odd happens.

Kubrick and special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (also behind the special photographic effects of Close Encounters, Blade Runner, and The Tree of Life, among other films) employ a special slit-scan photography that brings light across the x-axis, y-axis, and z-axis to create a bizarre streak of lights as Bowman crosses into another dimension. One can only wonder what it might have looked like in gorgeous, gorgeous 70 mm (unless you’re one of those lucky sons of bitches who saw it that way, in which case I hate you), but it’s an impressive effect nonetheless- immersive, blinding, like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Whenever Kubrick turns back to Dave- eyes blinking frantically, mouth screaming, all in a strange series of color filters- it only further unnerves and fascinates us. We’re not sure exactly what we’re seeing- the life of stars? Alien beings and landscapes? GOD? Ligeti’s Atmospheres plays again, only heightening the strangeness to this bizarre new journey. I’m particularly fascinated by what appears to be birth imagery- a fetus, an egg, even some sort of odd semen-like streak- as Bowman is carried off into a new existence.

Beyond the Infinite/Star Child

And then we see something even more shocking as the bizarre colors fade out: something normal. Or, rather, something approaching normal as Bowman arrives in a regal room featuring both classical architecture and an unsettling bright futuristic design. Bowman looks like his brain is about to hemorrhage as the soundtrack is overcome by ambient noise- breathing, clicking, something that sounds like a piano being hit by a hammer. We’re not quiet sure if we’re passing through time, space, or just accelerated aging, but the transitions bring us to an even more disorienting state as Bowman turns increasingly frail. First an older version of himself in a space suit sees something rather odd: an even older version of himself in a robe, eating a dinner that looks more real than anything the humans ate earlier but cannot be anything but an illusion; then, as the old man drops a crystal glass (again emphasizing the frailty of man), he sees an even older version of himself on his deathbed. It’s the end of Dave’s humanity, a recurring Kubrick theme.

And yet, for once, this isn’t a bad thing, and as the monolith appears once more, it becomes a strangely comforting presence. Just as the towering monolith turned the ape and the machine into a man, it has brought a new evolution to man into something that represents a new beginning rather than an end. Bowman’s Star Child seems frail, but a protective layer of light suggests something more infinite (Also Sprach Zarathrusta plays again). As the camera dollies into the monolith, we’ve embraced a new life rotating above earth. And where Clarke gave us insight to the Star Child’s thoughts in his (honestly quite good) novel, Kubrick goes for a more enigmatic ending, the Star Child staring at the earth, neither wholly benevolent or malevolent. The meaning? I have no clue. And I love it.

NOTE: Sorry this thing took so long. Of everything I've written for the blog, this would rank as one of the most fun, but as you can probably tell by the length and the structure, it was also a bitch of a hard time. It also came within a particularly busy schedule, and if there's one entry I needed a lot of time and energy for, it's this. I'm going to finish Kubrick's Spotlight within the next week or so so I can move on to another. This is the hard one, being what's easily one of the five greatest movies ever made- it only gets easier from here! 

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Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point scale and how it corresponds to the grade. Also note that the 100 I gave this film will pretty much never happen again unless I either A. do a Director Spotlight on a director who made one of the other five greatest movies ever made, or B. see a new movie that makes one of the other 100s look like Plan 9.

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