The history of film is often marked by seismic shifts in artistic vision that advance the art of storytelling, or landmark technological achievements, establishing and then elevating the benchmark of craftsmanship in the medium itself. However, few movies can boast having achieved both. But in 1964, director, Stanley Kubrick embarked on a feature, so startling in its concept, and so revolutionary in its visual effects, it easily became the gold standard bearer for a generation of burgeoning film makers yet to follow its achievements. Here, at last was a movie to alter not only Hollywood’s time-honored notion of science fiction as quaintly barbaric B-budgeted schlock, full of sex and monsters, fit only for the kiddie matinees, but also to catapult the movie-going public into that epoch-altering promise made by the Kennedy administration’s most ambitious endeavor – to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) remains a truly one-of-a-kind movie-going experience on a multitude of levels, not the least, for its realistic special effects and clairvoyant interpretations of what life would be like if only mankind could journey to the stars.
Lest we forget, the picture’s general release predates Apollo 11’s July 20th lunar landing by nearly a full year; Kubrick and his collaborator, noted science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke gaining unprecedented access to some of the top minds inside NASA to achieve an uncanny verisimilitude that continues to hold up despite the technological advancements in special effects that have long since evolved the art of make-believe beyond its time. The awesome discipline put forth by Kubrick, cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, and, Kubrick’s Production Designers, Ernest Archer, Harry Lange and Tony Masters, to say nothing of John Hoesli’s art direction, and Robert Cartwright’s set design, remains unsurpassed; a veritable state-of-the-art revolution in photo-mechanical SFX and in-camera feats of engineering. The scope of these convincing effects ranged from relatively primitive revamps of time-honored tricks of the trade – as in affixing a pen to a piece of rotating glass using newly designed double-sided tape (to create the illusion of weightlessness) – exceptionally crude but so very effective – to the undeniably impressive rotating centrifuge, 38 feet in diameter and 10 ft. wide; built by Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group at a then staggering cost of $750,000, into which a full size mockup of the central command post for the fictional Discovery One spacecraft was built, allowing actor, Keir Dullea to maneuver in a complete 360 degrees while seemingly never impugned by the laws of physics or gravity.
2001: A Space Odyssey is undeniably the first motion picture to take sci-fi seriously – even grimly; Kubrick’s philosophical exploration of man’s haunted past, oft described as testosterone-injected; torn in its duality to both create and destroy – even kill – ironically, to survive, resulting in a significant, adult and probative, masterfully assembled visual abstract into which Kubrick poured no less metaphysical theorizations than the origins and future of mankind; the notion, life eternal sprang forth from the discovery of a nondescript monolith unearthed from the surface of the moon (proving the ultimate gateway into the farthest reaches of the cosmos – as well as inner space - for astronaut, David Bowman, played by Dullea) and the introduction of an unintentionally monstrous form of artificial intelligence; the super-computer HAL 9000 – ominously voiced with disquieting calm by Douglas Rain. In hindsight, 2001 is as baffling to audiences as it now seems eerily prophetic about the future; Kubrick, thoroughly invested in his research – ever more science fact than fiction - yet even more so in the ideas behind the spectacular infinity of it all; determined to create a myth rather than a movie. On this score, 2001 admirably succeeds; the scholarship invested in deconstructing its’ meaning ever since, proof positive Kubrick has created an intangible chef-d'oeuvre rife for endless contemplation. Perhaps, this fact alone caused 2001: A Space Odyssey to be initially misconstrued and ill-received by the critics; notably, eminent historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who led the charge by labeling it “morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long…a film out of control.”
Indeed, MGM – already in dire straits financially, had afforded Kubrick unprecedented autonomy in England to make his movie his way and 2001 clearly reflects the purity of Kubrick’s vision, unfettered my meddling executive input and ‘clever market research’. 2001 is about as experimental as movies get – certainly, any movie made by any major studio circa any decade one might choose to consider. Yet, only thirty days into 2001: A Space Odyssey’s general release, MGM was prepared to yank it from distribution and cut their losses – which were formidable – when suddenly the picture began to gain momentum at the box office. This ‘about face’ reception greatly amused Kubrick who, in a rare interview for Playboy that same year refused to offer any concrete interpretations to debunk his controversial masterpiece, adding, “You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meanings of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point.”
“Stanley wanted to make a ‘good’ science fiction movie,” Arthur Clarke has reminisced, “…the implication being no good science fictions had been made before 2001. I disagreed with him on that, but ultimately Stanley did achieve the goal of shattering Hollywood’s bias against science fiction as lowbrow and naïve.” Despite its timeless and revolutionary approach to the genre, 2001 is very much a product of its time; its tongue-in-cheek allusions to American corporate sponsorship, having since cluttered the infinite with their logos and likenesses, as commonplace as intergalactic chartered flights from Pan-Am and uber-sleek floating hotel franchises like Howard Johnson. Kubrick did, at least, get the concept of video telecommunications right; the Bell booth, where Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) converses with his earthbound young daughter for felicitations on her ninth birthday, a forerunner to today’s Skype technology. Indeed, Kubrick had borrowed the idea directly from a pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Kubrick became fascinated – even obsessed – with the future of space travel as early as 1962; stirred by President John Kennedy’s bottomless passion to put a man on the moon in his own lifetime. Tragically, this was not to be. But Kennedy’s promise to the nation, backed by ostensibly infinite resources, would continue beyond his lifetime; NASA, advancing through a series of embarrassing misfires on a very steep learning curve to beat the Russians – who had, for some time, surpassed the U.S. in outer space technologies – at their own game.
Typical of Kubrick, he would go the distance before anyone else, the scientific community scurrying to catch up to his impressions and future forecasts. How closely Kubrick succeeded at touching the infinite in 2001 was perhaps realized a year later when Apollo 11 astronaut, Michael Collins described his first encounters in outer space as “…like being in 2001.” At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Kubrick’s fascination had been tweaked by a Canadian short film boasting ground-breaking special effects. Accordingly, Kubrick quickly brought on board the brain trust responsible for this educational film, including Con Pederson, Brian Johnson and Doug Trumbull to helm 2001’s daunting assortment of visual effects. Johnson recalls, having gained a day pass to MGM to meet Kubrick for the first time, inadvertently stumbling upon a disheveled painter toiling on a backdrop and making his inquiry as to where he could find Stanley Kubrick. As it turns out, the unprepossessing painter was Stanley Kubrick, later to move his entire base of operations to Metro’s Borehamwood Studio facilities in Hertfordshire, England, partly to avoid the constant meddling from executives back in Hollywood. Under Kubrick’s telescopically focused métier to achieve the ultimate reality, the originally scheduled nine month phase in pre-planning quickly ballooned into an investment of three years; NASA’s Fred Ordway brought in as 2001’s technical consultant to ensure every aspect in model construction was accurate according to then leading edge scientific research. Virtually all of the modules created by Kubrick’s hand-picked art department had to be pre-approved by Ordway; then again, by Kubrick, for their authenticity.
For narrative inspiration, Kubrick turned to Arthur C. Clarke, buying up six of his short stories. But almost as quickly, Kubrick tired of these, the rights sold back by Clarke. Together, Kubrick and Clarke settled on one short story in particular; Sentinel of Eternity, as the basis for their project. Typical of Kubrick, he would eventually toss out everything except Clarke’s threadbare concept about an otherworldly monolith discovered on the moon with capabilities to influence and alter the course of mankind’s intellectual evolution; Clarke and Kubrick’s symbiotic working relationship eventually ironing out and expanding upon the wrinkles in that story. The basic concept for 2001 is evolution – from ape to man to whatever may lie beyond our present understanding of life itself. For sheer showman-like chutzpah, there was nothing to touch the moment when Moonwatcher (Don Richter), the first ape to discover a bone could be used to kill, angrily tosses this new found implement into the sky; Kubrick and his editor, Ray Lovejoy, in an almost David Lean/Lawrence of Arabia-esque moment, cutting from its slo-mo gravitational descent to an intergalactic probe, initially conceived by Kubrick as a modern-day implement of war, marking a jump cut of nearly 3 million years in mere seconds. Supposedly, Kubrick was inspired to create this iconic transition one afternoon while tossing a broom over his head, observing the way its lopsided inanimate form rose, then fell against the backdrop of a peerless blue sky. On film, the jump cut is further impacted by Kubrick’s decision to segue from virtual silence into Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz as his aural introduction to these farthest reaches of outer space; at once marrying centuries-old beauty and traditions with the jet-pack infused promises of an as yet uncharted manifest destiny. Kubrick would hire gifted mimes to portray the apes for this opening sequence: Richter, along with the others, endeavoring to create distinct personalities through pantomime, pivotal and necessary for the moment when the ape colony is introduced to the monolith, a mysterious ‘teaching machine’ left on earth by a long-forgotten and otherworldly civilization, possessing the ability to directly affect the mind of whoever touches it.
From a purely choreographic perspective, Kubrick fills our frame of reference with this balletic introduction to outer space, queerly familiar even, as the massive double helix space station, twirling in perfect gravitational pull to the earth, approaches, then envelopes the 70mm frame as Haywood’s arrival via Pan-Am commences; the craft preparing to dock inside a vast loading bay that – in retrospect – looks uncannily like a similar view from inside George Lucas’ Death Star in Star Wars (1977). Haywood is attending a press conference with fellow scientists, Andrei Smyslov (Leonard Rossiter), Ralph Halvorsen (Robert Beatty), Bill Michaels (Sean Sullivan) and other select members of an international confederation to investigate the discovery of a similar monolith newly excavated from the surface of the moon. Rumors have already begun to swirl about an epidemic on Clavius; cause for alarm, though only if Floyd can offer positive confirmation of the plague. Post haste, Floyd and a small contingent of scientists take a Moon-bus to Clavius, debriefed on the discovery of the monolith identical to the one previously encountered by the apes on earth centuries earlier. As sunlight peers over the top of this mysterious object, a high-pitched radio frequency momentarily immobilizes Floyd and the rest of his investigative team.
Once again, Kubrick leaps ahead; this time, only by a mere eighteen months: the elongated starship, Discovery One, bound for Jupiter. Aboard is another legation of technologists presently placed in cryogenic hibernation; their vital statistics monitored by the ship’s super-computer, the HAL 9000. HAL’s interaction with the spacecraft’s pilots, doctors, David Bowman and Frank Poole leads to a disastrous miscommunication; HAL, the omnipotent cyclops able to read lips, quietly observing as Bowman and Poole begin to have their misgivings about HAL’s misdiagnosis of a system’s malfunction on a crucial piece of hardware – an external antenna. HAL insists no 9000 unit has ever made a miscalculation and, when further pressed by Mission Control, reiterates the undetectable ‘problem’ is likely the cause of human error. Bowman and Poole concur, but later sneak off for a private tête-à-tête inside one of the EVA Pods, quite unaware HAL is still able to read their lips and thus monitor their conversation. Hence, when Poole ventures from the Pod into outer space to reinstall the unit, HAL, controlling the Pod, calculatingly severs Poole’s lifeline. The murder is witnessed by Bowman who takes off in another Pod to retrieve Poole’s body. Meanwhile, to ensure his survival, HAL causes the cryogenic chambers to fail, murdering the rest of the crew as they sleep. Upon his return to the Discovery, Bowman learns HAL will not allow him reentry. Undaunted, Bowman breaks through the pressure lock and manages to decompress its chamber, thus filling it with oxygen and allowing him access to the Discovery’s mainframe computer hard drive. Without a moment to spare, Bowman systematically unplugs HAL; ignoring the A.I’s eerily tranquil pleas for self-preservation; the withering electronic brain reduced to a whimpering serenade of ‘Daisy Bell’; the first electronically synthesized ‘thought’ preprogrammed into HAL. Kubrick, in fact, borrowed this bit of history from the Bell Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair where a demonstration of a decidedly more primitive precursor to artificial intelligence had been encoded with the same song lyrics.
With HAL’s demise, Bowman learns from a pre-recorded message featuring Floyd of the monolith’s existence on the moon and similarly, a counterpart presently circling Jupiter. Now, nearing Jupiter, Bowman leaves the Discovery in his Pod to pursue and investigate the monolith’s origins. Instead, he is pulled into a rainbow-hued black hole, traveling untold distances in the twinkle of an eye; almost losing consciousness, only to reawaken considerably older in a reasonable facsimile of a lavish suite inside the Dorchester Hotel. Arthur Clarke has suggested this penultimate encounter, in which Bowman experiences various incarnations of himself, each rapidly aged – then, dying, and finally ‘reborn’ as the ‘star child’, floating in a glowing bubble of embryonic fluid – are all occurring within Bowman’s imagination; itself, confronted by an alien life force that has decrypted Bowman’s own memories to help him make sense of his destiny by surrounding him in a familiar environment. Kubrick remained marginally stumped on exactly how to illustrate this aging process until Clarke suggested a series of jump cuts; Bowman looked at himself in his next advanced phase of aging, but never allowed to look back from whence he had cometh. This proved highly effective, but equally as mystifying. Some scholarship associates the ‘star child’ with Bowman’s rebirth and/or reincarnation – the cyclical reemergence put forth by an omnipotent life force (i.e. God) while other scholastic interpretations have speculated the embryonic being as an entirely new life form; an alien/human hybrid and the next link in mankind’s ongoing evolutionary chain.
2001: A Space Odyssey remains both emblematic of the 1960’s optimistic pursuit of adventures beyond our own earthly planet, and a cautionary tale about the incalculable consequences mankind’s own inevitable naiveté can incur when tampering with primal forces he neither understands nor can harness to his own benefits. Kubrick’s original vision for the film, to tell a story about ‘man’s relationship to the universe’ is at once both disquietingly ambitious and mind-bogglingly provocative; a real brainstorm to contemplate, and, for which no singular analysis will undoubtedly suffice. One point Arthur C. Clarke did seek in vain to clear up: HAL’s call letters. These are not an acronym for the then reigning corporate leviathan, IBM – misinterpreted on occasion over the decades as Kubrick’s subliminal railing against monopolistic corporate sponsorship - but rather Clarke’s clever shortening of the term, ‘heuristic algorithm’; in computer science, a mathematical optimization designed to expedite complex problem-solving more efficiently when conventional methods are too exacting and slow. Alas, as tragically realized by the neurotic HAL, the solution achieved in 2001 proves neither the best nor most effective.
While in his highly secretive planning stages, and behind closed doors, Kubrick often jokingly referred to 2001 as ‘How The Solar System Was Won’ – a riff on MGM’s 1962 Cinerama adventure, ‘How The West Was Won’. Indeed, MGM’s ambitions for a really big release came with the standing order 2001: A Space Odyssey would be ‘presented in Cinerama’. A word about this: 2001 was never a true Cinerama production; neither shot utilizing the cumbersome 3-camera Cinerama setup nor projected as such across those massively curved screens. Instead, 2001 was photographed on wide gauge 70mm Super-Panavision, utilizing six-track magnetic stereo; reduction prints later made on conventional 35mm with either 4-tracks of stereo or an optical mono soundtrack, and, projected anamorphic in all but a handful of venues, like Washington’s Uptown, New York’s Loew’s Capitol, and, Hollywood’s Warner Cinerama Theater, each capable of screening true 70mm. Even in venues where 2001 was being advertised as “in Cinerama” if was always projected onto the concave screen in single-strip Super Panavision-70. The picture’s overwhelming box office success afforded it an unprecedented year-long run in both New York and Washington, and a then unheard of 103 weeks in L.A.
Part of 2001’s enduring legacy is understandably linked to its epoch-altering photo-mechanical special effects, the in-camera front projection of models seamlessly married to retro-reflective matting. Ever determined to create visual effects that were not merely copied from other movies gone before it, or reused ad nauseam to belie, and thus give away, the obviousness of their effect, Kubrick focused his visual artists on striving to constantly test the boundaries of their expertise. The net result is that 2001: A Space Odyssey typifies a level of craftsmanship both unparalleled and likely never again to be duplicated; our modern-era reliance on computer-driven SFX, depriving audiences of the more concretely balanced representation of realistic effects and full-scale model work. Despite the then relative lack of data on the as yet undefined quantum physics of outer space, Kubrick was adamant to illustrate for the audience the challenges of weightlessness; everything from the rather comical usage of an anti-gravitational toilet – depicted only from its exterior (thank heaven), but with a rather heady and humorous list of instructions (ideal, only if the tug of nature is not too intensely felt), to the design of gravity slippers to anchor one to the floor, to shooting key sequences in slow motion to suggest buoyancy, Kubrick’s investment on the particulars has, in retrospect, created some of the most startling and equally as convincing sequences ever explored in a science-fiction movie. For the penultimate time-travelers’ porthole, into which Bowman plummets toward his rapidly advancing rendezvous with an alien life force, Kubrick utilized slit-scan photography, capturing thousands of high-contrast images; Op art paintings, architectural drawings, moiré patterns, printed circuits, and crystal structures; nebula-esque phenomena created from phosphorus paints and chemicals swirling in a tank, again shot in slow-motion in a dark room then speeded up for the camera.
Well… as a civilization, at least chronologically, we have gone beyond the year 2001. Yet, the promises made in Kubrick’s fantasy have bypassed us entirely; perhaps, inevitably so. Consider that in 1962, the space race was on everyone’s lips; Kennedy’s desire to put a man on the moon before the Soviets, fueling heady discussions around the kitchen table as to what lay beyond our meager understanding of the solar system. Alas, the reality proved far less thrilling for most than the fantastic voyage preceding it, fulfilled only after many false starts, and, the loss of space exploration’s most ardent champion – J.F.K. By 1972, the moon was no longer a foreign object, but a desolate orbiting satellite, its’ Sea of Tranquility seemingly conquered, thus leaving a rather defeatist mentality to linger with the status quo trailing behind it. After all, what was the point of going to other as barren and equally as uninhabitable orbs dangling in the sky? If only space itself had lived up to Kubrick’s vastly superior rendering of it – even, to stoop to Gene Roddenberry’s road company camp as “the final frontier” such intergalactic excursions might have gone on. But no – the joy and the thrill of trips to the moon and beyond, begun in 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably ended when Neil Armstrong took his first giant step for mankind on the moon. There have been other sci-fi fantasies since 2001 – too many, in fact, and far too many regressing into the mire of B-schlock horror; a few, successfully transplanted into the actioner/adventure genre; the farthest reaches of space transformed into fantasy landscapes that could only exist on a back lot or sound stages in Hollywood; and still others, becoming templates of campy spoof. But 2001: A Space Odyssey harks to a time when space travel not only seemed exciting, but achievable in the foreseeable future. How long would it be until we were all off on a lark and a spree to discover some new uncharted territory? How very long, indeed.
2001: A Space Odyssey has been available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video for well over a decade. The transfer is solid, though not altogether perfect. Because, in its 70mm road show engagement, it was intended for projection across vast and concave Cinerama screens, Kubrick elected to go for a very crisp and ultra-high key lighting approach; his vision of this future epoch exceptionally well-lit and immaculate. Well over 40 years later, we still have an image that is very crisp, well-lit and immaculate, thanks in part to Warner’s meticulously archived and restored original elements. Never having seen 2001 in theaters, I cannot imagine it looked much better than this in 1968; although perhaps it possessed a tad more film grain than this 1080p transfer. As with a lot of early Blu-ray releases, there was still some consternation then about preserving film grain. Would audiences accustom to smooth looking ‘video-based’ images want to see grain structure? Viewing 2001 last night for the first time in a very long while, I was once again absolutely blown away by the gorgeousness of its imagery; the richness in colors and exceptional amounts of fine detail popping as it should with razor-sharp crispness. The debatable ‘grain issue’ aside (there doesn’t appear to be any herein…excessive DNR scrubbing, or just the way 2001 looked back then?…hmmm) this is a marvelous looking transfer surely not to disappoint.
Less impressive is Warner’s decision to go with a 5.1 PCM audio in lieu of a remastered DTS. How much better could 2001 have sounded with a little more tinkering? Hmmm, again. I suspect the PCM is doing a very fine job; sonically, complimentary to the visuals and with a few remarkable aural tweaks scattered throughout. The score sounds magnificent. The heavy breathing of astronaut Poole moments before his lifeline is extinguished by HAL is bone-chillingly represented. Extras are plentiful to say the least, but do not include the much-touted ‘Stanley Kramer: A Life In Pictures’. Rumors a new 2001 Blu-ray was in the works have long since cooled, depriving fans of the whispers another 17 minutes of newly unearthed pristine footage, cut by Kubrick before the theatrical debut, has resurfaced.
Honestly, I would have thought by now 2001: A Space Odyssey would have rated one of those lavishly appointed Warner box set treatments; the cover art an amalgam of that big swirling centrifuge and all those other classically rendered sketches designed for the original poster art. But no – its 2016 and we’re due for a big box of The Iron Giant instead. Which movie is more prolific and thus more worthy of the honor…hmmm – thrice! So we still have a rather modest single-disc affair herein without all the bells and whistles. I suppose I really ought not complain, since this disc gives us four featurettes with copious research conducted and relayed by no less an authority than director, James Cameron, with insightful commentary from other Hollywood alumni and Arthur C. Clarke. There is also a decidedly informative audio commentary, some stills galleries and theatrical trailers; a much too brief featurette on Kubrick’s ‘life in pictures’ as a photographer before segueing into movies. Good, but decidedly not great for one of the greatest achievements in modern-day picture-making. I’ll recommend this disc for now – but I think fans are still waiting for the definitive 2001: A Space Odyssey to make its debut. Bottom line: yes – for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)