Denis Villenueve’s pick: 2001: A Space Odyssey
An existential meaning of life sequence about the dawn of man in which we see how apes start out as plant eaters living among tapirs and only acting territorial against other apes at the local watering hole. That is until one day, an ape is mindlessly playing with some bones and figures out one of the bones can be used as a club. This ape uses it against a tapir and his ape colony is seen eating meat. At the watering hole, he uses against an ape from the competing ape group and kills him. When the sun rises the next day (basically) a monolith stands before the ape colony and the apes react with curiosity and fear.
Space. A large international space station rotating in space as a craft approaches. A single passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) on board with the craft with flight attendants at the ready. He’s there to meet with other scientists to investigate a monolith found buried on the moon’s surface approximately 4 million years earlier.
18 months later, a craft heads toward Jupiter in search of the intelligent creators of the monolith. The craft is manned by astronauts Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) with three other astronauts in hibernation and the super intelligent computer program HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL monitors and controls everything on the craft, plays chess with the astronauts, and engages in meaning of life conversations. HAL has been programmed to interact with emotion for life-like interactions but behave calculating like a computer.
Until…an error in HAL’s judgement occurs prompting Dave and Frank to hide out in one the pods so they can talk in private about what to do. It’s the first time a HAL has ever made an error, so what do they do if something is really wrong and it derails the mission? The two astronauts talk about shutting down HAL in a way in which HAL won’t know. What Dave and Frank don’t know is that HAL can READ LIPS and knows what they’re planning to do.
Later, Frank is out with a pod to fix a component on the exterior of the craft. HAL takes this opportunity to use the pod to pull out the oxygen tube from Frank’s suit causing him to drift out into space and die. Dave sees Frank floating and uses another pod to rescue Frank. While Dave’s in space, HAL shuts down the three hibernation tanks killing the astronauts inside. Dave returns with Frank in tow but when Dave asks HAL to open the pod door, HAL responds famously, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
After Dave successfully uses the emergency entrance, narrowly escaping death, he realizes he must shut down HAL to save himself and the mission. He gets into HAL’s mainframe and begins shutting down section by section while HAL responds, “I’m afraid Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it. I’m afraid.”
Dave, alone in the craft, enters through what seems to be a time continuum and finds himself in an ornately decorated room where he ages until a monolith appears and he is transformed into a star baby in a womb headed toward Earth.
What I Liked
The iconic music of the film is recognizable and has been used over and over to depict reveals in so many mediums. Instrumentals from Gayane Ballet Suite to The Blue Danube. The vocal incantations of Requiem and Lux Aeterna. To the final moments of HAL singing Daisy Bell (which I sang along) as his voice morphed into a slow nothing. The soundtrack for the film instantly brings back visual moments and emotions.
The use of silence and the sound of breathing. Powerful moments knowing the emptiness and yet vastness of being. It reminded me of the sound of my own breathing when I used to scuba dive. It was amazingly quiet underwater with the only sound being the sound of my breathing and how at times I would focus on the rhythm of the sound to keep calm underwater.
The visual landscapes of the plain during the dawn of time with the silhouettes of the dark mountains and colorful skies. The vastness of space has always been a favorite cinema landscape of mine. How huge it is and how small we are. The colorful warp speed travel through time as Dave heads toward his fate at lightening speed and force.
I really liked the interior of the space station–so clean and bright, mid-century yet space age modern, with red chairs against the bright white interior. The final bedroom all white with green accents. Green being a color of the body (feng shui) I want to say the room was about renewal and regeneration of the old. That when we die, we return? Is that what the monolith is telling us? It was there when the apes began the transition to human? What then of the moon? What was it saying there?
The craft to Jupiter with the sphere shaped end which rotated inside like a wheel. The way the camera moves along revealing as it rotates. The movements of the astronauts and flight attendants in space knew no bounds. One minute they were walking upright with their gripping shows and the next they were sideways or upside down while the camera held. It gave another dimension to what was possible in space travel and on film.
The script itself was far-reaching, existential, and timely for 1968 when movie-goers were open to five minutes of blackness with music for an intro and then another 20 or so minutes of watching apes evolve before making it to space. It was a time of mental expansion and curiosity and questioning who we are and why we’re here.
While the bulk of the script is visual, the dialogue–especially between HAL and the astronauts–is monumental. Simple exchanges between Frank and HAL playing chess or HAL commenting on Dave’s artwork disarming them as an ally only to turn on them on a moment. Hearing HAL deny Dave re-entry, HAL try to convince Dave to take a stress pill and relax after he’s basically killed everyone on board, and then HAL as he’s being shut down.
What I Wished Was Better
I wanted a shorter intro and less time with the apes. I wanted more time in space on the moon learning about Dr. Floyd. I wanted more time on the Jupiter craft with HAL. HAL has a proven track record of 100% of no errors and at the first site of one, Dave and Frank immediately talk about shutting him down? I would’ve liked to see another error or two, however inconsequential, and then have Frank and Dave decide regrettably to shut HAL down, then have HAL retaliate.
I’m no scientist or architect or artist; however, I don’t think the pods and the internal wheel fit in the sphere section of the craft. It felt like the proportions weren’t right during the exterior space scenes. It isn’t a glaring detail nor does it take away from the ultimate meaning, just an observation.
Denis Villenueve chose this as his life boat film as his favorite film of all time. “An existential journey which gives me great joy.” I would agree the film questions our place and asks us to do the same. It’s hopeful in the sense we are always evolving and can always become better if we use the tools we develop for good and not evil and if we rely on our better judgement and not necessarily the mission at hand (especially when we don’t know the underlying agenda).
Considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, I’m fairly sure this film would not get made today. As mind-blowing as it is visually, morally, and existentially, it asks viewers to think outside of themselves which I’m not sure viewers right now are capable of doing. And, it asks viewers to be patient and rest in the moment of what’s happening. In this age of now, I don’t see people sitting still for it. It’s been a long time and I’m glad I gave a re-watch. Available on streaming platforms. Watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: Co-writer Arthur Clarke said if you understood the film, they failed as they were trying to raise more questions than answer. Stanley Kubrick was the breather for the scenes in space suits. Out of the 2 hours and 29 minutes of film, 88 minutes of the film has no dialogue. The prehistoric landscapes in the beginning were photographs not film sequences. The cavemen were made to look like extra hairy apes to escape the X rating since Kubrick wanted them nude. Douglas Rain (HAL) did his voice over in post-production as the part was recast multiple times before Kubrick heard Douglas Rain’s relaxed tone and version of HAL 9000.