Revisiting 2001, 50 Years Later

2001:  A Space Odyssey has been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it.  The only word that adequately describe the film, in my view, is “awesome.”

2001-space-odyssey-watching-recommendation-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600Awesome in terms of its enormous storytelling sweep, taking us from the discovery of weapons by a bullied group of protohumans to a voyage to Jupiter; awesome in its special effects, which kicked off the rapid development of special effects in films, made “space movies” a new genre, and gave all viewers a new perspective on The Blue Danube; awesome in its anticipation of new technology and artificial intelligence; and especially awesome in its absolute embrace of an inexplicable, entirely weird, jaw-dropping storyline.  Oh, and there’s some funny moments in the film, too, such as when one of the characters has to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet, which involves carefully studying a long set of instructions.

It’s one of those favorite movies that I’ll always sit and watch if I stumble across it being shown on TV.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on 2001, its initial critical reception, and its anticipation of technology that is well worth a read, whether you are a fan of the film or not.  It’s fascinating.  And who would have thought that a movie that one highly regarded critic dismissed as “trash masquerading as art” would, 50 years later, be universally regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made?  It just reinforces a valuable lesson:  sometimes — perhaps often times — movie critics can be dead wrong, and paying too much attention to them might cause you to miss seeing a classic on the big screen.


Punch-Outs At The Dawn Of Humanity

The male human face evolved to be able to take a punch.  That’s the intriguing conclusion of a recent scientific study — one that raises some curious additional questions.

The study examined how facial bones respond to impacts and determined which bones are most likely to be fractured in a fistfight.  It then looked at the bone structures in the skulls of our distant ancestors and saw that the same bones were the ones that showed the most development in terms of sturdiness and thickness.  Those also are the bones where there is the greatest difference between the male and female skulls.  The scientists then put two and two together and concluded that natural selection was at work and was preferring the male proto-humans that could best absorb a right cross to the chops.

This theory, if correct, tells us a lot about early humans.  First, under Darwinian theory natural selection operates in response to prevalent conditions, not the occasional unusual circumstance.  That suggests that early human males were brawling constantly, rather than having a dust-up once in a while.  Instead of the human apes using an animal bone while Also Sprach Zarathustra welled in the background in the opening scene of 2001:  A Space Odyssey, think of them squaring off and trading left uppercuts, like participants in a melee during a professional wrestling match or British soccer hooligans.

Second, evolution works only if the trait being selected against doesn’t continue in the genetic pool.  This means that our brittle-skulled ancestors didn’t just shake off a knockout blow and go home to procreate with the missus — they were killed outright.  Whether they were beaten until their skulls cracked like eggshells or just knocked out and left to be devoured by sabertoothed tigers (or hungry members of other tribes), they were cut off from further contributing to the human evolutionary tree.  We flabby modern humans survived to sit in front of our computer screens because our male forebears were tough, thick-skulled, strong-jawed types who didn’t go down at the first blow.

Science is interesting.

How Much Would You Pay For Space?

I’ve always wanted to go into space some day.  When I was a kid and Apollo missions were landing on the Moon every few months, that seemed like a real possibility.  Sci-fi features like 2001:  A Space Odyssey forecast that routine commercial travel to the Moon would be available a decade ago.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . and now time seems to be running out.

But perhaps there’s still a chance for 50-something space traveler wannabes like me.  Virgin Galactic is nearing completion of the beautiful, futuristic spaceport shown at left, called the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, in the New Mexico desert.

The company plans on beginning passenger service in 2014.  When the spaceport is operational, would-be astronauts will board a small rocket plane tethered to a mother ship.  When the mother ship reaches a point nine miles above the earth, the rocket plane will be launched, the rocket will be ignited, the passengers will experience 3 gees of force as they zoom through the upper atmosphere until they encounter the blackness of space.  The pilot then will cut the rocket engine and the passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness and have a chance to enjoy a view so vast they can see the curvature of the Earth.  Then the plane will reenter the atmosphere, hurtle back to Earth, and land on the spaceport’s long runway.

All this will be available to the average Joe — provided the average Joe can pony up $200,000 for the experience.  If I had millions of dollars in the bank, I’d do it.  Because I don’t have that kind of coin, however, I’ll just bide my time and hope that competition brings the price of space down to more manageable levels so that, someday, a codger like me will be able to enjoy the wonders of space.

Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.

2001: A Space Odyssey Meaning

Type “2001” in the Google search bar, and one of the top suggestions is “2001 a space odyssey meaning.” This isn’t surprising for a movie that ends with a man aging rapidly in a room before becoming a giant embryo orbiting Jupiter, a scene that probably qualifies as the most enigmatic of all time, at least outside of David Lynch’s movies.

There’s obviously a message there. The movie’s slow pace seems designed to give us time to ponder what it is about. It’s pretty clear that the message has something to do with man’s relationship with technology, since the first part of the movie shows man’s discovery of technology, and the rest shows what he’s done with it.

Some critics claim that 2001 has an optimistic view of technology’s effect on man. I can see how they would think that. The proto-humans that the movie follows in the first segment have no technology, and they live a pathetic existence. They scrounge for roots in the dirt while chubby warthogs walk amongst them without fear. They are driven from their murky watering hole by another group of apes. A cheetah comes out of nowhere to pounce on one of them, and all the others can do is run away screaming.

Then the famous black monolith appears in front of them. Its smooth metal exterior and sharp corners tell the apes that someone used their intelligence to construct it. One of the apes, inspired by the monolith, picks up a bone and uses it as a club. No longer will they be the punchline of the African savannah. Triumphant music plays while they slaughter warthog after warthog until they have more meat than they can eat. They take back the watering hole, killing the leader of the rival apes in the process. Already, technology has given them considerable power over their environment.

Jump eons forward to 2001, when the inspiration the ape received from the monolith has led man to voyage into space. The ape’s descendants have constructed magnificent space stations, into which luxurious spaceships dock while graceful classical music plays. They’ve built machines to help them travel, communicate, and even eat. They are comfortable and cheerful. It seems implied that many of man’s ancient problems – war, starvation – have been solved with reason and technology; the upbeat manner of the characters in this part of the film suggests that nothing seriously wrong is happening down on Earth. It’s significant that a movie made during the Cold War shows Dr. Floyd, an American traveling to the moon, having a polite chat with a group of Russians on the space station.

But as impressive as these triumphs are, have they been as good for modern man as that bone-club was to the apes? I argue that the second and third segments of the film suggest they have not.

Although the characters in the 2001 part of the film are polite and cheerful, they also seem distant and unfulfilled. We never see them having heartfelt conversations. I should have counted the number of conversations there are in the movie. It wouldn’t have been difficult – probably no more than a dozen or so. None of them are emotionally satisfying to the people involved. They are polite conversations, but they lack substance. Dr. Floyd exchanges pleasantries with the Russians. He briefs a conference of men on the mission. Some of the men in the briefing thank him for the informative lecture. Et cetera.

The only conversation between people who seem to have an emotional bond occurs between Dr. Floyd and his daughter, but it’s characterized by the distance between them. Dr. Floyd is calling her via a videophone on the moon to tell her that he can’t make it to her birthday party. She seems disappointed.

A similar “conversation” occurs between Dr. Frank Poole of the Jupiter mission and his parents. Actually, it’s more of a video birthday card than a conversation; they are so far away that the time delay makes conversation impossible. Dr. Poole emotionlessly watches them wish him a happy birthday.

Dr. Poole and his colleague on the Jupiter mission, Dr. Dave Bowman, are even more distant towards each other than the crowd on the space station. Despite being each other’s only human company on the months-long mission, they hardly speak. When they are first shown together, they are eating dinner silently. They have their only conversation to discuss what to do after they realize the HAL computer has made a mistake, and it’s a cold and logical one. Instead of spending time together, they pursue “logical” endeavors like drawing sketches or playing chess with HAL.

The only evidence of emotion from the two men comes from Poole as he struggles for his life after HAL jettisons him into space. Although he is presumably screaming, we hear nothing in the void of space. Bowman shows no emotion when he travels to scoop up Poole’s body, when he risks his life to leap through empty space into the emergency hatch, or when he confronts the homicidal HAL. Indeed, the only emotions we hear on the mission come from HAL when he is about to be destroyed.

In the 2001 segment, men are distant not only towards each other but also from nature. Not a single shot is set on Earth after the first segment. It’s not important, as far as man’s technological progress is concerned. Humans have conquered the earth, and now they’re venturing into space. Earth is history. Man’s spirit no longer resides there.

We never see people outside, in the sun, walking on grass. Instead, we see them in cramped, sterile surroundings. We never see a human eating real food, just trays of colorful paste and sandwiches that “all taste the same.” Apparently the space-faring humans of 2001 are no longer enjoying the meaty bounty of their club-wielding ancestors.

Kubrick emphasizes the loneliness of these men by playing dreary music during the Jupiter mission segment, which contrasts with the beautiful melody of the spaceship docking sequence and the triumphant songs that accompany the apes’ discovery of technology in the first segment.

The mysterious room that Bowman ends up in after reaching Jupiter symbolizes the ideas Kubrick hinted at in the space station and Jupiter mission scenes.

The room has a classical look about it. There are sculptures and paintings on the wall. The paintings, which are of natural scenes, are neatly contained in frames, symbolizing man’s control over nature.  The architecture of the room is mathematical, with squares and ovals everywhere. The floor is an illuminated grid much like that seen in many Renaissance paintings, when artists were learning to use the principles of perspective to understand space. With these characteristics, the room represents what man has acquired since that ape slaughtered a warthog with a club: reason, intelligence, curiosity, power over nature. It’s a scholar’s room.

But it’s also a prison cell. Bowman undergoes a disturbing transformation inside it, turning into an old man and finally ending up on his deathbed. There’s an aura of loneliness as he ages in the room. He eats a meal alone, his fork and knife clanging on the plate. He dies alone, not saying a word.

This scene, like the voyage to Jupiter, shows that man has become a prisoner of what he created. Although man’s accomplishments are magnificent, they have distanced him from his true nature and the other members of his species. Now that men have mastered their world and set off into space, they are destined to live lonely, unfulfilling lives. That, I think, is the point of 2001 (not that I agree with it).

I’ve read that Arthur C. Clarke, who helped write the story, intended the embryo that Bowman becomes to be a hybrid of the human race and whatever alien species planted the monoliths. I don’t think Kubrick meant for it to represent something so simple, however. It doesn’t matter who created the monoliths; what matters is their significance.

I believe that Bowman’s reincarnation as an embryo in Jupiter’s orbit represents man’s transformation into a new kind of being, one that will be at home in space. Indeed, Bowman sees a monolith before changing into the embryo, and the other monoliths appeared when humanity entered a new stage of development: when it became a thinking species, and when it became a space-faring species. Instead of being in a mother’s womb, the embryo floats unprotected in space. Mankind has become like Poole and Bowman, space explorers of great intelligence who have achieved wonderful things, yet are uncomfortably distanced from their true nature.