AFI Challenge Countdown #22: 2001: A Space Odyssey

I can vaguely remember as a kid watching the first twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey a few times because, you know, monkeys.  I didn’t really understand what was going on, and once the apes disappeared, I lost interest.  Now, my dad told me he and my mom went to see the film when it was new, but the theater was rather warm on a cold day and the sudden change in temperature put the two of them to sleep.  Years later, he finally got to see the rest and wasn’t overly impressed.

I finally saw the rest myself and, well…

This film makes no sense.

I’m not just talking about the famous ending.  In many ways, this is a very unorthodox film.  I would imagine Arthur C Clarke’s novel makes a little more sense, and maybe a film like this isn’t supposed to make sense.  But there’s so much to consider here.  Looking over the cast list, I don’t recognize a single actor’s name as someone I have seen somewhere else.  That’s fine.  This isn’t the first film I’ve watched for this series with few if any big name actors.  It also lacks a plot that runs through the entire film.  Arguably, it doesn’t have a main character.  There are very long stretches where no one speaks.  The film takes it’s time reveling in the beauty of director Stanley Kubrick’s visuals.

To a certain extent, I am fine with that.  I consider Kubrick one of my all-time favorite directors, so there’s a lot for me to like about this film.

But ultimately, I am not sure what to make of this one.

Let’s look at how this one goes.  After some beautiful shots of the sun coming up over the Earth and the horizon, we go to the ape men to see the Dawn of Man.  It’s a world of really good gorilla make-up, tapirs, the occasional jaguar, and finally a monolith.

Does the monolith count as a character?

I mean, I know the monolith always pushes humans to evolve.  We see it here where one of the ape-men realizes he can make a weapon from a bone, leading to the first case of murder.

Sure, the ape-men have probably killed each other before, but there was a weapon involved here, and I have seen nature documentaries that suggested the real dawn of humanity was the first time an ape took a weapon and committed murder.  This film actually shows ape-men reveling over a fallen member of an opposing tribe.

That’s the first twenty minutes.  There is no dialogue.  Also, in a nice touch, it looks like the juvenile ape-men aren’t humans in make-up but actual juvenile chimps.

Then after five minutes of watching a spaceship dock in a station, complete with a space flight attendant plucking a pen floating around in zero gravity, we finally get some dialogue as one Dr. Heywood Floyd checks in at the station, calls his daughter (played apparently by Kubrick’s own daughter) to say he won’t be back for her birthday, and then he goes to a meeting.  So, he’s the main character, right?

Well, nope.  He isn’t going on the mission to Jupiter, and once we cut to that at almost an hour into the film, we never see Floyd again.

As such, the closest we have to a main character only appears this late in the film.  Yes, there’s another 90 minutes or so to go, but it took this long to get to Dave Bowman, the man who will eventually mirror the murder from the start of the film.  The ape-man murders another ape-man.  Dave murders the HAL 9000.

What else could it be but murder with HAL saying how frightened he is as he seems to wind down?  Even the song he sings suggests someone who lost his mind which essentially is what happened, and if a computer doesn’t have a mind, what does it have?

And then we get the last twenty or so minutes, again without dialogue, showing Dave get to Jupiter, see funky colors, age rapidly in a weird room, see a monolith, and change into a starchild…whatever that is.

This is a starchild.

So, what can we say here?  I mentioned much of the film lacks dialogue.  But Kubrick makes those wordless moments work as they aren’t silent.  Consider his spacewalking.  There’s a good deal of tension when all we hear is a man breathing and a few bits of machinery for what may, the first time, simply be routine maintenance.  Later we see more silence as Dave and his conscious crewmate Frank discuss how HAL has been acting, and the computer reads their lips, a concept largely implied.

Beyond the silence, there are sets built to look curved liked the ships they are housed in, that really creepy monotone voice HAL has, and Kubrick’s standard shot composition designed to draw the eye to a central image.  Dave’s rapid aging has a haunting quality, where he looks at himself older and older until his final transformation.  The classical music, most notably “Also sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube,” gives the film a more epic and classical feel.

And yet, I can’t really say I understand what happened over the course of the entire film.  But since the film seems to be about humanity’s first contact with alien life, and alien life should be, you know, alien, then that’s probably how it is supposed to be.  Why should contact with a higher intelligence make sense?  But ultimately, I like films that do somewhat make sense with characters that I feel some kind of connection to.  2001 doesn’t achieve that, and while I can recognize it for the science fiction classic that it is, I don’t feel the need to see it again.

Well, maybe the ape-men.

NEXT UP:  Let’s try something a bit more down-to-earth with the 1940 drama The Grapes of Wrath.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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