Friday, July 01, 2005

2001: A Space Odyssey

Yesterday, I rewatched 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the best movies ever made and #7 on my personal top 100 list. This is a film that's completely unique, an almost completely visual experience that uses the medium like no other movie. What movies are at their core is the fusion of visual and sound, that sound can be dialogue, but the medium is really best suited to moments that reliant more on music or sound effects to support strong visual storytelling. 2001's visual storytelling means that its narrative is more ambiguous than your average movie. Without dialogue to clarify things, it can be difficult to understand what is going on at the end of the movie. I know that the first time I saw the film, eight years ago when I was twelve, I immediately dashed onto the internet seeking some clarification of what I had just seen. After seeing it a bunch more times, I think I have an understanding of the movie that works for me, and more importantly, recognize that there is no definitive explanation for the end of the film, it's more about what you bring to it and finding what works for you.

But, besides the narrative, the most remarkable thing about the film is the visual storytelling. The first twenty-five minutes are dialogue free, and yet we are able to follow the story of these apes. The ape suits are still phenomenal, and this primordial world seems completely realistic. The use of music here is quite legendary, particularly in the sequence where the ape first discovers tools and his reverie is intercut with the animal bodies hitting the ground, the cuts making us aware of how the implications of his discovery.

The visual storytelling continues all through the film, and nearly every sequence in the movie has something amazing about it. I think Kubrick may have been a bit too much in love with the world he created, because the film does move at a very slow pace. I think it works well for most of the film, allowing you to get lost in the world, but the Heywood Floyd sequence could probably be speeded up a bit. Still, that's semantics, it works for me, but I know others who found the pace just too slow.

The whole HAL sequence is great, I love the production design throughout. The stark white environments and the streamlined suits, it's very visually appealing. It's astonishing how Kubrick is able to create a fully realized character out of just a camera and a voice, HAL is the most developed character in the film and even though he's the villain, you can't help but feel a bit sorry for him as he's disconnected, singing 'Daisy.' Basically, everything after the intermission is absolutely brilliant. Dave's slow journey to disconnect HAL, and then that video teasing you about what's to come. That sets up such anticipation, even on later viewings, because it signals the beginning of what I'd consider the best half hour of any film ever, the journey beyond the infinite.

The thing I love about that sequence is the way that it's purely visual storytelling, the only thing I can think of that rivals it is the last half hour of the final episode of Twin Peaks. The film becomes briefly abstract, presenting images soley for their aesthetic value, with questionable connection to the narrative. Rather than serving a specific narrative purpose, the images serve as a rorshach test for the viewer, you can see what you want in them. On this viewing, there were a lot of images that looked to me like the star child in utero, the colors were the same and the loose shape was much like what you see in photos of embryos in the womb. My favorite images in the sequence are in the journey through space sequences, the colors are so vivid and still dazzling. I love the diamonds of light that appear at one point.

Then, the 'hotel room' sequence is the type of sequence I love more than anything else, purely symbolic, drawing off what we know of a narrative, but totally open to interpretation. It's like the Twin Peaks red room, something where every single object has a meaning and it's up to the viewer to discern what that meaning is. I'm a huge fan of the way time passes, Bowman looking over and seeing an older version of himself. The entire sequence is so stately, and you get the strangest feeling watching it. This culminates in the incredible image of the star child, so simple, yet incredibly powerful. The ending of this movie absolutely owns and leaves you so alive with ideas to explore and discuss.

The most I've seen Kubrick say to describe the end of the film is this:

No, I don't mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man's first baby steps into the universe -- a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there's a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.

When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he's placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny.


What's notable for me is that this pretty much jives with my thoughts on the film, and I feel like I was on the right path in my analysis. Still, as Kubrick intended, I came away with my own interpretation of what happened in the film, an interpretation that's largely influenced by reading and analyzing The Invisibles a few years ago. I think 2001 was a huge influence on Grant's work, particuarly in the creation of Barbelith. In the Invisibles, Barbelith was a sattelite on the dark side of the moon that sent messages to select humans to help them evolve to the next stage of consciousness. In 2001, the monolith serves basically the same function. It appears at crucial times to provide guidance for humanity and help them progress forward evolutionarily.

The sequence that seems most periphery at first, but in retrospect is absolutely essential is the ape sequence. This is a microcosm of everything that happens later and is a good guide for understanding later events. Here, we see ape beings on the verge of evolution, but unable to make that leap. They are visited by a mysterious alien force, incarnated in the monolith, and this force gives them the impetus to use tools. This creates a schism in the ape community, the tool users go on the path to evolution, while those who don't use tools head for extinction. The use of tools is such a mind blowing leap for these beings, what seems commonplace for us is compeletely alien to them, but with this little nudge, they find their way to a higher mental plane.

Leaping forward thousands of years, we once again find ourselves with a humanity on the verge of a major evolutionary breakthrough, this time moving out into the stars. The Heywood Floyd sequence doesn't add that much to the thematic development, the most interesting thing is comparing the reaction of humans there with the apes in the past. There's still the same wariness about the monolith, but there's much more angst over what to do here, and when they finally do get there, the technological leap is less clear.

The HAL sequence is the most famous from the film and for good reason. HAL represents the limits of man's current evolutionary paradigm. What began with a bone has turned into a computer whose intellect arguably surpasses man's own. So, now rather than tools aiding man in his progress forward, it is actually limiting him, HAL sabotages the mission and this sabotage is indicative of the fact that man has lost control of what once aided him. This is why man needs to evolve, because the tools have become too powerful. This menace is implied in the cuts to the dying animal during the first sequence where the ape figures out how to use the bone as a destructive tool.

So, Dave uses his ingenuity to defeat HAL and in essence kills man of the present. Man has advanced beyond using tools, where can he go now? The answer lies beyond the infinite. What is it that happens during this sequence? I think Dave is transported to an alien planet, a completely different world, the light show is this journey, as he leaves behind earth and finds himself on another world. According to Kubrick, this is a 'zoo,' I see it more as a holding area, Dave must first leave behind his body before the alien intelligence can transform him into the new version of humanity. He sees his life passing quickly, and by extension, humanity itself grows older, eventually dying and transforming into a new younger version of itself, the starchild, a new type of being. This leap is as great as the intelligence leap between man and ape and the implications for humanity's future potential as great. I think we can only understand this jump by considering the leap from the bone to the spacecraft, that sort of advancement will be replicated. What this entails we can only speculate upon, apes couldn't guess what we'd be doing today, and we can't guess what this new Starchild race will be doing in the future.

Something else that should be addressed in the 'hotel room' is the breakdown of linear time. This is another idea that's quite similar to The Invisibles, the idea that when we evolve we will become 4D beings who are able to view our lives from a detached perspective, taking in the entirety of life all at once. In that room, Dave has that perspective. He finds himself aged by his journey, but then he ages a lot more, not in a linear fashion, rather he sees older versions of himself and then we transfer over to them. A question that lingers is whether the cut to the new version indicates a transfer of the current Dave's consciousness to an older body or if it's a leap through time. Dave himself may live thirty years in that room, but because he, and by extension us, are no longer bound by the conventions of linear time, we can just move through his passing much quicker. We don't get enough information to make a definitive statement, but that's what works best for me, the idea that the thirty years are there, but we don't have to see them because we have moved beyond the need to stay within time, it's just a part of the evolution into a higher form, first we're not bound by time, then we're not bound by a physical body.

The entire film is about this evolution, showing us man's roots, his present status and then his future. It's about our journey as a species towards higher and higher planes, leading to this eventual massive evolutionary jump. It's the same thing as The Invisibles 2012 event or the Promethea 'apocalypse,' they're all describing a move beyond simple physical reality towards a heightened existence.

There are very few films so ripe for analysis as 2001 and that's a large part of the reason that I love it. I think it's the sort of film that is a great reflection what your beliefs are, if you're looking for something in this film, you can probably find it, which isn't to say that it has no intended meaning, it's just that Kubrick created a film that is much about what the viewer brings to it as it is what's contained in the text.

As much as I love Kubrick's other films, I sometimes wish he would have made another film as abstract and cosmically concerned as this. Each of his projects is completely unique, but I think this is such a vital, pure filmmaking, I can't help but want more. Nearly forty years later, 2001 the year has come and gone, but 2001 the movie is more relevant to the world we live in than ever before, providing a vision of a humanity that could be if we finally get our act together and evolve.

26 comments:

JON-C said...

Great entry. I agree that the viewer can bring a lot to this flick. As far as visual stuff go, I think this movie is still one of the best. The space color visuals are incredible.

The music adds so much to this. I saw this a while back and didn't appreciate it, today I'm left with a lasting impression.

Although some parts were slow, it was as noticable for me. I guess because it was only my second viewing.

Mitch and Jocelyn said...

Hey, I know it's been a while since you posted this, but i wanted to thank you for your interpretation. It was very well written, and the most concise that I've seen. Right now, everyone is raving aoubt kubrick2001.com and how it explains the movie. I watched it, and was left with a bad taste in my mouth and all of my questions still lingering. Now that i have read this, I feel renewed in the movie, and very comfortable in my understanding.

I've moved ot the next level, like a starchild.
hahaha
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

Patrick said...

I saw the Kubrick2001 movie, and I didn't really like it. I think it's misguided to seek a definitive 'answer' to the mysteries of the movie. I did explain how I saw things here, but I'm not saying that's the only way to see things. To think you can find out exactly what the movie says is misguided because so much of the film's final section is about the viewer's reaction to it, what you bring to it as a person, and you won't get as much out of the film if you don't work through it yourself. The only answers out there are the ones that work for you and your view of the film, which it sounds like you guys found. The starchild indeed.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Great blog article. I wonder about the significance of the two paintings in the Zoo/holding room. Does anyone know what those 2 paintings are?

TC Cook said...

Great entry. A lot of these questions can be answered if you look to the book and subsequent series of books.

Great movie and a great movie for its time.

Anonymous said...

Saw the film yesterday for he first time after seeing the trailer online and i enjoyed it very much.
I agree with 90% of your points in "thoughts on stuff". But I think perhaps your views and personal representations of the story should be dismissed if the director has already divulged the true meaning of the film. If the film was written and directed by him, then his rendition of the storyline and the meaning of certain shots should remain so. No offense to you, I think this is a great post that has helped me to better understand the synopsis of the film. But leave the alternative representations to static works of art and sculpture. Also, please add punctuation when using quotation - I was confused when reading kubricks input, where it ended specifically! Thanks.

Patrick said...

But, particularly in a series of images as abstract as this, the film is open enough that the intent of the creator doesn't necessarily correspond with what comes up on screen. I don't see a movie as a puzzle to be answered, with the ultimate answer coming from its creator, it's more about the emotional experience that the individual viewer has. So, Kubrick could intend a certain thing, but he left the film ambiguous enough that everyone can bring their own meaning to it.

Pablo said...

I like the interpretation that I read somewhere that the monolith is the movie screen, as a tool of self awareness (for the movie characters in this case, although we are also exposed to the monolith at the beginning of the movie and at other moments).

After Jupiter Bowman realizes he is in a movie, he is fully self conscious of himself but he is missing something.

At the end he is exposed again to the monolith and realizes that we are on the other side.

It's a movie about our relation with the others with an anti-violence message, as usual from Kubrick.

Patrick said...

The notion of the monolith and its subsequent consciousness elevation is interesting, and certainly fits with Grant Morrison stuff like Final Crisis and Superman: Beyond which posit the idea of becoming aware that you're part of a story as a jump in evolutionary consciousness. For a person in a movie, our world would be essentially god, the creator of their world and the manipulator of their actions, so to become aware in that way is analagous to the Starchild evolution that Kubrick is positing for us.

Coolguy_d said...

A Great and wonderful movie...
I just hope when we all get to 2012, its as easy as that.
:-)

Ron said...

Thank you for your post. 2001 is also one of my favorite films, as you said, primarily because it's an intense visual and aural experience. I think Kubrick intended it to be felt more than understood.

It's interesting to consider HAL within the context of Asimov's Laws of Robotics. Although he/it was a computer (not technically a robot,) why was his behavior not governed by some similar set of behavioral controls?

A fascinating film for what it reveals through obscurity. Some of the most interesting conclusions beg the most questions.

Anonymous said...

You scare me.

Heath said...

My experience of 2001:A Space Odyssey.
A bit too slow for my own personal taste throughout the movie, however, intelligent on many levels.
We've only just begun to discover extraterrestrial footprints on both the Moon and Mars, yet in Kubrik's 2001 (please remember this was made in 1968!!!) it's already happened.
My interpretation of the ending was that Bowman didn't understand what it was that he needed to until he died. Although humanity had reached the level of technology to travel to Jupiter, Bowman (like the ape with the bone) did not undestand his new environment and withered and died.I feel that so much more could have been explored if he'd had the maturity necessary.
Only after his death does he transform and move back to Earth effortlessly and in childlike form, having transcended physical bodies.
It also fascinates me that a movie is still being analysed 42 years after it was made.
Way to go Stanley Kubrik.

Anonymous said...

so basically if humans were .wmv files, that monolith converted him .avi ..... case solved

Anonymous said...

After you watched the movie you dived on to the internet to find the explanation? Fair enough, but that's indicative of the post-internet generation as a whole. Can't reflect for five minutes on their own thoughts before having to resort to google to give them an opinion about almost everything. Imagine if a young Strauss had done that.. Not your fault of course! Good piece.

Anonymous said...

Cool you like the film. Awesome idiot. But why dont you define the points like your atricle title indicates?

Shaun said...

Check out my personal write-up for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY --

http://thismovieguy.blogspot.com/2011/06/dvd-challenge-10-2001-space-odyssey.html

Anonymous said...

I love this movie.I don't care how many times you see it you will never fully understand it,just bits and pieces.what I got from it is, man is always looking for the missing link when all along we are the missing link.

pepsi said...

Really great comment about living in/controlling the 4 dimensions. Well done.

Anonymous said...

nice review, and its great that we can all reach so many different conclusions (even contradicting ourselves when we watch the film again) but I am surprised that no one mentions the novel written by Clarke, which gives a whole different spin to the ending - bowman/star child moves through space and upon reaching Earth destroys it petulantly and moves on wondering what to do next "but he would think of something" it concludes. thoughts anyone?

Anonymous said...

I think that trying to explain everything is to kill the mistery. Perhaps the novel is clearer about every aspect of the story because Arthur C. Clarke isn't that good as a writer as Kubrick is as a film maker.
I first saw this movie when I was 7 years old, and then saw it again a couple of times. And every time I could feel the same terror. The perfect shape of the monolith, the perfect saturated colors of the astronaut suits, the classical empty room in the final scene... everything is strangely creepy.
The journey to the infinite is unique, among other reasons, because it seems to have no end.
But when it ends, you really feel that you've travelled through deep space, and beyond. People who got bored at this point, specially if they're young, should try to stop watching tv and be in internet for two or three weeks, because the problem isn't the pace of the movie, but the pace of their minds.
I'm 33 years old, and I can feel how internet harms my ability to pay attention, and increases anxiousness. I can't even imagine what it can do to people that uses it since they are childs.
Sorry for my horrible english.

Anonymous said...

The film is meaningless because its opening premise is utterly off. Humans are largish squirrels loving the sea eating mussels tracking passing herds and coupling together under firelight while singing and drumming and cavorting. Our violent patrimonial present is merely post ice age, spawned by hoarding seeds. Locks and passwords are passing artifacts. Industrial society will never survive climate changes which are the true limiting factor of evolution. Inter species competition is mere neo Darwinian babble like the bible and this film. Oh and he ripped off the soundtrack.

Anonymous said...

I can think of one movie,that uses sound and images to great effect,with little dialogue and it is a masterpiece in itself..."Play Time"-1967,Directed by Jacqu Tati

Anonymous said...

People always complain that 2001 is slow...so what?...that is how it really would be in outer space.not like Star Wars...

and 2001's stargate sequence is anything but slow.It just happens to be the most visually beautiful,hallucinatory use of color ever filmed and just think about how this motion picture was made around 40 years ago "without computer aide"

Murray C said...

I must compliment the author of this blog. I just watched 2001 DVD. I actually saw the movie in the cinema when it first came out and I was a young man. I am now a senior citizen but the youthful ideas transmitted by this film have not aged and have become even more relevant today.

Anonymous said...

If you liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, you should see Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life. Incredible.