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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

For my money the greatest movie ever made and the one that made me really excited about what the art form could do. It changed the face of films, not just sci-fi (though it did that by positing a morally neutral universe with aliens that weren’t evil—before this perhaps only The Day the Earth Stood Still had done that), but all film by bringing European existentialism and deep philosophical thought to movies. At three different times in the history of the world, a black obelisk appears and changes the future of mankind. What does the obelisk represent? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever it is (God or not), it symbolizes those major evolutionary leaps in mankind that have never fully been explained. When the story leaves prehistoric man (who discover weaponry as a result of the obelisk) and surges into the future (2001, which is now the past, but that’s what happens in sci-fi), director Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke start delving into what makes man, man. When earthlings find the obelisk on the moon, they react to it in not a much different way from early man. Perhaps most pertinently, the characters all talk in bland, uninspired dialog, full of clich├ęs and everyday activity (like wanting to know if there are any ham sandwiches) showing that no matter how far we go into the future, we’re not that far from the past and present (whether prehistoric man or the people of 1960’s, the decade the movie was made). At the same time, Kubrick also shows how dated a sci-fi film can be: there are three companies on the space station one of the characters visit—Pan Am, Howard Johnson’s and Bell Telephone, none of whom exist any longer (something similar happens in A Clockwork Orange when a woman has to look up the number of the local police and use a landline rather than call 911 on a cell phone). The acting (Keir Dullea—dull indeed, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester) is as bland as the furniture, making it difficult to tell the difference between any of them and the computer HAL, who takes on human characteristics, including mental illness and sociopathology, with the idea that if you can’t tell the difference between a computer and a human being, is there one? At this point, there is a contradiction in everything going on here; is Kubrick saying we’re no more than advanced apes or are we no more than advanced computers—we can’t really be both. But for Kubrick, who was becoming more and more of a misanthrope (which for me is what hurt his films after this), it doesn’t matter, as long as he could make mankind look bad. But the ending is both unfathomable while being incredibly thrilling and optimistic at the same time (in the battle of Kubrick v. Clarke, it feels like Clarke ultimately wins). The state of the art (for the time) special affects are always talked about in connection with Douglas Trumbull, but Kubrick got the Oscar (trivia: the technique for the flight attendant walking up the wall is the same Fred Astaire used to dance on the ceiling in 1951’s Royal Wedding). Also nominated for direction, art-set decoration and screenplay. The movie made stars of Johann Strauss, Jr. who wrote The Blue Danube Waltz, which symbolized the inherent perfection of the empty universe, and Richard Strauss, whose epic opening to his composition Also Sprach Zarathustra also opens the movie.

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