2001: A Space Odyssey

The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, 2001 is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.  

No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North’s score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for 2001 because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action — to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.

Consider two examples. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,” which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.  

We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it’s keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.

Now consider Kubrick’s famous use of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent.

The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man’s consciousness into the universe – -and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film. When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick’s film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.

I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future — everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.

To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).

The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it — not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it…

The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us. Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail, and although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, Trumbull’s work remains completely convincing — more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.

Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

Roger Ebert, 27 March 1997

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: