I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with my Art Appreciation: Film Studies class a few days ago. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had since then.
First off, the film everyone gets all reverential about is actually kind of funny in parts. The “Dawn of Man” segment is full of actors in ape suits. Even those students who could suspend their disbelief were laughing because primates screaming at each other are funny.
HAL’s attempt to calm down Dave Bowman also brought laughs from the class. The sequence follows on the heels of HAL killing Frank Poole and refusing to open the pod bay doors for Dave. The audience can tell that HAL is telling Dave what he thinks Dave wants to hear. I heard one person say something about Siri during this scene.
But even though the class laughed from time to time, I could tell that some of my students were frustrated by the film. I know the feeling. After an initial phase of rapturous love for the film which focused on HAL and the Jupiter Mission, I decided that it was overly long and more than a little pretentious.
It seems I am in good company. In her 1968 review of the film, Renata Adler wrote:
The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.
I still agree with this assessment. The psychedelic sequence toward the end of the film, what Adler calls a “voyage, either through Dullea’s eye or through the slab and over the surface of Jupiter-Earth,” is long enough to be boring. But it is a Tarkovskian kind of boring, where the images last long enough that viewer is forced to actually look at the film in the process of watching it.
During this most recent viewing, I found myself actually looking at the film, thinking about the way it works, and applying the critical tools I’ve gained over the years. As a result, I’ve come back around to singing Kubrick’s praises. Not only that, but I have some tips for getting the most out of 2001. If you are considering rewatching the film, teaching it to a class, or watching it for the first time…
Here are four things to help you enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey
1. Remember that it’s the story of humankind, not the story of HAL.
I loved HAL so much when I was a teen that I searched the Internet for WAVs of Douglas Rain’s voice, so I could replace Windows’ system sounds with “I’m afraid I can’t do that” and “This conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.”
Focusing on HAL meant that I spent the first part of the film waiting for him to show up and tolerated the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment until Bowman got to the inter-dimensional bedroom at the end.
2001 starts with apes and ends with Star Child floating above the Earth for a reason. We can argue about that reason, but it’s safe to say that those bookends tell us about whose story we’re watching.
2. Remember that 2001 is actually four stories (or at least one story with four distinct segments [or maybe three segments]).
Each story shows the viewer a step in the process of human evolution.
“The Dawn of Man” shows us appearance of the monolith on Earth, and hints at its role in the development of intelligence.
The untitled second section, shows us the discovery of TMA-1, the monolith buried on the Moon. This discovery prompts humans to travel to Jupiter, the location of another monolith.
“Jupiter Mission” is the story of Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and HAL. There is no monolith sighting in this section, which makes me want to say that it is a bridge between the story of TMA-1 and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” but all the same, the murderous HAL shows us the limits of the tool-making intelligence bestowed on the pre-humans in “The Dawn of Man.”
This leads us to the events of “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” where Dave Bowman contacts the Jupiter monolith and is reborn as the Star Child.
Thinking of the film as composed of four stories encourages the viewer to see the similarities between the sections. For example, in addition to monoliths and primate tools (bones, spacecraft, computers), the act of eating figures prominently in all of these stories and ties them together.
3. Everything is in the film for a reason.
It is Kubrick after all. Take the sound of Bowman and Poole breathing inside their space suits for instance:
It gets old quickly, but not only does it give us the subjective sense of being inside the suits, it also provides a counterpoint for when Poole’s air hose is disconnected:
This does not mean that Stanley Kubrick can do no wrong. There is practically no reason to show us the stewardess walk all the way around the Velcro walkway.
I get the fact that he is trying to give the viewer the sense of being on an actual voyage in space, but in an already long movie with plenty of other shots of people in space, shots need to serve more than one role. We’ve already seen the grippy shoes in close-up by this point.
You have to admit that the shot sure does look nice, though.
4. Watch for Kubrick’s distinctive cinematographic style
Kubrick often stages symmetrical scenes built around a central vanishing point:
Once I realized Kubrick’s tendency to use one-point perspective, I couldn’t un-see it. Part of the fun of watching the film this time around was identifying the shots using one-point perspective and trying to figure out why they were shot that way.
Well, that’s all I’ve got right now. I know that I’ll be ruminating on 2001: A Space Odyssey in the future, so this isn’t the last post on the topic.
Lastly, I know that people have strong opinions on this film. Feel free to weigh-in below.