Thursday, January 23, 2014

Movie Review #3: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Last year one of the last books I read was Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie, even though I knew that the book was written alongside the movie and, in fact, was released after the movie. Still, I would consider myself a book guy more than a movie guy and, moreover, I had a quota to meet.

Well, last night I finally got to watch this classic movie. Naturally, I spent a good deal of time comparing the movie to the book, but it was mostly because I'm interested in how film and print handle the same story. I'm rarely of the opinion that the book is better than the movie, nor vice versa.


2001 is a story in three, maybe four distinct acts.

The first act depicts the dawn of man and the birth of technology.

The second act shows the discovery of a something on the moon which the US space program is afraid to reveal.

The third act shows the voyage of an exploratory mission to Jupiter and the trials of the two men in command of the mission.

The final act is very much up to interpretation, but seems to suggest the beginning of the ascension of man.

All of these acts are tied together by a common object and a common theme: the black monolith and the advancement of mankind.


I was warned beforehand that the movie is one of incredibly slow pacing, and that's certainly true. It was legitimately rough sometimes, and eventually in the longer parts Laura and I took to talking about the differences between the book and the movie.

In the end, though, I think a lot of that slowness was justified. I'm not sure that Kubrick was aiming for with the opening shots leading up to the scenes of the ape-like early humans, but for me it established that the world at this point is long before civilization: there are no buildings, no cars, no smoke stacks in the sky, nothing that would suggest that humanity as we know it had yet left its mark on the land.

Likewise, I felt that the long, slow shots during space travel conveyed something that most science fiction films are naturally unwilling to convey: the fact that space travel is grueling, and even if you're traveling far faster than any object on Earth, the distance between objects in space is unfathomable, and even "close" objects are often much farther apart than they might appear.

Each of the four acts I mentioned has a climax, though I'd say that the ones in the first and third acts are the most notable ones. The climax of the second act is sudden and confusing, not really explained in the movie until after the third climax. The climax of the final act is also confusing, but that's mostly because it's meant to raise questions and be up to interpretation.

The first act was particularly interesting to me since, unlike the book, there wasn't a narrator to really explain the plight of the early man, his struggle with starvation, and how utterly defenseless he was against predators. Also, I was curious about how the movie would handle the monolith.

In the end, the movie conveyed an impressive amount without any spoken words. You see them constantly gathering food during the day, competing for what little there was even against the docile porcine animals they seemed to share territory with. They were desperate and frightened creatures until the monolith came.

The movie doesn't explain for a second what exactly it did to Moonwatcher's little tribe. The music suggests it's something frightening and otherworldly, which is amazing since that's basically the case according to the book. The movie doesn't have the time to show all the things the monolith does to the tribe, so instead it just provides eerie music and a cutaway, allowing our minds to fill in the gaps as Moonwatcher creates the first bone club.

Very soon after discovering basic technology (the club), Moonwatcher and his tribe prove themselves to be masters over both the beasts of the fields and their fellow man, for he who has the greater technology will be victorious. It's a truth that has defined war ever since.

The whole thing is brilliantly done.

The second act is far more centered on exposition, in more ways than one. The dialogue and action certainly focus on the progression of the plot: the US's relationship with Russia, the cover-up story, and of course the discovery of the monolith itself.

What I found even more fascinating, though, were the details about space travel: the velcro shoes, the specially made food, circular space stations spinning to simulate gravity using centrifugal motion, and, of course, the toilet. Even now, most science fiction never even bothers with the issue of zero gravity within a space ship. They all just have some sort of magical "artificial gravity machine" that's just taken for granted.

Which, of course, makes a certain amount of sense. If there's one thing 2001 showed me it's that zero gravity is difficult to shoot. The movie handles it incredibly well, but no doubt it was an incredibly difficult illusion to maintain.

The only thing I would say the book made far clearer is the reason why the monolith made the noise it did: in the book, it explains that the monolith has been on the dark side of the moon since it was found 10 days prior, which is possible since the moon rotates in relation to the sun about once a month. When the sun hits the monolith for the first time in 4 million years, it's proof that the monolith has been dug up by something, so it emits its signal to Jupiter (or one of Saturn's moons, in the book), which prompts the following act. This is eventually kind of explained after David shuts down HAL, though, which may be just as good? I'm not sure.

Oh, and I appreciated the music for this act. If nothing else, it conveyed a feeling of pure joy in space flight. I kind of imagine that music playing every time an astronaut has their first zero gravity experience.

The third act is probably the movie's most famous act. It was certainly the one I was most familiar with going in. HAL is one of the most notorious movie villains in history, even though I would hardly consider him a villain.

Laura noted that HAL seemed to come off as more of a villain in the movie than he did in the books. At first I agreed, since when he begins to attack Frank and David it seems very malicious, like revenge for daring to think about shutting him down. By the time Dave was disconnecting HAL's memory, though, I changed my mind completely. HAL was acting in self defense. Sure, it was bad judgment, but that makes him even more human. In the end, as David enters the memory core, HAL even admits that he, one of the faultless HAL9000 models, made mistakes.

It was heartbreaking to listen to HAL beg for his life.

In the book, it was much more clear about the reason HAL was making mistakes: he was stressed out from having to keep a secret from Dave and Frank about the true purpose of the mission. Then, when his mistakes were revealed, he had to dispose of those who were aware of his errors. Looking back, the novel's HAL felt a lot less human (and, therefore, a lot less relatable) than the HAL of the movie.

The rest of the third act was fascinating as well, showing life aboard a space ship that would be traveling away from Earth for years. Things like constant exercise, their diet, and hours worth of lag for transmissions were interesting to see on screen.

The final act was quite a trip. Once David enters the monolith he finds himself in a world of Winamp Visualizers and Photoshop filters for a long, long time. Then, finally, he finds himself in a hotel room, where time distorts and he finds himself aging (literally looks over and sees himself aging in a different part of the room) until, finally, the monolith appears and David apparently becomes a glowing embryo, which then flies to Earth and looks down upon its home planet.


In the book, the journey to the hotel rooms was slightly more clear and showed hints of other intelligent species. In the end, I think it explained something about how the intelligent creatures of old had eventually become beings of light and energy, and I guess they passed that on to Dave? I'm not sure.

In fact, I don't think I'm supposed to be sure. The fact is, if we truly understood what our future holds then we would practically already be there. The truth of our future is probably something we can't even fathom yet. All we can do is keeping living and trying to find out what the future holds, since we'll never really understand until we get there in person.

That's what I gathered from the ending, anyway.


2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic film for a reason, and not just because the final act is probably really awesome if you're high. Its pacing is rough, though, and even though I think I understood the purpose, there's definitely a risk of falling asleep during some of those long, slow-moving shots.

Still, I recommend watching it at least once. If you can get through the second act, you're probably good to make it through the rest of the movie, since the second act is the slowest. The third act in particular is worth getting to. There's a reason it's one of the most commonly referenced parts of any movie ever.

This is probably the only movie in which I feel like the book seemed faster paced. I do recommend the book as well, especially if you have an interest in learning more about the technology of space travel.

1 comment:

  1. Totally excellent review. Best summary of the movie I've ever read and very glad you also read the book and had its perspective. Thank you for sharing!