Wednesday, 29 January 2020

2001: a space odyssey

Stanley Kubrick, UK
screenplay: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C Clarke

My experience of ‘2001: a space odyssey’ begins was when I must have been around nine or ten and a man told me its story. I was dragged along for my parents’ visit to a friend, and the friend’s lodger sat with me in the lounge and he explained the tale as he played the soundtrack. The details of the moment remain very vague, but I consider this a formative childhood experience: I still remember vividly how I imagined the story’s final journey as a spaceship caught in a kind of black hole of multi-coloured crystals. And thus, my love for storytelling was taken to a brand new level. I wouldn’t see the film for a few years yet.

This was one of those films that I saw several times as a kid, every time it came on TV (pre-video era, youngsters). I don’t know when was the last time I saw this, but it must be decades. Nevertheless, it remained a vivid memory in my mind. And of course, production stills of its imagery in popular culture have never gone away so there’s always a reminder. Recently, my friend said he was going to see it at London’s Prince Charles Cinema and I thought that was a great way to see it again. It’s a film that demands the big screen.

Even as a kid, I found it enticingly abstract but hardly baffling. I knew enough science fiction as a preteen to know it was all about the ascension of man, escalating to a higher life-form, et cetera. I don’t remember such ideas ever being mystifying, although evolution wasn’t quite something I could name: after all sci-fi and religion and mythology are loaded with such transformations. These evolutionary leaps made by humankind are facilitated by the obelisk that appears to him, firstly when he is perhaps fixed in a more primal state and again when he has developed enough to go out into space and to find the next obelisk. The whole early history of man is captured in one seminal temporal jump from a bone thrown in the air to a spaceship on its way through the void. Later, it will take the form of a psychedelic light show.*

What I was struck by, seeing it now, was how Kubrick insists on conveying man’s presence in space as workmanlike and prosaic: this is all just another working day for people. When crises happen, the spacemen are cool-headed and rational, exactly as you would expect professionals to be: compare to the unimpressive hysterics of the military team in Cameron’s ‘Aliens’; the reaction of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to his situation in Scott’s ‘The Martian’  is a natural and convincing extension of ‘2001’s sensible Kier Dulla’s Dave Bowman.  It’s a substantial imagining of working in space – meeting in space station lobbies; taking a moment to call home; media reportage – that, despite some of it’s datedness (females will be space stewardesses and, of course, how computers look), is still credible. The screens on tables, for example, surely resemble laptops and screen-calls are ubiquitous now, etc.

And then there are the spacecraft models: in an era of CGI where we are used to seeing the amazing all the time, the tangibility of these models in loving long takes are a delight. For example, see how, if you look closely, the engine vents on the craft are painted black as if from exhaust fire. Modern CGI effects extravaganzas are so used to being set on continuous “dazzle!” that this is mistaken for awe-inspiring. To think that Kubrick’s imagining of future space work was happening at the same time as the first moon landing and that it still remains credible is testimony to its attention to detail. Later, Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Dark Star’ will add the grime of the workplace and a slacker grubbiness to space jobs. ‘2001: a space odyssey’ remains awesome.

This is achieved by themes and pace where the understatement of the human action is juxtaposed with the stunning “in space” visuals and effects, with the seminal, transcendental use of bombastic classical music. It’s use of classical music is so influential that it has by association defined the works of György Ligeti, Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss. Ligeti’s ‘Requiem For Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra’ evokes the obelisk’s eerie presence; Richard Strauss’‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ signals the moments the obelisk supercharges mankind to the next level; Johann Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’  treats the movement and interaction of spacecraft as a dance, for example. There are truly very few narrative beats to the story, taken from Arthur C. Clark’s ‘The Sentinel’, but the deliberate pace and the prolonging of moments allows the audience to both attune to its low key evocations and to be overwhelmed by the experience where necessary, and overall.  

To see ‘2001: a space odyssey’ on the big screen now, in all its cool majesty, is to note how much genre cinema is bombast and juvenilia. That’s part of what the sci-fi superhero genre is, so I can accept that, but offerings like ‘Ready Player One’ and ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ are thematically and dramatically stunted by comparison. For further comparison, even ‘Akira’, although set on “dazzle!”, has a sense of pace and theme, a maturity, that allows the awe-adainspiring to take hold. 

 It remains a zenith of the genre and artform, a pure visual experience with some big existential questions. ‘2001: a space odyssey’ remains awesome.

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