- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

This is a logical revival year for Stanley Kubrick's science-fiction epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
More than three decades old, the movie has returned to an optimum theatrical showcase the Cineplex Odeon Uptown in Northwest for an exclusive local engagement. The seasons don't quite coincide, since the original New York premiere at the Loews Capitol occurred in April 1968. But the Uptown, unlike the Capitol, survives as a single, spacious auditorium and with a vintage Cinerama screen still intact.
Judging from the press preview, Warner Bros. has taken pains with a fresh generation of prints. As a result of the AOL-Time Warner merger, the company has inherited distribution rights to what was an MGM production. The film was bankrolled for $10.5 million, a considerable cinematic investment 33 years ago and roughly $4 million more than estimated when the project began in 1965.
A special showing several months ago at the Newseum raised suspicions that a severely faded copy of "2001" had been fobbed off on the sponsors. The film was virtually monochromatic, a distortion that must have come as a shock to viewers accustomed to the color quality preserved on cable television under Ted Turner's patronage and now enhanced on DVD editions. (Mr. Turner had acquired the Metro library in the early 1990s and did some admirable things to preserve and flatter his holdings.) Perhaps a decent new print was unavailable, but this seemed a little churlish given the circumstance. Cast member Keir Dullea and scientific adviser Frederick Ordway were among the guests for the Newseum event, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke had taped a greeting from his home in Sri Lanka.
The viewing climate for "2001" certainly has changed since 1968, when the movie's allegorical and visionary pretensions seemed to polarize the audience into exasperated skeptics and adulatory believers. The former had not quite anticipated the movie's ecstatic potential for the latter, especially when reinforced by an attachment to hallucinogenic drugs. Mr. Clarke wasn't all that pleased to find enthusiasts pressing LSD tablets into his hands. Mr. Kubrick disapproved of the tendency, too, a bit diplomatically, when asked by a Playboy interviewer if he had ever used "so-called consciousness-expanding" drugs.
"No," the director replied. "I believe that drugs are basically of more use to the audience than to the artist. I think that the illusion of oneness with the universe, and absorption with the significance of every object in your environment, and contentment is not the ideal state for an artist. It tranquilizes the creative personality, which thrives on conflict. One of the things that's turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss. Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful."
Given the convergence of the drug culture and the anti-war movement, it seems a little puzzling that Mr. Kubrick wasn't scorned more systematically for the company he kept during the planning and production of "2001." He recruited numerous advisers and designers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the project. The director also solicited the cooperation of a huge chunk of corporate America. A couple of those entities are now nostalgically preserved in the movie: Pan-American World Airways and the Bell System. The NASA contingent, of whom Mr. Ordway and production designer Harry Lange were indispensable examples, spoke of the "2001" set at Borehamwood Studios near London as "NASA East."
The mystically inclined segment of the moviegoing public tended to embrace "2001" as a cinematic new covenant while the rationally inclined segment mocked its lofty aspirations and complained about its ponderous, booster-rocket approach to narrative. The prologue, titled "The Dawn of Man," suggests a live-action natural history diorama while depicting the discovery of tool-using and weapon-wielding skills by a pack of man-apes. These creatures evidently are overstimulated by the appearance of a slim, sometimes humming monolith that resembles a very tall domino, with no dots showing.
The continuity jumps to the 2001 time frame, and another half-hour deals with the expedition of a distinguished astronomer-administrator, Dr. Heywood Floyd (portrayed by William Sylvester). Dr. Floyd embarks on a secret mission to an American moon base at the crater Clavius, where another and eventually ear-splitting monolith has been discovered. Although Mr. Sylvester is a rather amusing cagey-authoritative presence, the movie discards him less ceremoniously than it does the leader of the ape pack, nicknamed Moon Watcher by the filmmakers but nameless within the context of the movie.
The concluding episodes, lumped under the heading "To Jupiter and Beyond," transpire 18 months later and depict the harrowing, bewildering voyage of a gigantic spaceship called Discovery. The five-man crew, only two of whom become active characters, are tasked with pursuing the radio signal emitted by the moon slab. They are also destined to be sabotaged by the misguided, whiny computer HAL-9000. Nevertheless, the vessel is salvaged and piloted to a rendezvous with about 20 minutes of abstract imagery and an unseen group of extraterrestrials. Mr. Dullea plays mission commander Dave Bowman, who is rewarded for his valiant struggle with a kind of cosmic rebirth experience.
A young special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull later a pivotal influence on Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial fantasy, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and a proprietor of the IMAX company facilitated the imagery. Illustrations of the abandoned extraterrestrials of 1968 may still be glimpsed in a copiously illustrated anthology, "The Making of Kubrick's '2001,'" edited by Jerome Agel and published two years after the movie's debut. One can read there the instructions encountered by Dr. Floyd upon availing himself of the zero-gravity toilet on a moon shuttle called Orion.
There are 10 items. Here's No. 3, just for kicks: "The controls for system B are located on the opposite wall. The red release switch places the uroliminator into position; it can be adjusted manually up or down by pressing the blue manual release button. The opening is self-adjusting. To secure after use, press the green button which simultaneously activates the evaporator and return the uroliminator to its storage position."
Asked by Newsday movie critic Joseph Gelmis where the aliens had gone, Mr. Kubrick replied: "From the very outset of work on the film, we all discussed means of photographically depicting an extraterrestrial creature in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. It soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable. You cannot design a biological entity that doesn't look either overly humanoid or like the traditional bug-eyed monster of pulp science fiction."
Nevertheless, the movie's influence has surely extended to the notable films that attempt such depiction, from "Star Wars" to "Close Encounters" to "Alien." For all one knows, Mr. Kubrick also overstimulated novelist Whitley Strieber to imagine a sinister encounter with intrusive aliens in his alarmist best-seller "Communion."
The look of the space hardware in "2001" remains impressive, although "Blade Runner" may have trumped it in another sphere, that of envisioning a futuristic cityscape and assorted gadgetry. What strikes you now about the future anticipated in "2001" is that space exploration lags way behind the progress envisioned by Mr. Clarke and Mr. Kubrick.
We're still waiting for those fabulous spaceships that create artificial gravity. By the way, what became of the gigantic model of the double-Ferris-wheel space station built for the filmmakers by Vickers Engineering? It was a considerable scenic attraction while rigged inside a soundstage at Borehamwood. Those space shuttles to the moon are still behind schedule, along with the thriving moon bases. Dr. Floyd was the only passenger on his particular shuttle flight. Presumably, the easily affordable moon excursion was considered a long shot even in 1968.
Finally, we await clear-cut signals of an extraterrestrial presence and urgent missions to discover their origin in the vicinity of Jupiter. Not that volumes and volumes of photos and other invaluable astronomical-cosmological information isn't accumulating, but "2001" does tend to make the current effort seem a bit poky.
On the other hand, the movie always had poky and crackpot drawbacks of its own. I had forgotten that the first impressions, once the lights go down, are entrusted to the soundtrack. We hear a good deal of discordant throbbing from the most abstract of the composers Mr. Kubrick borrowed from Gyorgy Ligeti before Moon Watcher and the gang are seen at daybreak in the veld. These sounds keep threatening to erupt in a crescendo, and then they subside short of consummation.
Mr. Kubrick tends to resort to them when anticipating the presence of a monolith. Perhaps this is a subliminal reason that many people resisted the idea of associating a great cosmic consciousness with the slabs. It's easier to imagine yourself spread out on a slab with the music as a kind of robotic dissecting tool.
The mystification created by the movie in its initial release was corrected rather promptly by the publication of Mr. Clarke's novelized version of the screenplay. It helpfully accounted for every aspect that remained hazy or inexplicable in the movie. Mr. Kubrick also was willing to sum up the plot succinctly when interviewed by Mr. Gelmis a year or so later.
"You begin with an artifact left on Earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression," he explained. "Then you have a second artifact buried on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man's first baby steps into the universe. And finally there's a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter. This artifact sweeps Bowman into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like."
Those superpowers are demonstrated at the end of the novel, when Uber-Bowman comes home with a gesture that seems to bear a direct relationship to the finale of Mr. Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove."
One of the film's influential aspects the costuming and pantomime of ape characters during the prologue tends to be ignored. The ultimate specialist in this form of make-believe, Rick Baker, wasn't on hand for "2001." But Stuart Freeborn, who later did the makeup for "Star Wars," was in charge of facial camouflage for the Kubrick pack, which consisted of male dancers, chosen for a combination of slim hips (which made the costumes easier to fit) and disciplined movement.
When eventually rated, "2001" earned a G. It's probably a tribute to the National Geographic effect: The creatures do look amazingly documentary, even when you know they're obviously being directed far more dynamically than the human characters who follow them, come to think of it. Dan Richter was cast as the Alpha dude, Moon Watcher. The ensemble did all its pantomime on the soundstage while the African backgrounds were simulated with front-projection trick shots.
**1/2
TITLE: "2001: A Space Odyssey"
RATING: G (Originally released in 1968, before the advent of the rating system; depictions of prehistoric savagery during the prologue)
CREDITS: Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Mr. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on the latter's short story, "The Sentinel." Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, with additional photography by John Alcott. Production design by Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer. Film editing by Ray Lovejoy. Sound supervision by A.W. Watkins. Makeup by Stuart Freeborn. Special effects supervision by Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson and Tom Howard. Musical selections from the works of Aram Khachaturian, Gyorgy Ligeti, Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss. Frederick I. Ordway III was scientific consultant.
RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide