It’s a Classic: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Open the pod bay doors please HAL…”

2001

David Bowman (Keir Dullea) faces an unbelievable journey in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (image credit: MGM/Warner Bros. used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1968

Starring:  Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Douglas Rain

Directed by:  Stanley Kubrick / written by:  Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke

What’s it about?

Mankind learns they are not alone in the universe when a strange artefact is uncovered on the Moon, leading to a journey to the outer solar system and beyond all imagination…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Fifty years ago, author Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick brought what many consider to be the greatest of all science fiction masterpieces to the big screen.  Based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only a seminal masterwork of SF cinema but also, frankly, one of the best films ever made.  An ambitious production that’s still impressive today, 2001 is a mesmerising, haunting and beautiful visual and aural experience that marries high concept science fiction ideas with incredible photography (captured by Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later work on Richard Donner’s Superman), innovative special effects and an inspired mix of classical music and contemporary orchestrations, eschewing the use of a traditional motion picture score produced by a single composer.

2001: A Space Odyssey can be an enigma to the uninitiated, it’s more focused on hard SF concepts (technological and existential) and extraordinary visuals than a “coherent” plot – although repeated viewings and a reading of Clarke’s novel (which he wrote whilst collaborating on the film’s screenplay with Stanley Kubrick) deepen both understanding and appreciation for, and enrich the experience of, the “proverbial good” science fiction film Kubrick and Clarke set out to make.  The lack of clear explanation, especially in the mind-bending finale, is an intention on the part of Kubrick and Clarke, wanting to impart interpretation and meaning on the viewer.

In terms of the underlying narrative, 2001 follows the evolution of man and its encounters with an alien intelligence via black, featureless slabs – or monoliths – at key points, from the human race’s primitive beginnings to its spacefaring ways millions of years later (connected by that iconic jump cut) as mankind reaches for the stars and is ultimately taken on a journey beyond comprehension.  Following the unearthing of a mysterious monolith on the Moon a powerful signal is blasted into space, leading to humanity’s first expedition into the unknown.

The main bulk of 2001 focuses on the spacecraft Discovery as it journeys on a mission to Jupiter.  The ship’s scientific crew in hibernation, only her commander, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and co-pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) remain awake to attend to the day-to-day functions of the mission along with Discovery’s advanced supercomputer A.I., the HAL 9000.  Without delving too heavily into spoilers, everything runs smoothly until the HAL 9000 – or HAL – begins to exhibit signs of malfunction and turns against Bowman and Poole as they consider the possibility of disconnection.  This provides drama for the central act before viewers are taken on “The Ultimate Trip” as 2001 moves towards a conclusion that has been endlessly debated and dissected.

Kubrick’s expert direction coupled with the understated and naturalistic performances of the actors gives an almost documentary style of execution to 2001.  Again, it’s more of a visual and auditory experience that challenges the mind (and the senses) than a showcase for awards worthy character portrayals (as it happens, there is actually – intentionally – very little dialogue in the film).  The exception to this of course is Douglas Rain (who sadly passed away in November) who provides the voice for HAL.  A chilling and unrivalled performance, Rain’s subtle, soft tones and restrained delivery bring a sense of unease that only becomes more unsettling as HAL’s programming begins to unravel.

The production design of 2001 is staggering, with intricate model work and meticulously detailed sets having a functional and believable quality to them.  Adding to this are the astonishing special photographic effects, designed with assistance from Douglas Trumbull and directed by Kubrick – the iconic ‘Star Gate’ sequence remaining one of the most incredible and startling in all of cinema.  The use of music is also ingenious, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s jubilant rendition of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube the perfect accompaniment to the dreamy, waltz-like imagery of man’s journey into space whilst Adagio (from Gayane’s Ballet Suite, performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra) conveys the isolation and loneliness of the Discovery’s voyage to the outer solar system.  Most effective though are Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres (performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sudwestfunk orchestras respectively), compositions that complement and accentuate the eeriness and mystery of the monolith and Bowman’s cosmic and reality spanning journey ‘beyond the infinite’ as he encounters a larger version of the alien object floating in the vicinity of Jupiter.

There’s so much that has been said and can be analysed about 2001: A Space Odyssey but in basic terms it is simply outstanding and an enduring masterpiece that will forever be influential and revered by lovers of science fiction, film, music and art in general.

Standout moment

Unable to verify HAL’s report of a fault in the Discovery’s communications system, David Bowman and Frank Poole employ subterfuge as they enter one of the ship’s EVA pods to discuss deactivating the ship’s computer, unaware that HAL is observing…

Geek fact!

Prior to filming on 2001, Gary Lockwood appeared in the second pilot for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

If you like this then check out…

2010 : Peter Hyams directs the Kubrick-less sequel that sees Roy Scheider’s Heywood Floyd journey to Jupiter in order to reactivate HAL and uncover the secrets surrounding the monolith and the disappearance of David Bowman.

Solaris : Russian cinema’s answer to 2001, Solaris is a similarly cerebral and enigmatic piece that’s worth checking out.

TV Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ – “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Gary Lockwood, Sally Kellerman, James Doohan, George Takei, Paul Fix, Paul Carr

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  Samuel A. Peeples / Episode directed by:  James Goldstone / 1966

What’s the episode about?

Attempting to cross an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy, the U.S.S. Enterprise is severely damaged and a strange phenomenon causes two crewmembers with high ESP ratings to develop god-like abilities…

Review/retrospective

In 1964, Gene Roddenberry produced a pilot for a science fiction series called Star Trek.  Titled “The Cage” and featuring Jeffrey Hunter in the lead role as Captain Christopher Pike, it was ultimately rejected by executives at television network NBC who felt it was ‘too cerebral’.  However, they saw potential in the premise of Star Trek and in an unprecedented move (and reportedly under the persuasion of Lucille Ball, star of I Love Lucy and co-owner of production studio, Desilu), commissioned a second pilot.

Written by Samuel A. Peeples, who had previously worked on series such as Wanted: Dead or Alive and Burke’s Law, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would take an imaginative science fiction concept, in this case extra sensory perception (ESP) and explore the moral consequences of individuals being imbued with god-like powers that, on the wrong side of human ego, could prove corruptive and dangerous.  Ironically, still a cerebral idea but one that would incorporate some measure of action and excitement to satisfy the demands of TV bosses, all too aware of the popularity of western and detective series where audiences had come to expect a bare knuckle fist fight or two.  Peeples’ script works extremely well and whilst later episodes of Star Trek are better examples of those morality plays that would become a significant part of the series’ DNA, it gives the audience a science fiction story that’s treated intelligently, laced with personal and ethical conflict as well as that aforementioned element of action and adventure.

The only surviving cast member from “The Cage” is Leonard Nimoy, who returns as a far less emotional and much more intellectual Mr. Spock.  At this point, the character is a work in progress as Nimoy seeks to find the right level of cold logic and define the subtle nuances of the Spock viewers would come to know.  No easy task given the changes in the character’s portrayal from the original pilot and a few quirks aside, Nimoy does a commendable job of laying the groundwork for the infamous Vulcan science officer.

Replacing Jeffrey Hunter is Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain James (no “T” just yet) Kirk and in contrast to Nimoy’s Spock, Shatner hits the ground running and is very much the familiar starship captain from the get-go with a passionate and driven performance as Kirk is torn between the responsibilities to ship and crew and his friendship with Gary Mitchell, who Spock warns is becoming an increasing danger as his latent powers grow.

Mitchell is played by Gary Lockwood, star of Roddenberry’s short-lived military drama The Lieutenant (and would go on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey) who shares good chemistry with Shatner and fellow guest star Sally Kellerman (later earning an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H), in the role of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner – another strong female character in the vein of Majel Barrett’s ‘Number One’ in “The Cage” – who’s high ESP rating would also lead to the awakening of omnipotence.  Whilst Mitchell reaches the ‘point of no return’ (Lockwood’s performance becoming more and more menacing), it’s Dehner who begins to question these new abilities and their corruptive influence over the more rational sides of human nature.

Missing from the familiar ensemble of Star Trek’s first season are Nichelle Nichols’ communications officer Lt. Uhura and DeForest Kelley’s chief medical officer, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (a role temporarily filled here by Paul Fix’s Dr. Piper) and whilst James Doohan is in place as chief engineer Scott, George Takei’s Sulu is absent from the Enterprise helm instead forming part of the ship’s scientific group.

Strangely, NBC decided to commence airing Star Trek with “The Man Trap” on 8th September 1966 with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” going out on 22nd September.  Given noticeable differences in casting and even some of the set design and costumes (with the slightly more drab crew uniforms being recycled from “The Cage”), this must have been jarring for even the least attentive of viewers at the time?  In the end, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” succeeds as a rough template for Star Trek, where it demonstrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit against the backdrop of an entertaining and imaginative SF story.

Geek fact!  Samuel A. Peeples would also pen the first episode of the Star Trek animated series, “Beyond the Farthest Star”.

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain and increasingly dangerous Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain an increasingly dangerous and exponentionally powerful Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.