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New Movies: 2001 : A Space Odyssey

5 minute read

A herd of hairy simians chatters and skirmishes beside a water hole. It is, says the screen, “The Dawn of Man.” But is it? From somewhere, a strange rectangular slab appears, gleaming in the primeval sunlight. Its appearance stimulates one of the simians to think for the first time of a bone as a weapon. Now he is man, the killer; the naked ape has arisen, and civilization is on its way. With a burst of animal spirits, the bone is flung into the air, dissolves into an elongated spacecraft, and aeons of evolution fall away. It is 2001, the epoch of A Space Odyssey.

Like many sequences of this contradictory movie, the primate prologue is overlong and repetitious. Still, it serves to introduce the film’s key character: the shining oblong, a mass of extraterrestrial intelligence that supposedly has been overseeing mankind since the Pliocene age. Now, in the 21st century, the mass has been identified by scientists, who have traced its radio signal back to Jupiter. A spaceship, Discovery I, is dispatched to that remote planet. Aboard are two conscious astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and three hibernating scientists sealed like mummies in sarcophagi. Also on board is Hal, a computer-pilot programmed to be proud of his job and possessed of a wistful, androgynous voice.

Scientist Benumber. For what seems like a century the journey goes well. Then, abruptly, Hal begins to act in an indefinably sinister manner, and the astronauts prepare to perform a lobotomy on their cybernetic buddy by removing his memory banks. But Hal discovers the plan.

Intermission. By this time, almost 1 hr. and 40 min. have passed, and the non-sci-fi fanatic may feel as benumbed as the scientists in their “hibernacu-lums.” In depicting interplanetary flight 33 years from now, Director Stanley Kubrick and his co-scenarist, Arthur C. Clarke, England’s widely respected science and science-fiction writer, dwell endlessly on the qualities of space travel; unfortunately they ignore such old-fashioned elements as character and conflict. As the ship arcs through the planetary void it is an object of remarkable beauty—but in an effort to convey the idea of careening motion, the sound track accompanying the trek plays The Blue Danube until the banality undoes the stunning photography. The film’s best effects do not occur until the second part, but when they arrive, they provide the screen with some of the most dazzling visual happenings and technical achievements in the history of the motion picture.

Mind Bender. After a wrenching struggle, Dullea manages to disarm the mutinous Hal just as Discovery I enters the orbit of Jupiter. There he sees the object of his trip—the omnipotent slab. He heads for it, and suddenly conventional dimensions vanish. An avalanche of eerie, kinetic effects attacks the eye and bends the mind. Kubrick turns the screen into a planetarium gone mad and provides the viewer with the closest equivalent to psychedelic experience this side of hallucinogens. At the end, beyond time and space, Dullea apparently learns the secret of the universe—only to find that, as Churchill said about Russia, it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Like Space Odyssey itself, the ambiguous ending is at once appropriate and wrong. It guarantees that the film will arouse controversy, but it leaves doubt that the film makers themselves knew precisely what they were flying at. Still, no film to date has come remotely near Odyssey’s depiction of the limitless beauty and terror of outer space. In this 2-hr. 40-min. movie, only 47 minutes are taken up with dialogue. The rest of the time is occupied with demanding, brilliant material for the eye and brain. Thus, though it may fail as drama, the movie succeeds as visual art and becomes another irritating, dazzling achievement of Stanley Kubrick, one of the most erratic and original talents in U.S. cinema.

Mind Boggler. Since he went on his own odyssey, from Look photographer to the ionosphere of the moviemaking business, Kubrick, 39, has built a reputation for sensing—and often starting —new trends. At 27 he made a killing with The Killing, a gritty city melodrama that is still being imitated. His next project was Paths of Glory, one of the first—and best—of this generation’s antiwar films. After that came two more trend setters. The first was Lolita, a hollow, literalized adaptation of the book, for which it can be said only that it wore basic black before black comedy was fashionable. The other, Dr. Strangelove, was a major American contribution to the furiously active cinema of the absurd.

Now that Kubrick has taken off on his space kick, his fans are convinced that a sci-fi renaissance is on its way. As the spy film sinks slowly in the West, and the western sinks rapidly into TV, studios are occupied with some dozen ambitious fantasy features, ranging from Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger, to the high-camp French comic strip Barbarella, with Jane Fonda. The next trend for Kubrick? All he will give away is that it will be “a mind boggler.”

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