Thursday, July 13, 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey, a flawed masterpeice

      2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [D: Stanley Kubrick. Keir Dullea et al, and HAL-9000] A museum piece, instructive: what’s interesting is how limited Clarkes’ technical imagination was, and how his social imagination was essentially zero. Clarke could imagine technical progress, up to a point: he didn’t fully extrapolate the effects of the relentless miniaturisation of electronic devices. Fred Pohl had already written The Age of the Pussyfoot, which among other things imagined something very like a cross between a smartphone and a tablet PC, but much more powerful than what we actually have. Look it up.
     But where Clarke and Kubrick fail most is the social context. Beginning with the clothes, which are merely late 60s fashions streamlined a bit. Gender roles are still very 50s. The Cold War’s US-Russian rivalry is still going on. There is no awareness of the probable outcomes of the anti-racism movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the year of this movie’s release, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released the year before this movie. Not too late to affect the script, its ideas were very much part of public discourse.
     It was already clear than China and other Asian economies would eventually rival and even surpass the USA and Europe. The notion that the West would continue its supremacy in science and engineering was already undermined by the  achievements of Japan. All these things could have influenced the script, especially since so much of the movie is displays the engineering achievements expected by 2001.
     The decor and ambience of the movie celebrate technology. Kubrick uses music to underline the joy and grace of beautiful machines. The long sequence of the PanAm space shuttle arriving at the space station is shown to a sumptuous version of the Blue Danube waltz. The scene in which Dr Floyd calls home on video phone is there to emphasise the wonderful technology of the future, as is the space station itself, the moon shuttle, etc. Clark’s faith in the saving grace of ever more magical tech is touching, now that we have become accustomed to it, and are beginning to understand the negative effects of overly-rapid change, aptly called disruption.
     But those are minor cavils. This is a pioneer movie. Not only in its visual effects, all done with analogue techniques utilising models and matte boards, and photographic manipulations. Its story, such as it is, is about work. There’s no character conflict, there’s only work to be done. What plot tension there is comes from the character’s attempts to work out what to do when HAL goes rogue.
     The story has five parts: the discovery of tools, instigated by the mysterious black monolith. The discovery of the monolith on the Moon. The expedition to Jupiter. The rebellion of HAL, and Dave Bowman’s destruction of the computer’s personality module. Dave’s arrival and stay somewhere in orbit around Jupiter. Bowman’s aging, and the appearance of  a fetus journeying back towards Earth.
     But there’s more to the movie than its story or its plot structure. It is a celebration of technology, of the Universe, of humankind’s ability to overcome obstacles, and an expression of a mystical faith in some barely imaginable future of humankind. Clark and Kubrick wanted to foster wonder and hope. Wonder at all that human curiosity and skill and art can achieve, and hope that ultimately humans will become better than the warring semi-apes that they are.
     Worth seeing again, despite its datedness and flaws. ****

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