Hal-9000 CameraIn my list of “15 Movies that Changed Things”, 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be the most difficult to discuss. In many ways, it’s a time capsule.

There are three main elements in this story. Human evolution, artificial intelligence, and alien civilization. All these elements are still controversial today. From the viewpoint of 1968, it seemed perfectly reasonable that space flight would be commonplace by 2001, and that machine intelligence would be a fact of life. This was a time of flower children and going to the moon. All things seemed possible.

To place this event in time, remember that the Apollo moon landing was still in the future, the earlier moon orbital missions were current news. The idea of a personal computer was science fiction, only the government and giant corporations owned computers. The internet was not even a concept. You listened to music on vinyl or cassettes.

 

The experience

For a poor student attending very expensive school, going to a movie involved some financial sacrifice. You made those decisions with great care. But word of mouth about 2001 was compelling. So I gathered up a date, which turned out to be a future wife, and stood in line on Hollywood Boulevard. The screen was huge. That first year, 2001 was shown in Super 70mm Cinerama. I had been advised to get there early and get a seat near the front in order to get that totally immersive feeling. Good advice.

There was also a distinct scent of weed. This at a time when you could get 20 years in jail for simple possession. Obviously, quite a few people were more connected with what was about to happen than I was.

If all that wasn’t enough of a clue, the feature started with several minutes of a musical prelude. The opening scenes of the first act, “The Dawn of Man”, were simply stunning. It captured the mind like nothing else I had ever seen. Nothing is explained, it is left up to the audience to interpret the meaning. The match cut between the first and second act just takes your breath away. Four million years flash by in 1/24th of a second. You realize that all of human history is insignificant until this particular point in time. Something really big is about to happen. It’s one of the biggest setups in Cinema.

Dave Bowman disconnets HAL

The fourth act, when coming at you at a million miles an hour, completely mind blowing. How fortunate I was not to have any knowledge about it beforehand.

One overlooked part of the experience is what happens right after the movie. There was a near universal effect… What does it mean? What was that last thing about? Where did Bowman go? What happened to him? People just could not stop talking about it.

 

So, what does it mean?

You have to decide for yourself. This movie does not treat the audience like they’re in kindergarten. You’re an adult, make up your own mind.

 

Today’s audience

While it was a wonderful experience to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in a great theater, I’m not sure it will have the same effect on an audience today, even if they are 2001 virgins, and know nothing about it.

It is unconventional. Of the four acts, the first and last have no dialog at all. Not a single spoken word. The second act, TMA-1, Tycho Magnetic Anomaly – 1, has dialog best described as banal. Most of the sparse dialog is exposition. In 1968 it was amazing because people had never seen the effects before. The audience of that time was in a totally new place, and that carried it. Today’s more sophisticated audience is going to be more critical.

The third act, the Jupiter Mission, introduces HAL-9000, the machine intelligence that controls every aspect of the space ship. This is the only part of the movie that could be described as conventional. There are protagonists and antagonists, along with escalating tension and conflict. No spoilers in this discussion, but let me say that a better story about artificial intelligence has yet to be made.

For film buffs, this is a must see, and must understand, movie. 2001 broke so much new ground, and changed so many perceptions, it qualifies as a landmark. Special effects, production design, the soundtrack, were all changed forever. It laid the groundwork for big budget science fiction.

If you have not seen the movie, I beg you to do the right thing. This film is a visual and auditory experience. It was designed to be seen on the big screen. It was shown years before VHS was even invented. It does not work on a small screen. Watching it on a laptop is nothing short of sacrilege. It does not translate. Beg, borrow or steal the Blu-ray edition and watch it on the biggest screen you can find, with a great sound system. It’s worth the effort.

 

Looking back

Now, in 2015, true machine intelligence is viewed as being at most 20 or 30 years away, exactly as is was in 1968. There are no moon bases, and the US uses Russian launch vehicles to get men into orbit. The popular view about contact with extraterrestrials was that, being advanced, they must be benign. That view is far from universal today.

Looking back at the actual year 2001, a year that once held so much promise, the most important event was not a journey to Jupiter, and contact with advanced civilizations that want to help us, it was the attack on the US by Islamic fundamentalists. In 2001 we made contact with a civilization that wants to return to the 12th   century.

In 2015, the resources of the US are not primarily directed at exploring the cosmos, instead we are focused on bombing our enemies in the middle east back to the Dawn of Man. It leaves me with a feeling of overwhelming melancholy. But I have that Blu-ray, I can watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again, and feel that the future might still be wonderful beyond imagination.

 

Awards

Complete coverage would take pages, this list is just the high points

Academy Award for best Visual Effects.

The film also received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.

The film won four BAFTA (British Academy Film Awards), for Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound Track and as Best Road Show, and was one of nominees in the Best Film category.

2001 has also made numerous ‘Top’ lists. AFI top 100 movies, Hal 9000 as a top villain, Roger Ebert’s Top 10 movies (1968), not to mention the Village Voice Top 100 movies of the 20th century.

Quote of the Day
“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. ”

HAL 9000

 

Links

Robert Eberts Review:  A must read.

Wikipedia on Cinerama and 70mm

Some history and background on 2001