Monday, February 15, 2016
Reads to Reels: 2001 A Space Odyssey
"You can tell who read the book (2001) before they watched the movie", said a friend of mine, because they’re the only ones in the theater who aren’t asking, 'What was THAT?'" at its end. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the two strangest films I’ve seen, but one of the most impressive technically. My first hint of the strangeness came in watching a ship from Earth travel to an orbiting space station, docking with it at the speed of tectonic drift and then later slowly cruising to the Moon to settle in there. Reflecting on the year it was created, however, I realized this may have been one of the very first times human actions in space was ever modeled before cameras. No doubt they wanted to savor the accomplishment, especially considering that this was filmed during the Apollo program, when man’s foot had yet to step down upon the moon. As a piece of craftsmanship, it’s impressive in many other ways; the ships and stations do not scream “obvious model”, and some of the video effects were stunners. In the last section of the film, for instance, the lead character is taken into a hyperspace tunnel, both he and the reader bombarded with a light show that makes one think of acid trips. What sells the experience are interspersed shots of the astronaut’s face in increasing flashes of wrenching terror and panic.
These accomplishments withstanding, 2001 does present some issues. There is virtually no exposition, for instance, so when another mysterious light show accompanied by wailing ends with a cock-eyed giant baby hovering around Earth, and the credits roll, the only people who have any idea what was happening are those who read the book. (The rest, presumably, look a bit like the man in the hyperspace tunnel.) This is problem that dogs the entire film, because without that narrative it seems to consist of four completely different sequences with little connection to one another, all of which consist of preposterously long tracking shots. These feature ten minutes of an astronaut drifting in space and breathing, as well as many scenes with spacecraft moving seemingly in real time. Even the hyperspace scene was marred by this, because terror loses its edge if it is prolonged. I commented afterward that half the film seemed to be tracking visuals and music, with a spoken script that might have fit on a pocket notebook. It is if nothing else a unique film, one that left me wondering what on earth the producers were on while they created it. Its classic status is well merited.