Friday, June 26, 2009

A Space Odyssey 2001

A friend recently showed me a YouTube video of Pink Floyd's Echoes and the last 24 minutes of Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have not seen the movie in probably 4 years but watched it on my Netflix Instant Watch after viewing the sync.

Now, I will be the first to proclaim that this movie is very, very difficult to watch but not difficult to enjoy. The movie is 143 minutes long but the story, the drama, doesn't really begin until HAL malfunctions. The beginning prologue is imminent in its lengthiness, while Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, seems strangely short. Here is an offering of explanation of the film.

Unlike Kubrick I would begin in media res with the drama. I would add one caveat first. In general the film is about man’s evolution and the ability to use tools to aid his well-being. As he masters an increasingly large tool set, he masters domain over the spaceship Earth. However, it is once man decides to leave the bosom of earth that man must face his tools not as corporeal, that is an extension of his self, but as a contemporary. The first subtle beginning in man’s battle over his tools is the chess game.

The chess match pits astronaut Frank versus HAL9000. Hal is the computer aboard the spaceship that is rocketing towards Jupiter. Hal does not make mistakes. Until… late in the match Frank misses not only the correct move, but also when Hal explains the end game to him he misses that Hal makes a mistake in its explanation. It should have been Queen to Bishop 6 and not Bishop 3. Now, it is far easier to assume that the chess game is not a major part of the film. It takes all of 90 seconds of time in the film, but… Kubrick was a chess hound and in his youth was a hustler in New York's Central Park. He would not have allowed the mistake unless this was intentional. Thus, it was intentional. What does it imply? It implies that Hal is breaking down. We watch on...

Next Hal queries about the mission and its secretive nature. That is, he knows a secret but wishes to find out how much the astronauts know. He even implies that the other astronauts did not need to be put in stasis, but that it was a ruse to keep them from conversing and sharing their isolated and separate mission trainings. Therefore Frank and Dave, the conscious astronauts, do not yet know the goal of the mission. Then in the midst of the conversation, Hal segues into an antenna fault alert.

The antenna is retrieved and no fault is found. Ground control, says that Hal's twin on Earth has detected no fault. Frank directly asks Hal what can be the meaning of this since no 9000 has ever made a mistake. Hal correctly states that it can be attributed to human error. That is, the programmers allowed Hal to know the true purpose of their mission. However, he has to keep it secret from the crewmembers. Thus, the programming done by Man has created two opposite commands in Hal's logic. One is to keep the mission secret and the other is to not distort information. These opposite commands cause Hal's breakdown and cause him to error in the Chess game and in predicting the antenna’s fault. Since the other unit does not fail, without a doubt the conflicting programming causes Hal to begin to error.

Hal realizes now that he will be shut down once the crew has confirmed his error. This may be why he segued to the antenna control error. His solution is to put it in until it fails, once transmission stops he will be free to remove the humans from impacting his mission directives. Thus, we enter the end game. First, the Pod under Hal’s control disconnects Frank’s life support hose. Dave goes off in pursuit, meanwhile the other crewmembers' life support systems are disabled, leaving Hal in complete control of the mission and removing the less than fully logical humans impact from the mission.

Thus, man confronts the evolution of his tools. Hal represents the ultimate tool that man created and now this subplot has brought about the drama of the movie. You should take care to notice the breathing of Frank's as he goes out to diagnose and repair the antenna. There is no other sound but his breathing, just as it would be if any one were in the same situation. It is frightening and it should be because here man is likened to a fish out of water. This is Kubrick’s space baby theme. Man has become ultimately reliant on his tools to accomplish any task in space. However, tools fail and this is exemplified as Hal continues to make mistakes. He underestimates the ingenuity and courage of man and does so to his peril.

Dave is seemingly in a no-win situation stuck outside the pod bay. However, he tries the emergency hatch and propels himself in and is able to turn the knob so as to bring air into the hatch, while closing the outer door. Thus, man must disconnect his ultimate tool. In Hal’s defense, he was performing in the most logical manner possible, trying to reconcile the improper logic in his programming. His solution is to remove the cause of the discrepancy, i.e. the “human error.”

Upon disconnecting Hal's upper logical functioning a pre-recorded message begins to play. Finally, telling the astronauts about the mission's true intent. So from here it sounds as if we have a great space drama but there is much more to the film including Kubrick’s exploration of the evolution of man. So now we dive in at the beginning.

The dawn of man shows exactly that. Man, or his evolutionary precursors band about in extended family units for protection. Life is extremely hard; witness the leopard killing a family member and the group’s forcible removal from their original oasis by a rival group of apes. Overnight a monolith is placed in front of their rock outcropping by an alien presence. In the movie there is a high-pitched choir singing an evocation as Man first touches the monolith. The monolith does not at this time create a noise, although later its brother on the moon will. In fact the inert monolith does nothing but represents a challenge. The four monoliths placed in the Earth's solar system are merely milestones for humans to reach.

The next scene shows man learning to use tools. Again this is not directly caused by the monolith, but given the humans latent characteristics the aliens most likely felt that the apes would have the best opportunity to evolve. This is because the apes have no noticeable advantages like a leopard with its quickness, camouflage and sharp teeth & claws. Instead the humans have over-sized brains that allow them to premeditate their actions and make tools to assist them in their survival. A bone then flies into the air and the film segues into the future with humanity having conquered Earth and now moved has ambitions towards space.

There is an interesting theme in the lengthy docking scene that I would like to highlight. Exhibit A -The very precarious manner in which the flight attendant retrieves the doctor's pen. She has on "grip shoes" that have Velcro on them to keep here attached to the floor. No longer is man in control in Space, instead of the easy sway and swagger that s/he imposes on the Earthman must cling to his tools much like a baby in a walker. Now man must rely further on tools to support his survival. It is an evolutionary leap. Our tools have evolved so far that they can exist without us, at least after we have created them, but we cannot exist without them. Now on the space station the situation is different as the station spins as it orbits so as to create gravity. Now man can again walk just as he is entitled to on Earth. Which brings me to a third point, if they can create "artificial gravity" on the space station, there is no reason that they could not do it aboard the smaller craft as well, a small tether weight could be placed out and spun so as to allow the humans aboard the flight to walk about freely. The point is that this is an overt choice by Kubrick to show that Man is no longer in control of his environment as he is on land and point out how infantile his movements are in space.

The scene with the Russians is merely a plot device to keep people in their seats. Nothing to see here, move along.

However, in the next scene where the doctor is shuttled to the Moon there are two more choices that Kubrick expounds. First, he shows the doctor eating food out of a straw and then learning to use the toilet. These are things humans learn to do by the age of two on Earth, if the parents are lucky. So Kubrick is again showing how out-of-control man is in Space. He must learn to walk again, he must learn to eat again and to control his bowel movements. The point in all of this is that man though dominant on Earth is a Space child.

The next scene again is a plot device to move the story along. The deepest irony in this film is that the dialogue matters the least out of any of the film's elements. Of course back in the late sixties when this was released films consisted of more dialogue than the special effects bonanzas that we enjoy today, so Kubrick may have just been before his time.

As the doctor then shuttles to the site of the excavation, the audience finds out that the site has a deliberately buried object that is 4 million years old. Funny, this was the same time that the 1st monolith showed up in pre-historic Africa. Again not much here, but we do here the same high-pitched choir start up again as the doctor approaches the site. An evocation? As the sun rises over the moon's horizon the monolith unleashes a loud radio emission. The second step is now complete and the third monolith beckons from Jupiter. This scene also shows that the monolith bestows no qualities to the doctor. In fact he is not aboard the mission to Jupiter that entails the last half of the film. The monolith is just a marker or milestone for the achievement of man not a to be mistaken as a Prometheus bearing knowledge.

The next portion of the film continues to elaborate on the theme of man being a Space baby. Outside of his natural environment on Earthman must recreate the environment unto his liking using his ingenuity and tools. We learn about the most essential tool, HAL9000 from a BBC interview that the two-man crew watches after earlier giving the interview. HAL is "the brain and central nervous system" of the ship, that is man has ceded his control to his tool. Now when I say two-man crew, I mean the two men who work and live on the ship, there are three other member in a state of stasis until the ship arrives in Jupiter's orbit. This is to conserve food and air or so the conscious astronauts are led to believe. The next scene we see Frank tanning again trying to recreate his environment on Earth instead of adapting to Space's environment.

We have already covered how man overcame his ultimate tool. Now Dave after entering Jupiter’s orbit leaves the spaceship in a pod. As Dave approaches the third but not final monolith his mission and man's evolution is about to be complete. As Dave nears the monolith it turns out to be a star gate, which propels him through the universe and finally into a bizarre dimension that appears to be from Louis the 16th's time period.

What does it all mean? Well following the tool discussion, man has now evolved beyond his tools. He has reached the logical upper limit of how far he can go with his tools into space. To travel the stars he then must follow Dave's path and become the star baby. Thus, he must face his destiny just as Dave does in the extra dimension. Dave becomes older as the point of view of the camera changes. He sits down for his last supper and he knocks over his glass of wine. The vessel shatters but the wine remains. He looks up to his deathbed and the same story is repeated. His vessel will be shattered but his essence, the wine, will remain. He then ultimately defeats death and becomes the newly evolved star baby. He has reached the last monolith/milestone/marker and has reached the final evolution of man. Queue Thus Sprak Zarathustra and fin.

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