'2001: A Space Odyssey': THR's 1968 Review
In April 1968, a sci-fi epic hit theaters, paving the way for decades of projects to follow in the footsteps of the title, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read the original Hollywood Reporter review below, which was headlined "Kubrick's 'Space Odyssey' One of MGM's All-Time Hits."
Washington D.C. — Founded in meticulously researched and documented scientific prediction, and evolving through philosophical and metaphysical implication, Stanley Kubrick's production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, for MGM, is true to the predicted goals expressed by the producer-director when production began over two years ago. It is, as promised, "a majestic visual experience," quite unlike any film we have ever seen. Drawing from a team of 36 technical designers, representing 12 countries, and working in association with 40 industrial research scientific concerns here and in Europe, Kubrick has insured scientific accuracy and logic in this projection into the near future of space exploration and man's first encounter with extraterrestrial life.
These details are merely a means employed by Kubrick and his distinguished screenplay collaborator Arthur C. Clarke, to provoke the more limitless imaginings of the mind, to assault the viewer with tantalizing enigmas to force exploration of that personal universe in relation to time and space, meaning and potential.
All-time MGM Hit
Judging by MGM's success with Blow Up, a far cosier thematic apperception test, and coupled with man's ageless quest toward the stars, 2001 will emerge from its initial long-run Cinerama engagements and subsequent extended runs as one of MGM's all-time box office hits, its wonders and its riddles generating sustained word of mouth and the kind of audience debate that promotes repeat attendance.
Kubrick and Clarke, the latter sometime chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and one of the most renowned writers of science fiction and fact, have estimated that they spent a total of 2400 hours developing the script for 2001. To develop all possible nuances, they first plotted the story in novel form. In terms of the meticulous detailing which resulted, it seems an admirable attack. On another hand, the transliteration of thematic material and its documentation may have bred a familiarity that results in obscure passages of the film. There is a great deal of humorous comment in the earlier half of the film, tossed off obliquely, so understated that it may elude a portion of the audience.
A space scientist, arriving on the space station carousel to hush reports of findings indicating the earlier presence of intelligent life on the moon, passes through a white hot waiting lounge with fuchsia furnishings past signs indicating a Hilton hostelry, Howard Johnson's Earthlight Room and souvenir stalls. Prior to a high level conference of managed news in which dissenting opinions are welcomed in private for notation in classified reports, an official press photographer shows up in uniform of drip dry plaid. Instructions for using an onboard zero gravity toilet extend down the wall like ten annotated commandments.
Touches such as these parody an already complex dehumanizing and commercially monopolized society, even while lingering over the trademarks which give deserved credit to participating consultants and substantiate the authenticity of the space development. As well, they force the question whether our progress in space will merely amplify the depersonalizing congestion, the news and opinion by manipulation, the rote attitudes hopefully left at the launching pad.
It is perhaps wholly significant that the ape men of the Pleistocene prologue, seemingly influenced by the landing of a baffling monolith structure from outer space, learn the destructive application of a bone club and that club, suspended in space, provides the visual transition to the advanced technology of the similarly shaped space vehicle, floating to the musical motif of "The Blue Danube."
When the film challenges the unknown barriers of time and space en route to a positive re-affirmation, it does so with a concurrent tone of pessimism. Astronauts Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and crew, deep-frozen in sarcophagal hibernacalums, are dispatched to Jupiter after the strange monolith, buried by the ape moonmen and unearthed by space geologists, transmits a burglar alarm shriek toward that planet. The greatest burden of the voyage is the responsibility of HAL 9000, a computer created by men to reason logically, unerringly, to think and to speak.
HAL, as written and as given voice by Douglas Rain, created in the spirit if not the precise image of man, is the film's most fascinating personality, the perfect diplomat, with just a hint of condescension for human limitation. That he is the projection of men is at once his fatal flaw. Jealousy, fear and an instinct for self-preservation prompt him to flip out when Dullea and Lockwood, hidden where his all-seeing sensors can still pick up lip movements of secret conversation, discuss his disconnection. He cuts Lockwood from his mooring in space, slaughters the quick-frozen crew and behaves abominably until Dullea can lobotomize his logic centers.
This exciting sequence, including Dullea's doomed attempts to retrieve Lockwood's drifting body and his exposure to space vacuum to regain entry into the exploration vehicle, ends with HAL, contritely making apologies and recalling his school days, singing in ever-slowed RPM, "A Bicycle Built for Two," as short-circuiting brings death to all but his basic functions.
Dullea's entrance into the atmosphere and encounter with life forms beyond known comprehension is a burst of visceral and aural imagination, hardware into pure sensations. Part of this sequence appears to be familiar vistas, aerial swoopings of canyons and sea crests, with colors inverted and latensified, shadows radiating like dayglo, blending with oil mix psychedelics, polarized light, diffused, kaleidoscopic, perspectives converging and retreating as if time were surmounted in a simple act of folding space over on itself. Stars and satellites briefly align over the horizon of Jupiter and are crossed by the God-like symbol of the monolith to form a cross of resurrection and hope.
The entire sequence can be accepted as an allegory of the act of conception. At one point during the liquid churnings of a tailed white spermatozoic blob thrashes toward a distant ova shape. Dullea, now aged, lands his space pod in a bedroom whose illuminated floor and walls reveal Louis Seize decor, Empire furnishings, romantic paintings, a womb expressing timeless comfort and personal taste. He sees the alien as himself, and an older, dying figure in his likeness on a deathbed, one arm lifted in supplication or farewell toward the towering monolith. The figure is replaced by a perfectly formed starchild, an aureoled fetus looking beyond this solar system, forming an infinite trinity in the heavens with the arc of the moon and Jupiter, reborn, innocent and aware. Appropriately, all the evidence of transitory technology is absent, leaving only man's vision, perpetuated in eternity.
Dialogue is minimal, much of the film concentrating in detail on the function of its futuristic designs, humorously underscored by music selected from the works of Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss, Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti. Much of the dialogue is intentionally allusive and marked by cliches extended into the context of space. Space control's voice is a mock-up of John "Shorty" Powers and David Brinkley. A BBC newsman explains that the evening news is tapped in the afternoon, events edited to conform to broadcast time and standards.
Kubrick designed and directed all special photographic effects, with Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson and Tom Howard supervising the technical exactitude stunningly executed by Colin J. Cantwell, Bryan Loftus, Frederick Martin, Bruce Logan, David Osbourne and John Jack Malick. Production design is credited to Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer, with art direction by John Hoesli. There are over 200 special effects, inclusive of miniatures with perfect multiple insets of control personnel in action. It is an incredible, concert accomplishment, a projection as unreal and as convincing as the awesome realities of present-day NASA and JPL projects. With only some detectable facial distortion in Cinerama projection, the Super Panavision, Metrocolor, and Technicolor cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott invests this awesome achievement with credibility and visual magnificence, brilliantly edited by Ray Lovejoy.
Perhaps the outstanding set is the great centrifuge, designed and built by Vickers-Armstrong, in which Lockwood is seen running a full vertical 360 degrees. Covering these tight quarters via closed-circuit TV monitors called for a four-man monitoring crew to communicate with the large crew, calling for an exceptionally complex coordination by first assistant director Derek Cracknell. In addition to scientific design consultants already credited in other capacities, engineering credit must be shared with Frederick I. Ordway III, and Harry Lange. And another deep bow to the costuming of Hardy Amies. — John Mahoney