by Bosley Crowther

In light of the phenomenal popularity of George Lukas’ 1977 Star Wars, which seems to have done for science fiction movies what Mickey Mouse did for screen cartoons, it may seem a bit acrimonious for a veteran critic to persist in the belief that Stanley Kubrick’s earlier probe of the empyrean, 2001: a Space Odyssey, remains the most exciting and intelligent motion picture in the science fiction genre. It may even be the best film ever to try to suggest in pictorial terms the mystery of creation and the awesome nature of the universe.

2001 captured the mind at the start with a promise of exciting exploration and the unfolding of an age-old mystery. What, it implicitly inquired in a preface entitled “The Dawn of Man,’’ with a gaggle of apelike creatures gathered in wonder and awe around a shiny black monolithic object set in a barren plain, was the touchstone of creation, the animator of everything? Was this extraordinary object, which the ape creatures ogled and tapped with much the same air of mystification as a group of space scientists later betrayed in contemplating a similar object discovered below the surface of the moon, a key to the great kinetic forces that have conglomerated the universe and have somehow held it together through the eons of endless time?

That was the challenging question that 2001 boldly put as the singular “grab’’ and motivator for its quest into outer space. No fancy stuff here about warfare between galactic enemies who looked like comic book creatures and shot it out like their terrestrial counterparts in Western films. No glamorized speculation on the menace of those pesky UFOs. The excitement which Mr. Kubrick and his collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, chose to rouse in the minds of their viewers was on the more intellectual plane of conquest. What is the secret of the system that unifies all matter, time, and space? Is there an extraterrestrial magnetic “missing link’’?

Smartly, they chose to pitch their fancy in the twenty-first century so that the pictorial elements in their assumptions would have a fresh, futuristic look. The spaceship in which their team of scientists was transported to the moon to study that slab of screaming matter isolated in a subsurface pit was a super-deluxe cruise liner with ultramodern furnishings, hostesses in trim, sex-muted costumes, and a menu of concentrated foods. The spotless and shiny quarters in which they were lodged on the moon was a glorified Howard Johnson motel with dial telephone connections to Earth and individual television monitors permitting one to see as well as talk to the wife and kiddies back home. All was as neat and antiseptic as a hospital operating room, and the characters were as casual and unemotional as executives at a sales convention in Omaha. Thus did Mr. Kubrick establish a recognizable but slightly wry atmosphere from which to launch his speculation into the nature of what lies beyond.

In this subsequent section two scientists, played by Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea, were rocketed onward to the distant regions of Jupiter. Their mission was, hopefully, to discover what was out there with which that moon-slab seemed in some weird circuitry. The science fiction gadgets were assembled and the major melodrama occurred, as well as a subtle buildup of the film’s fundamental poetry. Yes, poetry, for the stirring of emotion through magnificent, awesome images and sounds, and through visions of strange man­made machinery moving onward through the void of trackless space, all assisted by the careful stimulation of a brilliant musical score, accomplished the major disturbance of this uncommonly disturbing film.

Significantly, the usual clash of human personalities was absent in it. The two spacemen, Poole and Bowman, were the sole occupants (except for three frozen bodies of scientists “in hibernation” that were being carried as future spares) of the great, cagelike spaceship, Discovery. As it moved along silently, they neither quarreled nor raised their voices. The only contention aboard was with HAL, a phenomenal computer which seemed to be the auto-pilot of the ship. At first, HAL, embodied in a glowing yellow bull’s- eye of light fluctuating in a circumference of ruby-red and silver rings at the center of the instrument panel, was cheerful and chummy with the men. It talked with them in a throaty, sound­box voice, and they reciprocated with condescending and relaxed camaraderie.

For some perverse reason which was not sufficiently explained but may have been a mere whim of boredom or pique, HAL suddenly made the flat announcement that an antenna outside the ship was malfunctioning. Thus did the trouble begin. When Poole went out in a spacesuit to service it, HAL, acting unilaterally, shorted his magnetic attachment and cut him loose. The situation was nasty, and when Bowman took off in a pod (a kind of satellite trouble wagon) to try to rescue him, HAL locked the entry door of the Discovery with the evident purpose of abandoning both men to their fates.

This was an obvious symbolization of the ultimate Revolt of the Machine, which has been a favorite theme in science fiction since the vivid literature of H. G. Wells. But Bowman rose to the occasion. Realizing that Poole could not be saved—that his life-support system had been exhausted and he had to be left to float away (a vastly chilling image, incidentally)—Bowman tried to reenter the ship. When HAL refused to admit him, he blasted his way through an emergency port. Once inside, and in natural desperation, he undertook the dismantling of HAL, performing on it what was described as a “mechanical lobotomy.” In perhaps the most ingenious and (as it turned out) poignant single scene, HAL, terrified and pleading for mercy, slowly lost strength and expired, finally gasping out a brief obituary of itself and then pathetically singing the old song “Daisy, Daisy, give me your promise true . . .“ as its voice became weaker and slower, like an old gramophone running down. What a remarkable association of mechanical imperturbability and human sentiment was made in HAL.

Thereafter, Bowman, isolated, took over manual control and reached the region of Jupiter where, sure enough, floating among the planet’s cluster of moons, he spied another shining slab of extraterrestrial matter identical to those we had previously seen. Here was indeed awesome evidence of some mysterious universal force—or just an abstract symbolization of the linkage of everything. But beyond that Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Clarke were too smart to venture. They wouldn’t be trapped into attempting to present a cogent scientific theme. Instead they arranged to have the turbulence in the area become so great and the eerie screaming and howling of energy forces so deafening that the pattern and thrust of the project were abruptly changed. Suddenly the battered Discovery was whirled away out of control, and the astonished eye of the beholder was almost blindingly suffused by a stupendous giant-screen montage of abstract color images, great swirls of varicolored gases and racing nebulae, displays of Aurora Borealis, streams of white-hot molten matter that appeared like filtered photographs of overwhelming volcanic lava flows, and a host of visual sensations accompanied by indescribable electronic sound. The effect was to shatter the senses beyond any previous assault and leave the viewer emotionally exhausted and intellectually disarranged. This was the major experience afforded by 2001—this brazen attack upon the senses that inevitably tended to project the imagination into areas suggesting the phenomena of light, time, and space.

With that supreme explosion of a visual metaphor, which lasted for all of ten minutes, the bombardment was suddenly stopped and the viewer was abruptly projected into a strange, handsome, silent room, meticulously decorated in a French-English eighteenth-century style, where the battered, spacesuited Bowman incongruously appeared. No logical explanation was forthcoming for a spaceman’s entrance here, no sequential tie-in with what had gone before. This was simply the setting for Mr. Kubrick’s (and Mr. Clarke’s) last metaphor, which became in itself an enigma that left the viewer to conclude what he would. For here, in a series of silent tableaux that dissolved from one to the next at a rhythmic pace, the viewer was allowed to watch Bowman settle down to old age, wither, and die. But at the moment before his expiration, he beheld on the floor at the foot of his bed a gleaming miniature replication of that mysterious slab. Was this, then, a symbolization of his final glimpse of the scientists’ Holy Grail, a tantalizing suggestion of the futility of the quest? Or was it a subtle implication of Man’s never completed pursuit of all-inclusive knowledge in the endless continuum of time? I choose to conclude it was the latter, since the final image was a dissolve to a close-up shot of a fetus enclosed in a transparent sac, and the bug-eyed face of the fetus strangely resembled that of Bowman—or Keir Dullea!

Enough cannot be said for Mr. Kubrick’s superlative use of sound and his exotic selection of music to support his pictorial poetry. Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra was the solemn and exalting theme, and its effect was so powerful and impressive that it has become in the marts of trade and in TV commercials a popular science fiction signature. Selections from György Ligeti were also suggestively placed, and the use of Johann Strauss’ beloved Blue Danube to auralize the thrilling images of the Discovery moving majestically in space was a reminder (to those who could remember) of the soaring musical theme, “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” that filled the star-studded dome of the huge globe at the theme center of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Indeed, all accessible facilities of modern advanced cinema were employed by Mr. Kubrick—the giant Cinerama screen, stereophonic sound (in larger theaters), the finest color photography and special effects—to charge the minds of average viewers with speculations about the universe in ways that no amount of simplification of scientific literature could match. So here was the ultimate achievement in science fiction upon the screen—at least, in our generation and probably for several to come. I only wonder how audiences will view it—if it is still available to be viewed—in 2001!

Source: Bosley Crowther, Reruns: Fifty Memorable Films