Louise Sweeney, New York-based film critic for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote a generally favorable review following the New York premiere. Boston staff critic John Allen’s full-page review appeared in the Monitor a month later and M-G-M reprinted it as an ad in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.
by Louise Sweeney
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a brilliant inter-gallactic satire on modern technology.
It’s also a dazzling 160-minute tour on the Kubrick filmship through the universe out there beyond our Earth. The awesome authenticity of Mr. Kubrick’s visit to another small planet (Jupiter) makes most of the science-fiction films that have gone before it look like interstellar waxworks. His 2001 is the ultimate trip.
But this is a trip that can be taken on two levels. It can be taken as a joy ride into the 21st century. Or it can be taken as a rocketing satire of the society which makes technology its god. For the creator of Dr. Strangelove has come up with a film that could be subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the HAL. 9000. The HAL 9000 is that technological dream, a talking computer. It is the electronic brain of the Kubrick spaceship, programmed to make every decision in the journey from the Earth to Jupiter. It’s affectionately known as HAL by the crew, who rely on it to wake them up, play chess, fix dinner, relay their satellite messages from home, mastermind the ship’s technical data, and, of course, chat with them.
HAL appears to the audience as an electronic eye —a bright yellow pupil inside bands of red, garnet, and blue light. Unlike the gravel-voiced computer that runs Godard’s Alphaville, HAL’s voice is neuter, neutral, all the words carefully, slowly enunciated with mechanical politeness. But as one of the crew members asks, do you suppose HAL has emotions, too? It turns out that HAL does: pride and anger.
This supercomputer, which prides itself on never having made a mistake, is caught in a major electric gaffe. As the human crew members seal themselves off in a “pod” spacemobile to talk about disconnecting HAL, he reads their lips and plots their deaths with electronic efficiency. The lethal parallel between the “infallible” HAL and the “infallible” missile-warning system in Dr. Strangelove seems clear.
But that’s not all. As the M-G-M space odyssey begins, we glide through navy-blue space and stars, past the most convincing Moon ever seen on a screen, to the rollicking schmaltz of The Blue Danube. Mr. Kubrick’s waltzing us into the 21st Century is reminiscent of his ironic use of pop songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” in the thermonuclear black comedy, Dr. Strangelove.
For the first stage of this space odyssey we watch a giant bobbin-shaped “Space Station Five” orbiting around the equator. It all looks superscientific, and it is, but once inside Mr. Kubrick is still poking fun at the achievements of 2001: There’s a Howard Johnson’s “Earthlight” dining room, a space-station Hilton, the stewardesses wear Pan Am centrifugal-grip shoes, and there’s a zero-gravity toilet with a deftly worded warning. And over the loudspeaker comes an announcement: “A lady’s cashmere sweater has just been found in the lounge.”
The machines seem to lead an exotic life, but civilians in Mr. Kubrick’s 2001 dress pretty drably— the men in linsey-woolsey shirts to match their dark, shapeless suits, the women in dark textured stockings, and tacky black outfits with longish skirts. Passengers sip liquid fruit and vegetables through straws or mess around with paste foods that come in painter’s-palette form.
But while Mr. Kubrick is having his laugh at interplanetary progress, he’s also hurtling viewers along on an eyeball-glazing trip through space. To ensure its authenticity Mr. Kubrick ordered a $750,000 centrifuge for the necessary weightless atmosphere. It gives a whirling realism to the scenes which Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, as astronauts Bowman and Poole, play with such robotlike impassivity.
Mr. Kubrick and the gifted science writer Arthur C. Clarke reportedly spent 2,400 hours writing the script for 2001. It shows. Not in the dialogue, which is minimal, but in the fantastic attention to scientific detail. There’s a giant infrared spaceship hangar at Clavius base on the Moon, for instance, which opens like a hydraulically operated Venus flytrap.
Mr. Kubrick’s 2001 does have its flaws, and, like the rest of the picture, they’re monumental. The first half hour of the film, called “The Dawn of Man,” is a wordless ode to evolution pleasantly reminiscent of Planet of the Apes. It should have been cut. In this sequence the apes find a tall rectangular black slab (possibly onyx or slate) which emits signals symbolizing the first intelligent life.
The singing slab turns up later during the space odyssey and in the last section of the film, which also should have been cut. It’s an allegorical scene, straight out of Fellini, in which Mr. Dullea confronts himself at various ages and finally makes his peace with the slab, after which he becomes a Steuben-glass embryo.
The slow-motion pace of some space scenes, the uncomfortable loudness of the soundtrack (the rasping breath of the astronauts which sometimes serves as the only sound, the ear-jangling pitch of the singing slab) also detract from the impact of the film.
But the superb photography alone, even without sound, makes 2001 worth seeing. Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott, under producer-director Kubrick, have created a visual odyssey without equal. Not to be missed: the rainbow explosion near the end, in which Mr. Dullea pilots the spaceship through canyons of light that make the psychedelic scene look pale.
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by John Allen
I Whenever the thunder of critical controversy rips through the air. one thing is certain: Lightning has struck. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is just such a bolt of brilliant. \ high-voltage cinema.
Like any sudden flash accompanied by a loud noise, the film : is both startling and illuminating. If it has temporarily left viewers more dazed and curious than enlightened, this is perhaps intentional. The evocation of wonder and awe is perhaps the !. primary aim of the film.
Whether one wonders what the black metallic monoliths are : or what the surrealistic end of the film is supposed to mean or ; what the opening prehistoric sequence signifies —or simply what the film world is coming to—is temporarily beside the I point. What matters is that the imagination and the intellect are i jolted out of complacency by the experience of seeing the film. Wonder, like laughter or tears, is a legitimate emotional response.
Such a response, however, cannot be evoked by a work of art that is too pat, too readily comprehended, too easily flattened by the onrush of tradition or sheer intellect. Since science and technology themselves have stunned our sense of wonder into numbness by the very habit of providing new mysteries daily, it is not only fair but essential that the arts (including film) take up arms against our indifference.
It must be remembered, however, that the mystery which surrounds 2001 is not the result of arbitrary obscurantism designed to confuse. It is the mystery of self-containment that makes certain works of art (and not a few human beings) fascinating and irritating in turn.
It is part of the genius of 2001 that it must be approached on several levels at once. There are, in a sense, at least four films on the screen at all times —three of them available to all viewers and a fourth one perhaps unique to each viewer. Ways of looking at the first three and hints about the latter follow.
The first three are comparable to the wrapping paper, box, and gift that mark some special occasion. What that occasion means depends on the one receiving the gift, however. That is at once the most important aspect of the experience and the least easily verbalized. If anything can be said about it at all, it is necessary to start with the simpler aspects.
Strangely enough, confusion sets in at the level of the wrapping paper —the outermost and least important of the four films that are simultaneously given to the viewer.
On its most superficial level 2001 is a science-fiction film full of gadgets and special effects —a film about space travel in the near future and man’s encounter with a strange slab that seems to prove the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
It is on this same superficial level that one gets disturbed about the lack of plot, dialogue, and character. It is as though wrapping a gift in newspaper, like a fish, would have been better than using a paper of bold new design and color.
It is on this level, too, that questions arise about the meaning of the slab, the point of the film’s beginning and ending, and the general direction of cinema as it hurtles out of the 1960s into the 1970s.
We are in the habit of approaching film as though it were a book that needed only to be opened and read. Most films succeed at this level. Most of them must or there would not be such confusion over a film that treats such a level of comprehension as a mere covering that must be torn away.
If this film succeeds at this level, it is a tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s courage as producer and director that he so flagrantly sets his film in opposition to tradition. But he assumes (quite rightly, one suspects) he is dealing with a generation that has been brought up on television as much as on the written word, a generation oriented to visual images and the grammar of the visual more than to the slow plodding of language.
For such viewers he has made a film that operates on a second level of comprehension. It corresponds to the box inside the wrapping paper. It is so beautifully wrought and so intricately carved and inlaid as to defy description. If it has a name, it is called the art of filmmaking.
It has little or nothing to do with the design of model spaceships, the gimmickry of showing weightlessness on the screen, or cataloguing the potential inventions or conditions of the year 2001. It is the use of these things to achieve a kinesthetic and psychological effect on the viewer. It is also film as poetry, film as painting and music, film as dance.
It is the result of using film for what it is: the motion picture.
Attention must be paid, quite consciously, to both the motion and the picture —movement and the visual images. The resemblances between images as to form, outline, and color must be seen and felt just as their patterns of appearance and variation must be noted.
The movement of objects on the screen and especially the sense of movement experienced by the viewer as the result of the camera’s mobility bring to the audience a sense of being in space. In some ways 2001 is not simply about space- and time travel and the encounter with the unknown: watching it is like such travel and to some extent like such an encounter.
All these elements are so beyond the approach of words as to render criticism of the film at this level almost impossible. For one thing, 2001 is so full of such touches of cinematic artistry and sleight of hand as to require that a book, rather than an essay, be written to catalogue and describe them. But the catalogue already exists: The film is its own catalogue.
Hints can be given, however, through one example that strikes this viewer as both brilliant and significant: the music that was selected —rather than written—for the soundtrack. Specifically intriguing is the use of Richard Strauss’s opening measures from the tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, which open the film.
On the first level of comprehension, it works well —almost too well. The grandiose swell of sound is almost a self-parody of grandiose-sounding music.
Yet on this second level —in which the fitness of the parts to the whole on an aesthetic level is paramount—it is magnificently appropriate. It is, first of all, a bit of music known as the World-riddle theme, introduced by an ascending line of three notes, C-G-C. When it is first heard, at the opening of the curtain, the camera, too, is rising, and three spheres appear in alignment: the Moon, the Earth, and the sun. As the theme reaches its climax, the image of the sun has risen above the curvature of the Earth.
Virtually every element of the film-from its sometimes ironical indebtedness to Nietzsche, to the emphasis on the appearance of things in threes (or three times), to the tension between straight lines and curves—can be traced outward from these three notes of music. In some ways the best program guide one could read in preparing for the images and ideas that flow across the screen during the film is the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
The best clue to their artistic organization and development is contained in the number three —mother-father-child, the eternal triangle, two’s company three’s a crowd, the three primary colors, and the three dimensionality of the universe we normally think of as “real,” perhaps even the Trinity and three as a magic number for infinity.
2001, of course, is not pictures meant to accompany one’s reading of Nietzsche or one’s hearing of Strauss. It is whole and complete in itself with its own ends and its own means of organizing time and space — through light, movement, and imagery—as a means of accomplishing those ends. Synthesis, rather than eclectic derivation, is the basis of its indebtedness to other cultural phenomena.
Once we begin to look at the film as a film in this way, the otherwise obscure relationship between the continuity, flow, and duration of images on the screen —their reappearances and significance —begins to come clear. We begin to comprehend what kind of cinematic thunderbolt has been hurled into our midst.
Out of this approach emerge some inklings about the third dimension of the film—its gift of a myth and a warning for contemporary man, a myth about man in the 1960s.
Mr. Kubrick’s tracing of mankind’s development from prehistoric past to post-fantastic future is the old theme of “ape- man-angel” (or ape-man-superman, to put it into Nietzsche’s terms) translated somewhat literally yet strikingly into cinema. The unifying prop that becomes a terrifying protagonist is the machine —the weapon, or tool, that is the clever extension of man’s arm, eye, or brain.
As Hitler was a false human version of the superman, so the HAL 9000 computer becomes an equally destructive mechanical version of the superman. The reason for this destructiveness is that the machine appears, in fact, altogether too human. It is presented as capable of pride, envy, rivalry, fear, murder, and the false notion that a scientific mission is more important than life. In short, it is insane, and its insanity threatens to destroy life.
Its insanity, of course, is no greater than that of any fallible mortal who assumes fallible mortals can create, out of their own cleverness, an infallible machine.
As the myth ends, the human hero undergoes a kind of death and transfiguration-after a Last Supper accompanied by bread and wine. His transformation is the result of his having been swept out of time and space altogether into some contact with intelligent beings of pure energy.
It is at this point that the film itself enters a kind of fourth dimension (the three primary colors are finally abandoned for a palette of greens), and further interpretation of the film becomes highly subjective.
On a fourth level of comprehension, however, it is precisely this level of subjective response —the film having virtually left the screen and entered into the experience of the viewer —that matters most.
Even if one assumes that intelligent beings of nonterrestrial origin are meant to be taken literally rather than allegorically in this film (or anywhere in science fiction, for that matter) there is still a basic problem:
If intelligent beings from elsewhere in time and space are needed to effect the regeneration of man, who effected the change for them? Where does the search for the ultimate cause of intelligence lead, inside or outside this film, inside or outside time and space?
Inside the film, the search involves a plot twist that sweeps a man outside time and space altogether into a fourth dimension. Between the film and the filmgoer, it involves a brushing aside, through effective cinematography, of traditional notions of filmic time and space —the establishment of a kinesthetic and emotional breakthrough into realms of imagery and experience not normally found in film.
Ultimately for the filmgoer, however, the search involves turning inward. If seeing the film once isn’t enough, it may be because passive viewing of the film won’t do. It is thinking about the film, approaching it intelligently, reaching toward it and beyond it that counts.
If the black rectangular slab-that calling card of the unknown and that doorway to the future—is like any signpost in one’s present experience, it may very well resemble 2001 itself.
Neither the slab nor the film is the ultimate mystery, of course. Both are tokens that someone who cares has passed this way. One of the tokens, at least, is already a part of human history here in the 1960s.
There is no telling what will turn up by the time 2001 gets here, is there?
From The Christian Science Monitor, © 1968 The Christian Science Publishing Society. All rights reserved.