2001 – A Space Odyssey – tape 1506

We’re into a bit of a Science Fiction run with these next few tapes, starting with a classic of the genre.

Before I alienate some of you, can we all join together and agree that this era’s MGM studio logo is monstrously ugly?

Now on to the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey is undeniably one of the most important films in the SF canon. It was a huge influence on many people. I worked with Douglas Adams for a couple of years, and he did mention more than once the profound influence on him of two things – the music of the Beatles, and 2001. Lots more than once, if I’m honest.

I’m slightly younger than Douglas, so I learned about 2001 by its reputation first, reading about it in science fiction magazines, reading Jack Kirby’s magnificently muscular comics adaptation of it for Marvel, and, I think, reading the Arthur C Clarke novel he wrote alongside the film. Clarke’s novel is interesting in that it seems like a novelisation of a movie, since the movie’s screenplay was being developed before the novel, but it’s a simultaneously created piece of work. And in fact, it differs from the movie in many details, even down to the ultimate destination of the Discovery ship, Jupiter in the movie, Saturn in the novel (unless I’m misremembering, it’s been a long time).

So I feel like I had absorbed a lot to do with this film before I ever saw it.

Add to that, the first time I would have seen it would have been on TV. Possibly even the infamous BBC widescreen showing where they decided to superimpose some stars into the black bars at the top and bottom of all the space scenes. I don’t seem to have that version in my collection, which is sad. This one comes from Channel 4, part of their Movie Nightmares season, which we’ve been looking at on a few tapes recently.

All of this, plus the fact that I’d already have seen and totally loved Star Wars before I ever saw it, might go some way to explaining why I think 2001 is just a little bit dull.

Plus, it’s desperately enigmatic, with an ending that’s almost impossible to understand without having read the novel.

So it’s a film I can appreciate, but unlike Douglas, it’s not a film I adore.

So here’s a few observations. Firstly, apart from a lot of second unit establishing shots, all of the Dawn of Man sequence was shot in studios in England, which had been home to Stanley Kubrick for several years. Kubrick famously hated flying, so it’s not surprising he shot even the African savannah scenes on sets in Shepperton and Borehamwood.

I’d love to know the background of this shot where a leopard (or a cheetah?) jumps down to attack one of the primates, who is an actor in a suit. It’s a real big cat, and it really does jump down and seem to attack him. Was it trained to jump like that but as a game? It look dangerous however it was done.

The primate costumes and masks were designed by Stuart Freeborn, who invented a mask mechanism that allowed the actor’s jaw to operate the lips and jaw of the mask in a fairly realistic manner. He’d go on to use the same techniques when creating Chewbacca’s mask for Star Wars.

When the monolith appears among the primates, Kubrick uses music by Georgy Ligeti, which was originally used without the composer’s permission.

The film exclusively uses existing music. Composer Alex North was hired to compose a full score, and that was written and recorded, but Kubrick decided not to use it, and stuck with the music he’d been using as a temporary track while editing. North’s score was eventually released on CD.

Following the monolith’s appearance, and the primates’ subsequent use of bones as tools and weapons, there’s the film’s famous jump cut between the bone thrown in the air by the primate, and a spacecraft in orbit.

The Space Station docking sequence that follows still looks beautiful. The visual effects team, led by Douglas Trumbull, avoided the use of blue-screen, opting instead for shooting as much as possible in camera on the same negative, avoiding the rather obvious matte lines that tended to be the hallmark of bluescreen work in the 60s.

It’s slightly disconcerting to see UK comedy legend Leonard Rossiter playing a Russian scientist, probing Heywood Floyd about his reason for visiting the moon.

During the spaceflight, Kubrick has the cabin crew walking on slippers with velcro on them to stop them floating. I can’t help thinking that you’d be more likely to train the crew to work efficiently and safely while floating, like the do on the ISS. Also notice the strange headgear, a way to avoid having to see that an actress’s long hair isn’t floating.

These sequences were filmed in a giant rotating set, able to rotate fully around. The same rotating set device is used later for the Discovery sequences.

Many of the spacecraft shots were achieved by taking high quality still photographs of the spacecraft, and shooting them over a background on an animation stand. You can recognise these shots because the perspective of the spacecraft isn’t changing as it moves.

I just love the model design in this movie, it’s so beautiful.

When we cut to the Discovery mission to Jupiter, 18 months after the discovery of the monolith on the moon, the music for the opening is Kachaturian, from his Gayane ballet suite. In Aliens, there’s a musical cue that sounds extremely similar to this piece, credited to composer James Horner.

At the end of a video call from astronaut Frank Poole’s parents, his father says “See You Next Wednesday.” That line appears in most of John Landis’ movies, as the title of a movie, and always a different movie.

The Discovery section of the movie is by far the most successful, mainly because it introduces the only character in the movie we end up caring about – the computer HAL 9000.

Then, the end of the movie is, frankly, a little boring. The famous ‘stargate’ sequence which sees surviving astronaut Kier Dullea travel through the huge monolith orbiting Jupiter, lasts about 12 minutes, and frankly is too long. At the time, the images were novel, but they’re just images, and their power to move is limited. And frankly, if I hadn’t read the novel, the final sequence where Bowman lives to old age in an upmarket Premier Inn, then turns into a shiny superbaby would make little sense.

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4 comments

  1. Yes. I’ve never much cared for this one either – give me “Spartacus’ anytime. That particular MGM logo is indeed pretty hideous, although it’s not as creepy as their current one.

  2. The “widescreen” screening of 2001 was its premiere, on New Year’s Day 1982. I’ve got the Radio Times from a few weeks later, where there are several complaints about it, and a Beeb mandarin says that they only got their copy of the film very close to transmission, which “did not leave us with much time – and none for second thoughts”, but they say that they’ll redo it when they show it again. Actually I did read somewhere that they asked Stanley Kubrick himself what he thought they should do, and he suggested the star idea.

    That was also the Christmas where when the schedule for Christmas Day first appeared, nobody at the Beeb had heard of the film on BBC1 on Christmas night, and everyone assumed it was code for a film that was so big it was a secret. But it wasn’t. It was this – http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbcone/london/1981-12-25#at-21.25

  3. I love the Stargate sequence, it’s like someone plonked an Eastern European abstract animation down at the end of the movie. Plus we wouldn’t have the best ever Doctor Who opening titles without it.

    I also love that the finale is not literal, it’s up to the viewer’s interpretation, something that went way out of fashion with science fiction movies.

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