Spaced Out Computer: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Preface: It may seem incongruous to the theme of my blog, but the truth of the matter is that, up until this blogathon, I have never watched 2001: A Space Odyssey in its entirety. I tried to watch it one morning after coming in from doing my paper route when I was about 20, but I was tired and fell asleep sometime after the caveman segment of the movie. I could remember the caveman segment pretty well, even before i watched it this time, but nothing else seemed familiar. Not, at least, as from having watched it.

Of course, anybody who hasn’t been living in a cave for all their life knows at least something about the evil computer HAL and the travails of the astronauts who have to deal with him/it. And maybe you have seen the climatic sequence of the ending, which I have. But everything that occurs between the end of the caveman sequence and the finale was pretty much new to me.

I missed out on seeing this on the big screen last week. A local theater chain has what they call “Flashback Cinema” in which every Sunday and Wednesday they devote one of their theater screens to showing classic movies on the big screen. I didn’t miss it because I had other things to do, however. I missed it because I didn’t know it was showing. How great would it have been if I could have seen it in a theater. I vow to pay attention to see what’s coming from now on…

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The opening of this movie really gets you ready for what’s coming. A blank screen with nothing but the soundtrack playing, but what a soundtrack. The opening features the initial fanfare from Richard Strauss’ opus “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (called “Sunrise”).

The actual movie opens on the dawn of man. A tribe struggles to survive by picking berries in a stark and barren environment. Not only do they struggle against predators, a rival tribe chases them away from their watering hole. But then fate (in the form of aliens, although we do not yet know it) intervenes and puts up a black monolith in their midst. The monolith hums to them, which, I guess, inspires them to figure out how to use bones as weapons, thus enabling them to take back their watering hole from the bullies who took it before. A pure case of natural selection interfered with by outside intervention. Obviously the aliens don’t have the Prime Directive on their planet.

Flash forward some few million years. To wit: 2001 A.D. (Fitting, since the title of the film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, don’tcha think?) On the moon a discovery has been made. A giant black monolith (just like the ones the cavemen ran across). It has been buried under the surface of the moon for umpteen millions of years. And it didn’t get buried by erosion or natural movement of the sands; it was buried intentionally, by some alien force.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is dispatched to investigate the monolith. He is burdened by the fact that a cover story about an outbreak of an epidemic has limited visitation to the moon base by other countries, including the Russians. (Remember, the movie was made in 1968, prior to the end of the Cold War, so friendship and cooperation with Russians and the United states and its friendly allies was limited.) Floyd ends up sending a crew of astronauts to Jupiter, to which it turns out the monolith is sending messages.

18 months later, the crew of the spaceship Discovery One is now approaching Jupiter. Three of the five crewmen are in hibernation leaving Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) to carry out necessary work, with HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) to operate most of the technical aspects of the operations. HAL (a name, by the way, which has been pointed out as being one letter off from IBM) runs nearly everything, but has intelligence beyond what was possible, at least in terms of the 1968 timeline of the movie’s production. It also has a secret programming which neither of the awake astronauts knows about.

As a result, what HAL does on occasion is perplexing to the crew, and they discuss the possibility of shutting HAL down. They think they are being secretive by discussing this in one of the space pods, but HAL can apparently read lips and discovers their plan. HAL creates a ruse that lets him kill off Poole, and gets Bowman out of the spaceship, then refuses to let him back in. He also shuts down the containment system keeping the other three astronauts alive. (HAL, as they say, seems unwilling to go gently into that good night…)

The rest of the movie is rather confusing (at least it was until 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which cleared up some of the confusion, although maybe not all of it). The classic space child scene at the end may also be familiar to some of those uninitiated with the film. My suggestion is you watch both 2001 and 2010 in conjunction to get some sense of the story, but even by itself 2001 is pretty phenomenal. And maybe one of these days I’ll still get a chance to see it on a big screen.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

  • John

    Simply put, 2001 is on my personal Top 1 list. If you don’t try to judge it as a failed-in-hindsight attempt to depict how C.E. 2001 actually turned out, it remains a timeless display with good ol’ HAL getting both the funniest and most tragic lines. (In this light I refer to Things To Come as the 2001 of 1936.) And Arthur C. Clarke’s source novel for 2010 is far superior to the film, whilst his 2061: Odyssey Three is an elegaic sidestep and 3001: The Final Odyssey is best left in book form.

  • BobY

    Although not clear from the film, it’s not fair to characterize HAL as “evil” and is a real cautionary tale regarding artificial intelligence and the supposed “motives” of such machines. HAL was programmed with a “work ethic” to provide thorough, accurate information and accomplish the mission, but was then programmed to lie to the astronauts if they started getting curious about the real purpose of the mission (investigating evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence). In order to avoid this existential conflict, the simplest solution was to eliminate the potential sources of conflict (i.e., killing all of the humans on the ship) and accomplishing the mission solo.

    BTW, as someone who saw 2001 in 1968, it doesn’t matter whether you watch it on a “big” screen or not–nothing compares to Cinerama of the 1960’s, not even Imax.