Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The film 2001: A Space Oddysey has been in my personal Top Three Films of all time for 40 years, and I guess it will probably stay there now for ever. Sometimes, I think it's the greatest film I've ever seen, sometimes a couple of others poke their noses ahead of it, but it sits there as a film that's probably affected me more in total since it was released in 1968, than any other. It was triggered off by Arthur C Clarke, who died a couple of days ago.

Here was a man whose mind was uniquely suited to the description "far-sighted". He had a remarkable ability to predict the way of technological things to come, and reading his prolific output, you are continually surprised at how often he got it right. It was the ways of science, and often its relationship with God that kept him enthralled, and productive, for all his life. No-one would accuse him of having an overemotional writing style, and indeed, the dedication to his book "Report on Planet Three" alludes to this. His own view of his place in science writing vs. science fiction writing is addressed here – "In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer." I think he got it the wrong way round, but there you go.

His now classic 1945 article for Wireless World predicated the possibility of geosynchronous orbiting satellites, and set going the reality of the way global communications work today. He apparently received the princely sum of £15 for this bit of writing, and I only hope that, somewhere along the way, Rupert Murdoch remembered to give him a free Sky subscription and dish, as a bit of a thank you.

2001 started out as a rather innocuous 12 page story, first published in 1951, called "The Sentinel". It was entered in a BBC competition in 1948, and failed to win. This short tale however changed his, and in the event, many other people's lives. It was read by Stanley Kubrick, who sought him out, wanting to create a science fiction film. Kubrick dragged Clarke into telling him everything he knew on the Science Fiction side of things, and the slow, rather painful gestation of the film got underway.

The nub of the story is Clarke's supposition that an alien intelligence, far more advanced than ours, might have left a series of inter-galactic "alarm clocks" throughout the universe. These were triggered to go off if the nascent form of intelligence the aliens came across on their travels developed to such an extent that they set the "alarm clock" off. In Clarke's story, the machine was placed on the Moon's, defining clearly the achievement needed if the early form of life on Earth was to pass its test.

Clarke and Kubrick developed the story enormously, extending it as the longest prequel in History, to some three million years before the monolith was found, and also tracking the subsequent actions taken to follow up the monolith's discovery.

When the film was released, which was only a year before Man actually set foot on the Moon, it became a cult focus very quickly. Nothing at all had been seen like it before. I recall seeing it, at a large 1,500 seater cinema in Bedford, in 70mm film, with the screen totally filling my field of vision – a bit like an Imax today. In 1968, it was truly awesome. From the opening sequence of the blazing sounds of Strauss's Zarathustra theme playing out over the almost religious conjunction of the planetary sun-rise, you knew immediately you were in for something unique. It was a cinematographic tour-de-force, which culminated in an abstract, thundering rush down into a technicolour "Star-Gate", which got all the pot smoking contingent in the late 60s really worked up.

To this day, I don't think Clarke actually knew how to end it, and that is one of the reasons why it sticks in your mind. There are many possibilities about the "meaning" of the film. Clarke described it as a "Religious Myth", and clearly the possibility that the aliens were actually God, remains a strong contender, although in the original short story, Clarke surmises that the aliens may well not be particularly nice to know. There is something about a real thread of ambiguity in a film which keeps it at the top of my personal list. "Lawrence of Arabia" is another film capable of various interpretations, and that is also ensconsed in my Top 3.

It's not an easy film, and Kubrick's langurous, measured and idiosyncratic style left some people bored. Any film where both the first and the last 20 minutes have no dialogue whatsoever, can very easily polarise critic's views. And what dialogue does occur is, I suspect very intentionally on Kubrick's part, drab, boring and banal.

However the combination of an utterly fundamental storyline, some fantastic visual imagery and a very "left-field" classical music score – who ever would marry a Space Station slowly rotating through deep space to the sounds of the Blue Danube? – works to the point of perfection. The first time you see it, it makes you gasp.

In some ways, it's not a people film. Apart from Keir Dullea, and "Rigsby", who showed the dangers of type-casting only too well to those in the UK who watched "Rising Damp", can anyone name any other actors in the film?


In some ways, the main "actor" in the film is HAL, the ship's computer, whose soft, gentle voice (actually Douglas Rains) makes you feel almost sorry for it, as it logically and rather mercilessly, sends one of the crew to his death, and then regresses to some form of childhood as Dullea emasculates its memory.

But the film is not about people, it's about ideas, and the deliberate lack of emotional content brings those ideas and thoughts fully to the forefront. Like the other great "epics", it doesn't show at all well on a small screen. Each time I've seen it, has been on a huge Cinema screen, and the impact of size is fundamental to the way the film comes across. You need to be overwhelmed by it.

As Clarke said, the original story was "an acorn", and the final film was an "oak tree". If it ever comes to a "cinema near you", go and see it – it's magnificent.



1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

A nice summary. Unfortunately, since I was in grade school when the film was first released, I've only ever seen in on DVD.

Now, I'm speculating, but given your enthusiasm for Dark Side of the Moon and 2001, am I correct in assuming that you're also a fan of the Foundation series? ;-)