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and now, for something completely different.

2001: A Space Odyssey – two reviews

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

In my quest to read more, I am revisiting some things I read a long time ago. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those things. I have enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke’s work ever since I read Childhood’s End in high school English class. I always thought I was 100% into only fantasy novels (thankfully I have branched out in old age), but Childhood’s End got me into science fiction.  If I enjoyed that, stands to reason I’d enjoy one of is most popular works in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Turns out that’s correct.

Now, I didn’t just read the book, I also watched the movie.  I was going to start writing my review of the book right after finishing it, but I held off because I started reading 2010: Odyssey Two.  The forward to that book talks about how 2001 came to be.  It turns out that the book and the movie (though different) were written in tandem.  Strangely, moving forward into the literary sequels to 2001 (starting with 2010), Clarke chose to follow the events and timeline of Stanley Kubrick‘s movie as opposed to the book.  I found it interesting that while book and movie were written in parallel, how parts of the movie were so different from the book, while other parts so wonderfully captured the feeling of what the book described.  Technically, he wrote them both… so maybe he just liked the movie setting better.  I think the two go really well together:  the movie has some wonderful visualizations of the settings described in the book, while the book goes into much greater detail about what’s going on than can be conveyed in the movie.

2001 is divided (in my mind) into four parts:  pre-history, discovery, mission, post-humanity.

Pre-history

Starting in pre-history, Clarke paints a picture of Earth before humans, where our ancestors lived in the open and in caves and fought to survive.  The human race now has many theories and beliefs about how we became self-aware and as “advanced” as we appear to be.  The truth is of course, we don’t know all the answers, and Clarke suggests another.  His early earth inhabitants live a day to day routine of looking for food and avoiding predators.  How long this routine has gone on is not really specified, and it likely could have proceeded indefinitely without change.  Moonwatcher’s tribe is one such group of individuals, and they survive by the routine.  They forage for food, try to avoid adversaries that hunt them (like the mighty leopard), and have quarrels with other groups of their relatives who use the same water source.  Survival is the name of the game.

The monolith appears

One day something changes, though.  A large rectangular monument appears on the trail of the tribe’s daily routine, and starts to watch them.  Then it starts to examine them.  The tribe can’t help but approach it when it asks, they’re just compelled to do it.  It arranges them in an almost school-like setup, based on Clarke’s description.  When not engaged by the monument, the tribe just continues its daily life as if the monument doesn’t exist.  It’s almost like the monument is doing some kind of “now you see me, now you don’t” trick.  The monolith turns out to be a catalyst for evolution and development, as we see Moonwatcher and his tribe develop new skills and ideas.

Kubrick’s work really shines through in this part of the movie, while Clarke’s descriptions in the book really explain what’s going on.  While Kubrick displays the monolith as a mysterious enigma, Clarke almost gives it a personality and a purpose.  Superimposing that purpose onto the movie makes it feel much different.  There is no question that Kubrick’s talent shines through here, though, as the photography casts the mood of the bleak existence our ancestors must have faced.  While the characters of the book don’t really come through in the movie (it’s harder to identify individuals), the actors do an amazing job of being distinctly pre-human.  It’s work that likely led to modern work by actors like Andy Serkis and his wonderful motion-capture work in movies like The Lord of the Rings and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Discovery

Hotel in Earth orbit? Yes, please.

In the second section of the book, we jump to a time not long after the time the book was written, and about 10 years before my review is being written.  Unfortunately for us now, the 2001 that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick envisioned.  There is no Hilton orbiting the Earth.  In real life, Virgin Galactic is only  just now in 2011 exploring the idea of bringing people into (almost) space as a tourist venture.  10 years late, dammit.  I digress.

The great part about the book (and Kubrick captures it beautifully) is how routine it makes the seemingly amazing new aspects of life seem.  Dr. Heywood Floyd is on his way to outer space for a business trip, aboard a (now defunct) commercial airline.  His final destination is the moon.  To get there, he has to leave Earth in a craft capable of escaping the pull of gravity, have a layover in an orbiting space station (home of the aforementioned Hilton), and take a final flight aboard a moon landing craft.  The space station is a giant ring, which rotates to create artificial gravity in its outside edges.

Kubrick also does a great job of making Dr. Floyd’s trip to the moon just seem like a routine business trip.  The only anomaly is is some people he meets at his midway point who happen to know him.  They try to pry out of him the reason for his trip, and the reason no news is coming out of the US moon base; rumors of an epidemic are running rampant, but no one will say a word about it.  After a quick call home (again, it feels just like routine), Dr. Floyd is on his way again.

Strange things afoot on the moon...

Everything feels very normal, until the reason for Dr. Floyd’s trip becomes apparent.  It seems that while making a routine examination of the magnetic fields on the moon, a very strange object was discovered.  As it turns out, it’s a black monolith.  Obviously not a natural formation, its date at over three million years old makes it clear that intelligent life was in our solar system – and possibly on Earth – before the dawn of man.  Hence, the secrecy.  Of course, humanity has completely forgotten being visited by this monolith before, during the prehistory of the Earth.  The audience knows, but the characters don’t.

As Dr. Floyd’s team is examining the relic, the lunar sunrise reaches the crater in which the relic is buried, and a giant burst of radio waves is broadcast as soon as the sun hits the relic.  And that’s where the discovery portion of the story ends.

Mission

Jogging in a loop on Discovery

Next is the “mission” part of the story.  We find ourselves on the space ship Discovery, on its way to Jupiter (or Saturn, in the book).  The opening scene on the inside of this ship in the movie is one of the coolest scenes I have seen in a sci-fi movie.  One of the crew members – David Bowman – is going for a daily jog… in a perfect loop.  Visible in the shot are three coffins, holding three crew members he hasn’t talked to before the mission.  They’re not dead, just in hibernation:  they are to be revived as Discovery reaches Jupiter.  Just as Dr. Floyd’s trip to the moon is secret, so is also the mission to Jupiter between crew members on the same ship.

HAL 9000, he's here to help.

Speaking of crew members, there is one other crew member besides David Bowman and his colleague Frank Poole to talk about, and that’s Hal.  He is a HAL 9000 computer, and is responsible for helping his human crew-mates on the voyage by running pretty much everything on the ship.  Truth be told, he could probably do the mission himself for the small amount of human intervention necessary from Dave and Frank on day-to-day operations.  Hal is infallible and will stop at nothing to get the mission done, which of course leads to a very famous confrontation near the end of this mission part of the story.  I won’t ruin it here; if you haven’t read this or watched it, it is very worthwhile.

Jumping back to the differences between the book and the movie, I found the book felt a lot less ominous than the movie did in this section.  Parts of it actually felt whimsical, especially Hal’s dialog.  It’s not quite as ridiculous as the computer on the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s ship “Heart of Gold” (please: read that book), but it verges on the same kind of exuberance and overly helpful attitude.  There’s a reason he gets weird, of course, but I’ll leave that to your reading the story.  Between the book and the movie, both are great in this section, but the movie definitely feels more ominous.

Post-humanity

Post-humanity is achieved... what's next?

So begins the “post-human” portion of the story.  At the culmination of this mission section, the characters run into an interesting artifact at Jupiter, and David Bowman decides to approach it.  It’s the monolith again, this time on a massive scale.  What happens after he approaches, nobody on earth knows, and it’s even a bit of a mystery to David Bowman.  This section of the book is much better than it’s equivalent in the movie.  There is a lot more description and explanation of what is happening and what Bowman sees as he experiences the relic.  Unfortunately for us in 2011, the movie built in the 1960s displays a lot of the heritage of its era.  This part is just plain mind-boggling, and I can imagine sitting in the theater wanting to fast-forward it but being stuck sitting there.  Oh well, it is what it is.

Bowman goes on a wild ride to somewhere, and ends up somewhere familiar.  In a luxury hotel room that would be normal anywhere on Earth, Bowman goes to sleep for the last time, and is reborn.  His return to the Earth is a homecoming of sorts, but has implications that aren’t explored in the book or the movie… you have to wait until 2010 to find out if we ever hear from him again.

Again, this section of the book is the one worth reading.  I’d almost say stop the movie after the confrontation I mention in the above section, because that’s really the climax of the film and some of the best staging you’ll ever see in a science fiction movie.  After that, it’s much more worthwhile to read the book.

Summary

Holy hannah I wrote a lot about this one.  A classic piece of science fiction, 2001 excels in both its written and film form.  One of the things that really stands out to me about the movie and book is how visionary and forward looking they are in terms of understanding where humanity will be with respect to technology.  One simple example is touch screens:  they are prevalent in the book and the movie, and are even cited at several points as having replaced some forms of print media.  Video calling also seems to be the norm.  In the world of today, we’re moving towards some of that.  It’s not as fast as Kubrick and Clarke had predicted, but they either catalyzed change or predicted it with their works.  Live imitates art, I guess!

If you haven’t read this, please do.  Read the book before watching the movie, too, because the movie will be much more enjoyable and understandable after reading the book.  As I was searching for links to reference in this article, Google auto-completed the search terms, and the 4th one up there was “meaning.”  Obviously a lot of film studies majors haven’t read the book:  it makes the movie make an absolute ton more sense, and you wonder why a little more information wasn’t seeded here and there in the film to fill out what was an absolute masterpiece of staging and mood.

This is science fiction at its best, book and film.

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