April 06, 2008

To infinity and beyond!

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of the seminal "quintessential good science-fiction movie," 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Director Stanley Kubrick collaborated with legendary SF novelist Arthur C. Clarke to create this film. Kubrick died in 2000, shortly after the completion of his final feature, Eyes Wide Shut. Sadly, Clarke, too, died only a few weeks ago, at the ripe old age of 90. Clarke was the last of the "Big Three" giants of SF, being predeceased by Robert A. Heinlein in 1988 and Isaac Asimov in 1992. (Understandably these were the first three SF authors I started reading as an early teen, as well.)

Viewers have been polarized by 2001, either finding it intensely profound or intensely boring. The latter find the plot boring or incomprehensible - primarily because the meaning of the action isn't spoon-fed to the audience, nor is it punctuated with violence or explosions. 2001 is one of those rare SF movies that simply requires you to think about what you are seeing. And in a sense the movie is less to be analyzed than simply experienced. Giant habitats float in space! Men walk on the ceiling! Spaceships fly to the farthest reaches of space! Like the Odyssey of Homer, 2001 is an epic that shows wonders and marvels its viewers have never seen.

2001 opens four million years in the past, with a tribe of cavemen who discover that a mysterious rectangular black monolith has been deposited in their midst. The seemingly intelligent monolith begins to teach them the use of tools, culminating in the tribe fighting off a rival tribe with bone clubs.

Flash forward to the year 2001, when American astronauts living on the moon discover another monolith buried 40 feet beneath the surface. When the sun's rays touch it for the first time, It transmits a radio signal to the planet Jupiter. An expedition, comprising astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and three scientists in hibernation, is sent to Jupiter on the spacecraft Discovery to investigate. En route, the ship's artificial intelligence, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), becomes erratic, then psychotic when Bowman and Poole consider shutting him down. When HAL kills Poole, Bowman is left to deal with the murderous computer and learn the connection between Jupiter and the monolith.

Or, as I like to encapsulate the plot in a nutshell: 2001 is the story of mankind's evolution being directed by god-like aliens, as told by an author who doesn't believe in God.

It is now 2008, of course, and I am sitting in my earthbound basement, typing this article up on my 2003-vintage desktop PC, which isn't feeling very conversational. (Fortunately, on the other hand, it isn't trying to kill me, either.) Needless to say, as a predictive work, 2001 wasn't particularly successful. For example:.

  • No doubt the future looked a lot brighter in 1968, when NASA was on the brink of putting men on the moon. Had the space program continued at the same fervent pace as it did during the height of the space race, we could well have had giant hotels in orbit and passenger flights to the moon by now. As it is, however, we haven't set foot on the moon in well over 30 years; indeed, we haven't even left low-earth orbit, and the closest we've come to orbiting Hiltons is the rotating crew of the International Space Station.
  • 2001 showed people in space solving the problem of zero gravity by walking on Velcro shoes that kept their feet on the floor (or walls or ceilings). Now that we actually have people living in space (albeit very few), as we've seen endless times on the news, zero gravity isn't a problem: astronauts have simply learned to float from place to place.
  • Kubrick and Clarke didn't foresee the microcomputer revolution or distributed networking. The computing paradigm of their day was timesharing on a powerful, central mainframe; hence HAL 9000 pervades Discovery and controls its every operation.
  • For that matter, they were over-optimistic about HAL's life cycle: he was supposedly brought online in 1992. How many 10-year-old computers are still state-of-the-art?
  • They didn't see the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in the early 1990s, which rendered the political tension of 2001 obsolete.
  • How could they have predicted the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie that ultimately led to the demise of Pan Am World Airlines, or the breakup of the telephone company in the early 1980s? Pan Am will never fly us into space; nor, when we get there, will we find a Bell video phone booth.

But even if 2001 failed as prediction, it is nonetheless prophetic. It seems to me that the primary theme of 2001 is not godlike aliens, or homicidal computers or even the Wonderful World of the Future. Rather, it is a warning about the dehumanizing effect of over-reliance on technology. The invisible aliens gave prehistoric man knowledge of tools so he could hunt for food; instead he learned to use it to kill other men. With HAL running Discovery, Bowman and Poole are practically only caretakers - indeed, since HAL is capable of carrying the mission out himself, they are redundant. The most "human" character is the machine, and it takes a fight for his own survival to break Bowman out of his complacency.

2001 stands as the milestone in cinematic science fiction. No more would space travel be attempted in unlikely chrome-plated rocket ships piloted by foil-clad spacemen armed with Art Deco ray guns. Alien beings weren't scaly, antennaed green monsters in foam suits anymore. Kubrick and Clarke went to great lengths to inject realism into the way their subject matter was portrayed. Douglas Trumbull's visual effects made their vision take shape; he later went on to make movie magic in other groundbreaking SF features such as Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and, of course, Blade Runner.

I could say much more about 2001, but it will have to wait until later this year: I plan on blogging extensively on my list of favourite SF films - something I've been planning to do for many moons.