Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.1 (Cheesy Sci-Fi, or why "2001: A Space Odyssey" doesn't quite cut it)

As I write this, there are no less than 4 ads on TV that are nods to "2001: A Space Odyssey". (Someone at LG, especially, seems a huge fan.) Probably the most influential sci-fi movie ever, and, of all the ones I've watched, as a work of art, certainly the most accomplished. But, does mere great filmmaking suffice? Does it truly deserve its place in the pantheon of great science fiction on film?

In the foreword to "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke", he tries to define science fiction. Quoting Damon Knight, "Science Fiction is what I point to and say, 'That's science fiction.'" That's true enough, but there's something else, too. We turn to other worlds, to rainbow-hued laser battles in the deep black of outer space, to valiant heroes taking on creatures with hearts as black as their grotesque forms would suggest they have - all for what? Escapism, that's what!

And what does Mr Kubrick do? Rather than let us peer out to the stars and play out our fantasies, he takes his camera out to space and points it right back at us. From the moons of Jupiter, his camera turns sunward to that pale blue dot. It is calm, it is measured and it is unspeakably cold as it studies that world's inhabitants. It pins them to their seats - its audience - who're now wishing they'd picked, "I Married a Ghoul from Outer Space" for that evening's entertainment.

We could've taken that, had it at the very least had an ending where we destroy the alien mothership as it tries to do whatever unspeakable crimes it is that alien motherships do. But no, there are no alien motherships here. Just a few monoliths here and there. And fairly inexpressive ones at that; all they do is  sit around, looking like slabs of granite. To make things interesting, they spring to life every few millennia to give evolution a helping hand.

Do they give us a chance to demonstrate the indefatigable spirit of the human race by allowing us to destroy them? No! They merely point out that the human race would need another eon of evolution before it can even be considered infants in the vastness of the cosmos. We are nothing; not worth assimilating, not worth being piously lectured to, and not even worth complete and total destruction. If we destroyed ourselves, they would merely wait for a while longer for the next generation of hopefully rather more sentient beings to evolve.

That's the other thing about those monoliths. Sure, they don't say much, but they have a smug, superior air about them. Where they differ from other friendly, neighbourhood aliens is that they do not ask us to take them to our leaders, where they would  appeal to our better selves through impassioned speeches. They know we have no better selves. The first thing they do when they teach us how to use tools is to kill. Perhaps it's because they're stuck in the middle of nowhere and  want something to relieve their boredom, but I doubt it. They just understand us and our world too well.

By setting out to make a film about humanity's place in the universe, and then going about the job with honesty, Clarke and Kubrick have violated the core tenet of science fiction. Escapism. If we really wanted to know what our place in the universe is, we wouldn't have invented religion and then stuck to it with so much fanaticism. When religion gets a little too hot and heavy, we turn to sci-fi for our escapism. Our second layer of defense. You, Mr Kubrick, have blasphemed... and heresied (if that's a word).

Then there is the matter of the science. It has long been a tradition of sci-fi on film, that any actual resemblance to science is fictitious and coincidental. Sure, there have been attempts at criticism, but you really know they're clutching at straws when the bad science of "2001" includes, "It should've been C and not FORTRAN on the computer screens." Or, "The dust when the shuttle lands on the moon should've been falling vertically, as opposed to elliptically."

What makes all this even more unpardonable is that it was filmed over three years between 1965-68. This was before Armstrong's small step was a giant leap for all the rest of us, and way before CGI was even heard of. Still, for some reason, they felt they had to stick to realism; with visuals of space so stunning, and space travel so boring that not only is the film truly ageless, but also defined space exploration in our consciousness. They could've picked from any number of excuses for outlandish imagery, spaceships moving at warp speed, the thundering sounds of their plasma engines echoing in the vacuum of outer space. And yet, the spaceships in the movie are practically at standstill, move in deathly silence, save for the background score of classical music, and aren't even fitted with any photon torpedoes.

Where are those incredibly annoying noises pioneered by Bernard Herrmann (if I've done my research right) a decade and a half earlier, that would become such a staple ingredient of sci-fi? Where are the babes in skimpy futuristic clothes? The dialogue,  while bland, is not the expected corny; and even the blandness is by design. A movie where  Kubrick wants each of us to have our own, and very different, interpretations - and where the humans appear emotionless and robotic - would probably be undercut by endless exposition, or poetry-spouting astronauts. 

The tone, too, is way off. Science fiction is supposed to feel cheap, hurried and cheesy. This one is painstakingly crafted, leisurely, deliberate and magnificent. Can we, with honesty, point to the screen while the movie is playing and say, "That's science fiction"?

So... over the course of the next few weeks, I will try to turn back the clock to a time before the sci-fi film landscape was sullied by that film which we shall not name again. Watch this space! ... and the skies. They're coming! They're coming!

P.S. - Is it just me, or do the HAL scenes feel like a precursor to the Jodie Foster-Anthony Hopkins scenes in "The Silence of the Lambs"? Hopkins has admitted to basing his dialogue delivery on HAL, as he feels that Lecter, like HAL, is a supremely intelligent, complex, and logical killer, who knows everything that goes on around him. But it's more than that. From the unblinking stares right at the camera, to HAL asking Bowman to bring the pictures "cloooooser", to the "inquisitive personal questions"... Creepy!

P.P.S. - For all its greatness, it's not a movie for any time or any mood. It can be mystifying ("WTF just happened?"); it approaches space travel with a reverence and attention to detail that, 40 years later, makes us want to say, "Get on with it!"; and then... Every one of us, who calls himself or herself a movie buff, would at some point have delusions of talent; that we could be better than them. This movie destroys that.

They dared to make a film that starts with the dawn of our race in the distant past; moves on  for a glance at our present; pauses for a while to reflect on the nature of consciousness and the consequences of deceit; and onward to a peek at our future - and ultimately, our place in the grand scheme of things. And all this with virtually no dialogue for exposition. Imagine the arrogance, the sheer gall! For scope, for depth,  for intelligence, for artistry, for "look at that!", for redefining what you thought a movie could show, say and make us feel, there can scarcely be a more humbling experience.

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