This now venerable masterpiece is beginning to show its age. What were cutting edge special effects in 1968 are routine now. The once dazzling computer displays in spaceship cockpits now look antiquated. Some of the scenes are obviously cutouts on a painted background. Yet this is the film that moved special effects to a new plane by showing, for the first time, absolutely realistic visions of space. 2001 made Star Wars possible.
When Stanley Kubrick approached Arthur C. Clarke about collaborating on a science fiction film, Clarke settled on a short story he had written called The Sentinel, about astronauts on the moon discovering an alien device placed there millions of years earlier. Clarke developed a novel simultaneously with Kubrick developing the film. The film can stand alone but some aspects become clearer if you've read the novel as well.
We see the dark side of the moon, then suddenly the earth with the partially eclipsed sun behind it appears over the horizon. The background music is the opening fanfare to Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was immediately propelled into one of the most memorable themes of all time.
Also Sprach Zarathustra is Strauss' musical interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's book of the same name, describing the eventual appearance of a superman who would rule humanity. Nietzsche's ideas inspired Naziism, of which Strauss was a supporter. The selection is appropriate, given the overall theme of the film. Apart from its glorious opening fanfare, it's an eminently forgettable piece of music.
In the novel, Clarke startles us by stating that the hominids were already far down the road to extinction when the extraterrestrials came. We are used to thinking our evolutionary triumph was a done deal. In the film, the lives of a troop of hominids are interrupted by the appearance of the famous black monolith. Its effects are hinted at by vignettes of their steadily improving success over their prey and, finally, a rival hominid troop. The victorious leader flings his bone club into the air in triumph...
...and in the most famous one-frame transition in history, it becomes an orbiting spaceship. After a series of various orbiting space stations, we zero in on a Pan American Airlines space shuttle ferrying a passenger first to an orbiting space station, later on to the moon, all to the music of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube.
The spaceflight sequences are still among the most moving and beautiful scenes ever put on film. Even today, I find the scene where the twin wheels of the space station pass on either side awesome. To see it for the very first time on a wide screen, when nothing like it had ever been seen before, was utterly breathtaking.
During a brief stopover at the space station, the passenger, American scientist Heywood Floyd, calls home on a Bell telephone with video screen, then parries some queries by suspicious Soviet colleagues. At one point we see a Howard Johnson restaurant in the background. More than mere product placement, these scenes were consciously crafted to show that this future society would evolve as a continuation of our own.
Neither Kubrick nor Clarke imagined that long before 2001, the Bell telephone monopoly, the Soviet Union, and Pan American Airlines, all seemingly indestructible in 1968, would cease to exist. I never visited the former Soviet Union, but I did fly Pan American Airlines a few times. Both seem to have had about the same level of concern for customer satisfaction. I don't miss either one.
It's interesting to compare the space scenes with actual 2001 technology. Computer displays have far outstripped the vision of the film. Other features look quaint. On any future commercial space flights, the flight attendants (still exclusively female in the film) won't be stuck to the floor with Velcro (R). Velcro was a novelty in 1968 and portrayed in loving detail because many filmgoers were still unfamiliar with it. Instead, flight attendants will simply be trained to move safely in zero gravity. They won't need helmets to cover their hair; female astronauts don't wear them.
Even had the United States not cravenly thrown away its lunar travel capability, it's questionable whether we could have had a moon base on the scale shown in 2001. The huge space station might have been doable, but it's no longer clear whether we really need huge spinning wheels to generate artificial gravity. Short-term visitors won't need it, and permanent employees are likely to be rotated back to Earth frequently enough for a stay in zero gravity not to be a serious health concern.
Heywood Floyd arrives on the moon and is taken out to Tycho Crater, where a replica of the monolith has just been unearthed. It's there as a sentinel, and when the sun hits it for the first time in three million years, it responds. Kubrick was extremely concerned that the Apollo missions might discredit his lunar scenery as soon as the film was released, but although the scenery is a bit more craggy than the real moon, it's reasonably credible.
We see a ship en route to Jupiter, with two awake crewmen (Gary Lockwood and Kier Dullea) and four in suspended animation, plus the sentient on-board computer HAL. For the hundred millionth time, HAL stands for Heuristic ALgorithmic Computer and it is sheer coincidence that the letters are only one removed from IBM. Clarke himself was stunned when someone pointed this out and has repeatedly disclaimed any intentional parody.
The boring routine is interrupted when HAL detects an imminent fault in a critical part. If it fails, communication with Earth will be impossible. The part is replaced, but checks out as sound. The astronauts, having noted other strange behavior by HAL, decide to shut down his higher mental functions. They discuss their plans inside a space pod, unaware that HAL can read their lips.
What follows is undeniably the most brilliant, menacing, poignant and funny machine-goes-berserk sequence in history. When one of the astronauts goes out to replace the removed part, HAL kills him. When the other goes out to attempt a rescue, HAL kills the four sleeping crewmen, then refuses to let him back in. He opens an emergency door manually and ejects from the pod without a helmet. I defy anyone to watch this scene without holding his breath. On the other hand, I can't imagine any astronaut taking off in a pod without a full suit. What if there's a malfunction in the pod, or he needs to do a space walk?
This was Kubrick's most brilliant scientific gamble. Many biologists felt that any exposure to vacuum would be almost instantly fatal, although it's hard to see why. It takes time for the oxygen in the blood to deplete and emboli to form. The experiment has never been done on a human, but experiments on animals suggest that brief exposure to vacuum is survivable.
The astronaut then proceeds to shut down HAL's consciousness. HAL, having tried every means at his disposal to kill him, is now utterly powerless and becomes terrified when he senses his consciousness ebbing away. When the astronaut finally does disable HAL, a video recording comes on to inform him that the real purpose of the mission has been kept secret. The ship is exploring Jupiter because the alien monolith sent a signal in that direction. HAL had decided the mission was too critical to entrust to humans and tried to take over.
Scientifically, even if we had pushed onward from the Apollo program, it is pretty unlikely that we could have sent a mission to Jupiter by 2001. For one thing, the radiation environment around Jupiter is lethal, something barely suspected in 1968. We are nowhere near creating a computer as sentient as HAL, or putting people in long-term suspended animation.
On the other hand, we are much further ahead in robotic planetary exploration than either Clarke or Kubrick pictured. In the novel, the target was not Jupiter but Saturn because Japetus, one of Saturn's moons, is much brighter on one side than the other. Clarke pictures the moon as having been engineered by aliens as a signal. As the astronauts pass Jupiter, they have only sketchy images of its moons from unmanned missions, and time to eject a probe into Jupiter's atmosphere. Long before 2001, we had detailed pictures of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, including Japetus. Any manned flyby of Jupiter in a ship the size of the one in the film or the novel would include a massive program of mapping the moons using much bigger telescopes than any on an unmanned probe, as well as a barrage of probes into Jupiter itself. The reality is that probes to Jupiter would have been launched days or weeks before the encounter, not in the last few hours. One improvement on reality in the novel is that the Jupiter probe included a camera, something lacking on the Galileo Jupiter probe, an omission that reduced the scientific value of the probe essentially to zero.
In Jupiter space, we see an orbiting monolith. When the astronaut ventures out to investigate, he is flung into a succession of incomprehensible visual images. Dazzling in 1968, and viewed with various chemical enhancements by many viewers, this sequence seems overly long today. Solarization was new and very cool in 1968, but the solarized images seem beaten to death nowadays. In the novel it's clear that he is being transported through some kind of hyperspace tunnel system.
In the novel, the astronaut ends up in an ordinary room, created by some incredibly advanced intelligence to protect and reassure him. When he goes to sleep, his mind is incorporated into theirs. He returns to earth, and like the hominid three million years earlier, is puzzled as to what to do with his new powers, "but he would think of something." In the film, the astronaut meets progressively older versions of himself until the dying astronaut sees himself as a fetus in the womb, looking down at the earth.
Unlike ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity, ambiguity because the writer has nothing to say, or ambiguity because the writer doesn't know how to get out of a bind, the ambiguity in 2001 works because it's part of a coherent vision. Clarke started out writing about encounters between humans and humanoid aliens (using another short story, Encounter in the Dawn, as a model), but as the project evolved, he realized that beings millions of years in advance of us would have technologies and motives utterly incomprehensible to us. As Clarke was fond of pointing out, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The novel fleshes out some of the details that are omitted from the film. But even without the explicit clues in the novel, a viewer can figure out that the aliens are using their powers to stimulate the development of consciousness.
For a very long time, my overwhelming feeling upon viewing 2001 was seething anger. Yes, we would not have been traveling to Jupiter by 2001, or had sentient computers or suspended animation. But we could now be doing much of what was in the film. We could certainly long ago have had a large, permanent space station, a permanent lunar base, and far more efficient space transportation. But we just gave up. We quit. We folded, caved in, got bored, lacked the courage to stand up to the anti-intellectuals.
September 2 should be observed annually as a national day of shame. It was on September 2, 1970 that NASA announced that the final three missions of the Apollo program would be cut. There would be no Apollo 18, 19, or 20. This came one year, one month and 12 days after the first landing on the moon.
Why? Ironically, much of the pressure came from purported intellectuals. Angry about Vietnam, they hated any venture that cast the United States in a favorable light. Social activists pressed for transfer of space funds to domestic programs, although anyone with minimal numeracy could look at the budget and see that space exploration had no serious impact on social spending. The space program invited invidious comparisons between its success in solving extremely challenging problems, and the utter failure of social activists to solve much more mundane problems with far larger amounts of money. Finally, a vision of humanity that had reduced humans to stomachs and gonads - the ills of the world could be solved by welfare programs and free love - was mortally imperiled by what was a deeply spiritual venture, motivated by excitement and wonder.
The absolute nadir of hypocrisy came with the issuance of the Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars. The tails side of both coins features an abysmally designed image of an eagle landing on the moon. No nation that goes to the moon, then turns tail and quits, has any right to celebrate that accomplishment on their coins.
A succinct description of this film is: the last ten minutes of 2001 developed into a full length picture. It is inspired by a 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which was made into a Russian film of the same name that I have not seen. Homages to 2001 are all over the place, especially the views of an astronaut with display lights reflected in the faceplate of his helmet.
Chris Kelvin, a psychologist (George Clooney) is struggling with the death of his wife when he gets a guarded call from a friend on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Weird things are happening, but he can't give details. A security detachment sent to investigate has vanished (we never do find out what happened to them).
Solaris (in the film, not the novel) is a bizarre planet surrounded by plasma currents and energy discharges. It looks like some views of the sun as seen through various filters. When Clooney arrives, he finds two crewmen dead and others vanished. One crewman is a weird neurotic, the other a scared and angry black woman physicist (Viola Davis). Clooney is merely told he won't understand until "it" happens to him. Why not? It doesn't happen to us, but we understand.
I have no patience in films, novels, or real life for people who say "I can't explain" or "You wouldn't understand." My response is "Fine, think about it until you can explain - or at least describe - it. Meanwhile, I have better things to do than waste time on you." Would it kill anyone in the film or the novel to say "What seems to happen is that things in our minds come to life?"
Clooney sleeps and dreams of his dead wife. We learn of their courtship, marriage, and her ultimate suicide in dream flashbacks. Clooney awakes to find his wife beside him. Realizing she cannot be real, he locks her in an escape pod and sends her into space. Next time he awakens, there she is again, with no memory of having been launched. Still in deep grief and guilt over her death, he finds himself falling in love with her and eventually becomes determined to take her back to earth.
These Visitors, replicas of persons drawn from someone's memory, are sentient and intelligent. Clooney's replica wife realizes she is somehow created by Solaris but cannot communicate with it. She also realizes that her self is dictated by Clooney's memories, and that if they are false, her personality will reflect that.
At one point, Clooney is also visited by a replica of one of the dead crewman. When Clooney asks "What does Solaris want?" he is told "Why do they have to want anything? There are no answers, just choices." In contrast to the ambiguity in 2001, this is ambiguity merely because the writer hasn't got anything serious to say. Say "I don't know," "We are forbidden tell you," "Your mind is too primitive to grasp the reality" or something coherent, but don't spout psychobabble. Even "Forty-Two," the answer to the meaning of life in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, makes more sense.
This is mostly a psychological drama, and what science there is is pure mumbo jumbo. The other crewmen have also had their Visitors. The physicist figured out that if she could "generate a Higgs field" and "create a beam of Higgs anti-bosons" she could obliterate hers. Clooney's wife begs the physicist to use the device on her, and leaves a farewell message for Clooney.
Clooney and the physicist discover the body of a crewman stashed above some ceiling panels. It turns out that the neurotic crewman is actually a Visitor. As soon as he appeared, he was attacked and killed the real crewman in self defense. He points out, helpfully, that ever since the physicist used her Higgs boson device, the mass of Solaris has been "increasing exponentially," as only science fiction planets can do. Clooney and the physicist scramble for the escape pod.
We see Clooney back on earth, though his voiceover describing his having to relearn earth behavior makes us wonder. In flashbacks, we see him leaving the escape pod at the last second, or maybe it's his replica. Maybe the real Clooney stayed behind and a replica boarded the pod. Then we see him in his apartment, or is it his replica? Is Solaris creating all this in his mind? When his wife appears, he asks "Am I alive or dead?" "We don't have to think like that any more," she says, "Everything we've ever done is forgiven." They kiss. Awww.
Although the plot line involving Clooney and his dead wife are fairly faithful to the novel, the novel provides far more detail about the planet, which bears no resemblance to the one in the film. In the novel, Solaris is covered by an ocean of a fluid-like substance that has been intensively studied for a hundred years without much success. There are abundant hints that the ocean possesses something akin to consciousness and certainly the ability to control matter in unexplained ways. For one thing, the planet is in a double star system in an orbit that should theoretically be unstable. Nevertheless, the orbit is actually stable. Furthermore, the fluid of the ocean avoids contact with foreign bodies and periodically erupts into myriad complex solid structures that then decay back into the fluid. Lem constructs a complex future history of the evolution of scientific thought about Solaris. Vast quantities of data have been gathered, institutes and schools of thought founded, tens of thousands of papers written, but real understanding of Solaris and how it works has escaped science. The film omits all this context and makes no attempt to portray the complexity of the planet. That's unfortunate, since it could have been visually stunning.
Although written in 1961, the novel has somewhat the flavor of science fiction of the 1940's and 1950's. We find, for example, the mixture of futuristic devices like anti-gravity units and gamma ray pistols on one hand, with archaic terminology on the other (the radios still use "valves," a long-obsolete term for vacuum tubes - and note the complete failure to foresee anything supplanting the bulky and unreliable vacuum tube, even though transistors had been around since 1948 and were beginning to enter widespread commercial use in the West in 1961.) Also typical of a lot of early science fiction, in many respects the science is very vague. We are told the atmosphere is poisonous, but not why. Samples of the ocean fluid taken to earth eventually decompose to "a light metallic ash," but there's no mention of which metals, and the mass of the ocean is given at "700 billion tons." Even allowing for the European use of "billion" as a million millions, the figure is far too small for something with the dimensions of the ocean on Solaris and seems to have been pulled out of thin air. Surely somebody in a century has analyzed the chemistry of Solaris' ocean, but there's no mention of what it is. Solaris has small land masses and even some mountains, but apparently nobody has suspected that the history of the planet as recorded in its rocks might hold some clues.
In contrast to 2001, where the reader is told what the purpose of the monolith builders is (and the film hints pretty clearly), in the novel Solaris we see things solely from the viewpoint of humans confronting an impenetrable mystery. There are strong clues that the Visitors were triggered by a communications attempt several weeks earlier. Only Kelvin's Visitor roams the station openly; the other two crew members refuse to allow theirs to be seen. We are told that a Visitor is based on the most distinct memory, but possibly something so dark that one does not realize (or will not admit) he had such desires (this is reminiscent of the classic film Forbidden Planet). The novel hints strongly that the hidden Visitors are too embarrassing for their hosts to reveal. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel the characters come to be convinced that the ability to create the Visitors, possibly from neutrinos, shows clearly that the ocean has consciousness and is at least able to comprehend human minds.
Apart from the idea that there are things that might forever remain inexplicable, the philosophy of the novel is the muddled vacuity of 20th century European philosophy. Toward the end of the novel, Kelvin describes his belief in an "imperfect god:"
This god has no existence outside of matter....That is the only god I could imagine believing in, a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfils no purpose - a god who simply is.
Say what? The whole theme of the novel is that it is arrogant to presume that humans will understand things that are far beyond them, and then we have a character imposing a simplistic conceptual model on God? And furthermore, having the arrogance to say that God must have this nature because he can't accept any other kind of god? Solaris can apparently manipulate matter using methods that a hundred years of intensive study have failed to penetrate. Is there really any basis here for even asserting that Solaris is not supernatural? It's a bit surprising that Lem doesn't foresee the possibility of religions about Solaris arising (though perhaps understandable given his living in a society that pictured Marxism as the end state of human evolution.)
Despite the lovely visual moments in the film, the tender love story, the skillful story telling, and the psychological suspense, there's even less overall vision here than in the novel, and this stands in sharp contrast to 2001. During one of the flashbacks, there's a very telling snippet of a dinner party. The diners are discussing religion in the facile, superficial manner of people who have no clue what any serious theologian ever said about anything. And that's basically how the film ends. Then there's that closing line, "Everything we've ever done is forgiven." What on earth, or Solaris for that matter, does that mean? Forgiven by whom or by what? Why does anything need to be forgiven? Why is there any reason to think the forgiver has either the right or the power to forgive? There's no message in the ambiguity; it's simply ambiguity for lack of anything profound to say.
This vein has been mined to exhaustion. The only thing you can say about incomprehensible entities is that they are incomprehensible, and that's been said. Like Ravel's Bolero, a piece that repeats a single theme over and over again, it probably needed to be done once just to show it could be done. Incomprehensible aliens have been done more than once.
Created 02 December 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010
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