Sunday, January 6, 2008

Space Opera

It's funny to see the various famous film people being interviewed for the extra features on the 2001: A Space Odyssey Special Edition two-disc DVD, saying how they were completely bowled over by the film when they first saw it back in the 60s.

I'm not doubting their sincerity, but somehow I think at least some of them must have expressed their admiration for the film more as an afterthought. Like me. I was completely dumbfounded by it when I first saw it. What was that screeching sound apparently emanating from the monolith? What's with the trippy light show near the end? Why was David Bowmen seeing himself grow old? What was that strange room and how did he get there? What the hell's the ending with that space baby?

Raise your hands, how many of you were dogged by the same questions?

Naturally, when your mind is plagued by the elements you don't quite comprehend, whatever technical achievements and visual flair a film has, become second to the priority of understanding just what the heck you've just seen. It's infamous now, the story of how 2001 did so poorly at the cinemas initially and was almost pulled from screens when there was a sudden surge of attendance by potheads. Most of them seated themselves right in front of the screen (and, I don't know how true this is, but some even lay on the floor), stoned before the show, to experience "the ultimate show."

After a few more viewings, the film started to wield its power over me, and over time, with much research, it's clear that this is an extremely well-conceived film that attempts to alleviate visual storytellling to the realm of pure cinema. It starts off as silent cinema, and is bookended the same way. Part of its brilliance also lies in the use of music, an almost perfect combination of music and image. In fact, the film plays like an opera, with an overture, four "movements," an intermission and a finale.

This is the grand opera of the evolution of man, the epic dramatic cycle of human history. Much has been written about the symbolisms in the film; even an entire website is dedicated to explaining what the film is really about. Stanley Kubrick himself had said: "You are free to speculate, as you wish, the philosophical and allegorical meanings of 2001." The film is as open to interpretation as any film could be, the scenes in the final movement deliberately strung together without their thread being apparent.

But if the film is threaded together, or seen together, with the basic idea outlined from the very beginning of the film and rendered more pronounced towards the end, then it becomes the story of what knowledge entails. Quite simply, knowledge begets power, power begets ego, and ego leads to destruction. Moonwatcher, the ape who discovers the use of a bone as a weapon and commits the world's first murder, throws the bone into the air, in that now-famous scene where the bone transforms, via a jump-cut, into a nuclear weapon in space. HAL 9000, the super-computer, displays an ego, in voicing its pride that no 9000 computer has ever known to make a mistake, and in the end, thinks it knows better than the human beings on board the Discovery, and sets in motion a plan to destroy them.

The new Special Edition DVD includes interviews with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Douglas Trumbull, and many others, including a number of quotes from sci-fi writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, who collaborated with Kubrick on the script. It's interesting that many people today would readily attest to the fact that Star Wars is the most influential sci-fi movie of the last 30 or so years. But it's clear that 2001 influences much of Star Wars's look and design. The docking bay of the space station in 2001 had clearly provided the blueprint for the Death Star's docking bay. The first appearance of the gigantic Discovery spacecraft was probably what gave Lucas the idea for the seemingly endless shot of the gargantuan Star Destroyer. The influence of 2001 can even be seen in the design of the spacesuits and their colours in the TV series Space: 1999 (yet another sci-fi title with a colon).

The extras on the DVD include the evolution and making of 2001, early art concepts, an early NASA documentary featuring Clarke talking about the "upcoming" Stanley Kubrick film, a gallery of Kubrick's exceptional photography work as a photojournalist with Look magazine before he became a filmmaker, and an audio interview with the director. Some secrets of the film's astounding special effects, astounding even by today's standards, are also revealed.

The 2001 Special Edition two-disc DVD available for RM49.90 in stores is the R3 version.

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