I was around 10 years old when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on my local PBS station, KCET Los Angeles. I was flipping through the channels when I stumbled upon the sight of a giant room awash in red light within which, moving along to the sound of classical music, a round vehicle was slowly being lowered. I didn’t know what to think of it, so I continued to watch. And watch. And watch. I remember only that nothing that I saw made sense, at least not in a linear way, and I rightly guessed I had missed something very important at the beginning of the film. Later that week I found a copy of a book called 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke at the local thrift store and begged my grandmother to buy it for me.
If the sound of a child’s head exploding with the grandeur of the universe was audible, you could have heard mine half way around the world. Here in this book were ideas that I had never encountered before. Revealed to me were the secrets of the Solar System and the multitudes of worlds that orbited not just our sun, but of a galaxy’s worth of suns. Here, in this book, were dark secrets of human evolution (denied to me by the Christian school I attended) and the knowledge that humanity was reaching out to the next stage of our development…from babies in the cradle to walking upright as toddlers, we were making footfall on our moon and sending probes to the planets. I was in love. Arthur C. Clarke changed my world with a single book. I was encouraged by his view that people were able to think for themselves and determine their own perspectives, from him I learned how to think. He and Stanley Kubrick created a movie that envisioned a 21st century alive with a human presence in space, where giant orbiting space stations became waypoints to vacations on the moon. The movie was tinsel and plastic and plywood and paint, but the end result on film was a pyrotechnic vision of “otherness.” I have seen the film around fifty times now, from PBS to VHS. I remember my excitement at getting it on DVD and finally seeing it in a widescreen format. Then I got the HD Blu Ray which brought out details I had never seen before… But my dream though had always been to see the movie in a theater…and not just any theater, but on a Cinerama screen. When I used to live in California I had hoped to go to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, but the chance never arose. Now that my wife and I live in the Pacific Northwest, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a special screening at the Seattle Cinerama, resplendent in its full 70mm glory-along with having special effects legend Douglas Trumbull (who worked on 2001, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner et al)introduce the movie! As the screen parted and as Also Sprach Zarathustra played, I began to weep. The planetary alignment I had seen on so many small screens was revolutionary on a big one. The little ticking in the back of my brain, which up until this point had not totally accepted that I was there, finished its countdown and my head exploded. I was 10 years old all over again! I was in awe of our protohuman ancestors struggling to survive in the harsh enviroment of an African rift valley, watched expectantly as Moonwatcher (as named in the book) made the connection that a bone could be a tool. I watched those Australopithecus man-apes assert dominance and learn to kill. From a sun bleached bone thrown into a powder blue sky comes an orbiting nuclear weapons platform high above the world of our birth. Our tools, our weapons evolved as we did. Those that have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey assume, based on the (sometimes legitimately) bad experiences of others, that the movie is dull. On the big screen you’re so immersed in the majesty of the visuals that you don’t have time to get bored…and that of course was one of the subtexts that Kubrick wanted to portray, that space flight would be so blasé in the future that it would be less interesting than a layover in Phoenix is today. By the time our intrepid NASA-like administrator Heywood Floyd gets to the moon, the audience should be ready for some exploration. Boarding a rocket bus they hop over lunar craters making a bee-line to Clavius base, where researchers have uncovered an ancient alien artifact deliberately buried millions of years before. As the sun rises over the solid black monolith it emits a horrendously loud (at the Cinerama the pitch is painfully sharp) radio signal and the movie jumps 18 months into the future. From this point on the audience is now stuck on board the confining spaces of the USS Discovery One along with the cruise-phase crew of Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, their three frozen associates and a HAL 9000 computer system. I was blown away by how fantastic the rotating carousel of the main living space looked and even more impressed with the insane amount of detail on everything, from the labels on push buttons to the warning signs on oxygen canisters. HAL, or Hal, is the true star of this part of the movie. He is the only character with a personality, albeit one that became highly deranged over the course of the mission. He may be neurotic, psychotic, or just plain broken (as deftly stated in the less-than-stellar sequel, 2010). In fact, if one goes entirely on Clarke’s books, Hal is as cogent and aware as his human companions, but an innocent unable to cope with government secrets and subterfuge. His “rebellion” is similar to Lucifer’s fall from heaven- a created being that has need to assert itself and rebel from its creator(s). Hal ends up killing most of the crew, leaving Bowman alive in a space pod outside of the Discovery. Through sheer force of will, Bowman manages to board the ship via the emergency airlock and disconnects Hal before Hal can disconnect him. It is at this point that reality gives way and a phantasmagoria of light and sound takes over. The book beautifully describes Bowman’s approach to his final destination, a two kilometer long monolith orbiting around the planet (the book sets the scene on Saturn’s moon Iapetus) Jupiter. Leaving the safety of the mothership, he takes the one-man pod to explore the ebon dark surface of the alien relic-reporting back to Mission Control “My God, its full of stars!” Before being sucked into a wormhole, or stargate as it’s called in the book. The movie drops that famous line and picks up right after Bowman enters the stargate; we see his facial contortions as space and time warp around him as he views the wonders of the universe and traverses several alien worlds to arrive shaking in a French Empire themed hotel room somewhere near the center of the galaxy. I felt like I was being sucked into the screen when the lightshow began. Douglas Trumbull was responsible for the process, called Slit-Scan, that created the illusion of being transported through an infinite tunnel at enormous speeds. The effect stands up extremely well, the only thing I would change is the endless parade of acid test planetary surfaces that make an appearance. The ending of the movie has been debated ad nauseam, but the point of it is that Bowman is reborn as something other than man, becoming a “starchild” destined to guide the rest of humanity to its next evolutionary level. The audience at the showing I was at all applauded at the end of the film, each of us totally sure that what we saw was an unparalleled experience. The philosophical stature of the movie is deeply personal to each who views it, but the technical aspects are easily agreed upon: it is a beautiful pièce de résistance and a work of sublime art. After the movie Douglas Trumbull came out and spoke for at least an hour answering questions from the audience (myself included) about the making of the movie and also his own personal opinions about the philosophy behind the film. He expressed his own personal interest and belief in life beyond the confines of our solar system, an opinion of which I sincerely agree with, however his interest in Ufology left me cold. His description of creating the Slit-Scan system and his early work on World’s Fair programming was illuminating, especially his avid love of film formats and frame-rates. He described Kubrick as the perfectionist he was, and that there were no individual scenes that were cut from the film that did not deserve to be cut. He also talked about Clarke’s relationship to Kubrick in conjunction with writing the screenplay; the picture he painted was one of two monumental geniuses working at cross-purposes. Clarke was a poet as much as he was a novelist, and he unabashedly used that part of his spirit liberally in the majority of his works. Kubrick was a visual artist first and foremost, and his eye dictated the results as they would be presented to a viewing, not a reading, public. He told Clarke to write a book and he would make a movie. The dynamics between the two must have been fascinating to see and most likely explosive to hear. Mr. Trumbull spoke with zeal of artist/filmmakers escaping from the constrained studio system and being allowed to flower in the freedom of independent cinema. Gone are the days when auteur directors had carte blanche in creating massive, unified statements on celluloid backed by the major studios (even today’s best directors are constrained by committees and bean counters). The internet has opened up fertile ground for up-and-coming directors and even for established giants like Mr. Trumbull it affords expansive opportunities for breaking new ground. My night with 2001 was one of the great highlights of my life. It allowed me to see a movie I was highly familiar with as a brand new experience. I will forever dream about stargates and monoliths and our place as ever evolving specks in the cosmos.