One of the duller stretches between the combat sequences and alien life showcase moments of “Avatar: The Way of Water” gave me a few minutes to ponder what other movies produced visuals this stunning, this far beyond the Hollywood state-of-the-art of their era.
And that instantly brought to mind “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a landmark of science fiction cinema, a quaint artifact of the 1960s and undeniably one of the most beautiful, majestic films of all time.
It has been analyzed, parsed, investigated and written about more than virtually any other movie of its era. As a teen I devoured books on it and the obsessive eccentric who made it, Stanley Kubrick. So much had to be invented — effects tricks and low-light celluloid camera lenses — so much imagined, extrapolating from our “Space Race” present to thirty-three years into the future.
The new documentary “Jurassic Punk” brings “2001” to mind as well, as it is about the next era of Hollywood effects innovation — the transition from “optical effects” and camera tricks and hand-made models to computer generated effects. “2001” was the breakthrough film that allowed “Star Wars” to come to thrilling life less than a decade later. “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park” brought us to “Avatar.”
There was not much in the way of computer-generated-imagery in the era when computers were all mainframes with less versatility and utility than your average smart phone of today. Watching “2001” now, I was struck by how modern the graphics still seem, even if the switches and keyboards and mostly-cathode-ray-tube screens give away how dated the film is.
Back in 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of its release, writers revisited “2001” to note how much of “the future” it predicted actually came true. No, we still haven’t colonized the moon. Paying passenger space flight was and is still in its infancy and Pan Am is long dead and gone. But the astronauts on board the spermatozoa-shaped Discovery One spaceship bound for Jupiter can communicate and watch videos from tablets. And every so often, the design flourishes of “2001” — from its shimmering spaceport Hilton airport lounge to the suits the space bureaucrats wear to meetings to discuss what astronaut miners have found in the lunar crater named Tycho — make a comeback.
What connects “2001” to the latest “Avatar” most directly are the shimmering, pristine images put on the screen. Kubrick went for “accuracy” when depicting the pitch-blackness of space, and its silence. But every meticulously-designed, made and filmed model in “2001” is beautiful to behold. From the sleek Orion spaceliner that brings Dr. Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester) to a huge rotating and not-quite-finished space station, to the rotund, large lunar transport capsule/lander that gets him to the lunar base and the hovering shuttle bus that takes him to the crater where they’ve found an ancient black monolith, Discovery One and its EVA pods, everything we see in space is just eye-popping and elegantly conceived.
It took Ridley Scott and “Alien” to imagine space as a worked-in/lived-in environment, with ships that have to last for decades and decades, that would conserve energy and not be lit up like a new car showroom, repairs never quite finished, grime and decades of use and machinery that sweats and creaks and shows its wear.
The future tech in “The Way of Water” reflects that “Alien” sensibility — gear and vehicles built for combat and use in adverse conditions. Nobody’s spending the money to put white paint on anything traveling the cosmos or used to pacify and exploit alien worlds.
“2001” begins with “The Dawn of Man,” an ape overture that sees the first black monolith arrive to pass on the knowledge of tools and willingness to commit violence to the pre-human apes, played by actors in thin, facially-expressive ape suits.
Here’s the big difference between the apes of “2001” and the striking motion-captured CGI version in the recent “Planet of the Apes” franchise — moist, expressive and distinctly human eyes. Animation can make their movements more chimp like, but in ape suits or motion-capture leotards, humans are still “playing” these sentient simians and computing power still can only manage a convincingly sinister glower as far as the eyes go.
Kubrick’s depiction of his and Arthur C. Clarke’s “first contact” sequence is near seamless blend of soundstage footage edited into stunning 70mm or Cinerama -filmed natural vistas. But the edits used to depict the passage of time are simple Dawn of Cinema blackouts, and the money moment in this sequence is an old-fashioned slow-motion montage of apes learning to use thighbones and sticks as weapons to kill game and eat meat and get strong enough to overwhelm the ape tribe that took their water hole.
The “Dawn” sequence gives way to the “2001” present day. A scientist/technocrat (Sylvester’s Dr. Floyd) travels to the moon, ostensibly on a near-routine visit, to help a “counsel” come to a decision about what to do with this discovery of an alien-made object (monolith) buried beneath the lunar surface.
Kubrick and Clarke correctly predicted that America and Russia would still be at odds, even in an era of space cooperation. “We are not alone in the cosmos” would just be another secret they have to keep from the ideological rival spacefaring power, which also has a presence on the moon.
When this black lunar monolith is exposed to sunlight for the first time in many millennia, it beams a signal to the vicinity of Jupiter. That’s why the Discovery One — huge, modular, its segments linked by girders — was built and/or repurposed for a trip to Jupiter, with most of its crew in cryo-sleep and only two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) awake during the long passage as the computer HAL 9000 (mesmerizingly voiced by Douglas Rain) runs the ship for them.
What could go wrong with that?
Kubrick’s biggest culture-shifting coup might have been musical, turning Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” into an epoch underscoring cliche. Even Elvis stole it. Hell, here’s the trailer to the Margot Robbie “Barbie” movie sending it up. But in “2001,” this audio punchline is still a thrilling effect every time one watches and hears it.
To this day, you hear that thunderous piece used as an overture under the first stunning shot of planets aligning as the title “2001: A Space Odyssey” appears and you are overwhelmed with the idea that this isn’t just a movie. It’s an event.
Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss waltzes to underscore the middle lunar act’s spaceflight scenes gives them a timelessness, even if then and now the music has a hint of “cute” and “quaint” about it. Fifty years and counting later, and we’ve got the “Guardians of the Galaxy” cruising to Blue Swede’s “Oooga Chugga” song, “Hooked on a Feeling.” Progress.
The quiet of conversations throughout “2001” seems an extrapolation of what Tom Wolfe later labeled “The Right Stuff” — the cool professionalism astronauts needed to bring to even the most dire situations. One moment that seems terribly retro in the limited talk and communications in the film is guessing that even in the distant future, Earth to spaceship conversations would be in the clipped, sing-songy staccato of a 1960s NASA CapCom (Frank Miller), speech designed for clarity in an age of staticky analog radio communications between noisy planes and combat radio command centers, or Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules and “Houston.”
And that head-trip third act, when an astronaut has proven to whoever or whatever made those monoliths that he had the “Right Stuff” to get to Jupiter — including displaying the cold-bloodedness needed to kill a murderous computer — is still “out there,” mysterious, non-narrative and non-verbal and not exactly nonsensical. But indulgent, to be sure.
In the 1960s, movies were freer to just immerse you and move you along, with or without waypoints on a narrative. Can you imagine a corporate-owned studio giving a James Cameron the cash to tell a “story” this obscure, symbolic and opaque today? Aside from Netflix, which may have spent its way out of the “indulge great filmmakers” stage of its adolescence? That’s why Cameron saddled “Avatar” with its colonialism narrative and combat focus.
As anyone who goes down the Stanley Kubrick rabbit hole knows, you can’t get too deep into Kubrick and cannot see “2001” too many times. Like “Citizen Kane” and the great works of Kurosawa, Godard and a few others, there’s something new to pick up on and pick at every time you watch it.
I hadn’t seen the film in many years. Kubrick strikes me as a filmmaker one can outgrow, but still come back to. But every time I revisit it I’m reminded of every other time I’ve seen it, from childhood (left to myself to watch it in the lone cinema in my grandmother’s town of Franklin, Va.), college (a Unitarian church screening in Roanoke, Va.), a 70mm revival showing in the ’80s, that first DVD copy. And every time, something new or a different angle to seeing it presents itself.
These days, I’m still inclined to think that third act is more obtuse than it needed to be. But “2001” stands taller and taller over the years in one last important regard, one that the gorgeous-looking “Avatar: The Way of Water” summons up.
Kubrick, production designer Tony Masters, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and their crew made a thing of great beauty, one of the most stunning movies ever filmed in color. It took half a century of digital improvements and 3D enhancements for James Cameron’s latest “Avatar” to even merit a comparison.
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Ed Bishop Margaret Tyzack, Vivien Kubrick and the voice of Douglas Rain
Credits: Directed by Stanley Kubrick, scripted by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. An MGM release available on Amazon, Tubi and BluRay.
Running time: 2:29