I take a look at one of the greatest movies of all time by one of the greatest directors.
In prehistoric Africa, we see two tribes of warring early hominids. After an alien monolith lands on Earth, one of the tribes approaches it and, apparently influenced by it, discovers tool use, attacking their opponents with a bone. The film then shifts to the year 2000 where Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to Clavius Base, which is located on the Moon. When he arrives, it’s revealed that the US forces there have recently uncovered another monolith, similar to the one in the beginning. When it’s exposed to sunlight, it emits a radio signal.
Eighteen months later, the US Spacecraft Discovery One is heading for Jupiter. Pilots David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) stay awake the whole trip while three scientists are in suspended animation. Their only company is the onboard computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain), which has a limited human personality. During the trip, HAL informs the two that an antenna device was going to fail. They retrieve it in an ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) pod, but the device appears to be working fine. When Mission Control claims that their own computer (another HAL 9000) disagrees with HAL, HAL suggests that the error is from the humans, not him. Concerned that something is wrong with HAL, Poole and Bowman try to converse outside of its sensors, but HAL reads their lips.
When Poole is on a spacewalk, HAL sets him adrift in space, killing him. Bowman tries to rescue him, but while he’s outside, HAL kills the suspended scientists. When Bowman tries to get back inside, HAL refuses, telling Bowman that his presence jeopardizes the mission. Bowman manually re-enters and deactivates HAL. After he succeeds, Bowman discovers that the mission was to reach the target of the Monolith’s radio signal. At Jupiter, Bowman finds a third monolith. When he tries to touch it, he is pulled through a wormhole and sees himself living a lifetime in a fancy room before being transformed into a giant fetus enclosed in light.
I wish I could say that I picked this film, but since the category was just “AFI Top 100 Film,” I just used a random number generator. Thanks to the podcast Unspooled, I’d watched all of the AFI Top 100 in the last two years, so there were only a few that I would have been unhappy with. However, this is actually one of my favorite films on that list. I’ve seen it a dozen times, read the book, and even read some of the sequels (they aren’t good), and each time I watch this movie I think it’s more impressive.
This film came out in 1968, but you would hardly believe that to watch it now. Aside from a handful of minor sound and image quality issues due to the available equipment, which have probably been resolved on one of the special editions that have come out since, this movie could have come out in the 1980s or early 1990s and no one would have known the difference. The practical effects of the movie hold up remarkably well and the predictions about future technology, while not quite accurate in terms of timeline, are much closer than many contemporary films. Noticeably, this film contains the first image of a tablet computer, to the point that it was used to defeat a claim to the entire idea before the US Patent and Trademark Office by Apple. We also see a computer playing chess, one of the first depictions of a video game. Because of these predictions, most of the film succeeds in bridging the generation gap between the ‘60s and the present, even though the movie supposedly takes place almost 20 years ago.
The cinematography is legendary, with the shot of a bone thrown in the air by an early hominid dissolving into an orbiting military satellite being considered one of the most important match cuts in film history. In only a few seconds, the film switches the time period but also connects the use of a bone tool with the scientific development that takes us to futuristic space equipment and, by associating it with a weapon, we also see that humanity is still largely focused on destroying each other. The visual effects are similarly outstanding. The shots on the spaceship and the moon were so good that it led people to believe that Kubrick was involved in faking the moon landing. Granted, that is impossible for a number of reasons, but it’s still a hell of an accomplishment to be so realistic that people think you’d be able to fake a spectacle in front of the entire world. The rotating sets and the images of the astronauts floating are among the best practical effects on film.
HAL is one of the greatest villains ever because he’s a computer who is going insane. We associate computers with being purely logical, but it’s revealed that that same logic is actually what drives HAL insane. In the book, HAL goes crazy because he is simultaneously ordered to operate without any concealment or distortion, but is also ordered to hide the purpose of the mission from Bowman and Poole. Having to lie to the crew makes HAL lose track of how logic works. In the film, it’s more ambiguous, but it’s either the issue with having to lie or that HAL is found to be wrong about the antenna issue and cannot deal with the reality that he can be fallible.
The end of the film is deliberately ambiguous (as opposed to the book), but I have always believed that Bowman becoming the Star Child is the final stage in humanity’s evolution. The first stage was from the initial monolith when humans first developed tools which led to all modern technology. The second, on the moon, was designed to be an indicator that humanity had finally decided to journey into space, a sign that we were no longer limited to Earth. The third, located on Jupiter, was designed to move humanity past the need for technology or time itself, as we become beings of pure energy. Bowman has been reborn beyond human limitations.
Overall, this movie just needs to be seen. If you haven’t, please, do yourself a favor and watch it.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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