Film Review of "A Space Odyssey" By Roger Eb
“a flash-in-a-pan lucre-overachiever and clever horror-fare dented by its implausible plot device”.
The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001" is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.
Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," received indifferently in 1975, has grown in stature in the years since and is now widely regarded as one of the master's best. It is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. Based on a novel published in 1844, it takes a form common in the 19th century novel, following the life of the hero from birth to death. The novel by Thackeray, called the first novel without a hero, observes a man without morals, character or judgment, unrepentant, unredeemed. Born in Ireland in modest circumstances, he rises through two armies and the British aristocracy with cold calculation.
A runaway success in the North American box office, actor/director John Krasinski’s third feature A QUIET PLACE is a close-knit post-apocalyptical monster horror on the strength of a stimulating prerequisite: what if the tripwire to alert those voracious and blistering predators lurking nearby is not sight but sound?
No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North's score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for “2001" because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action -- to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.
"Barry Lyndon" is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately elegance. Many of its developments take place off-screen, the narrator informing us what's about to happen, and we learn long before the film ends that its hero is doomed. This news doesn't much depress us, because Kubrick has directed Ryan O'Neal in the title role as if he were a still life. It's difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character. He loses a fortune, a wife or a leg with as little emotion as he might in losing a dog. Only the death of his son devastates him and that perhaps because he sees himself in the boy.
The story is exclusively hinged upon a cloistered nuclear family: husband, wife (Krasinski and his spouse Blunt) and their two surviving children (a daughter, played by the deaf actressMillicent Simmonds and a younger son, the adorable Noah Jupe), after a prologue illogically shows their youngest offspring is snatched by a blink-and-you'll-miss-it creature due to a childish oversight (what kind of parents would let a tot tailing in the rear under that treacherous circumstance?), then, the narrative fast-forwards to one year later, and to spice up the plot, the wife is visibly gravid and instinctively we can presage that her pending delivery will be a helluva encounter with disaster, but it also prompts us to question the counterfactual decision in the first place, why they want another pregnancy (of course we can empathize that it is a grief-assuaging strategy, which comes off so harebrained in its timing) when the couple both knows a new-born baby will most likely put the entire family in the risk of ruination, not to mention the Sisyphean job of smothering every possible noise made by a baby in his nascent years, or simply lock him up inside a sound-proof basement as long as they can? It also underlines that the parents are too self-centered and reckless to bear in mind of the probable danger inflicted to their other two kids, ascript-smith is terribly needed, for instance, if the pregnancy could take place before the prologue, it would be more plausible.
Consider two examples. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,'' which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.
The casting choice of O'Neal is bold. Not a particularly charismatic actor, he is ideal for the role. Consider Albert Finney in "Tom Jones," for example, bursting with vitality. Finney could not possibly have played Lyndon. O'Neal easily seems self-pitying, narcissistic, on the verge of tears. As one terrible event after another occurs to him, he projects an eerie calm. Nor do his triumphs -- in gambling, con games, a fortunate marriage and even acquiring a title -- seem to bring him much joy. He is a man to whom things happen.
Enough of this critic's persnickety grouse about its (seemingly unintentional) natalistic infelicity, because in essence, the film is a tautly configured, meticulously calculated genre fare (although that self-evident shush gesture is manifested in excess), and fortunately doesn’t squander its innovative premise, silence has never been wielded in such lengths to induce thrills and spills (the wife’s bathtub ordeal and the sibling's grain silo narrow escape are gratifyingly entrancing), and jump-scares are particularly modulated within an acceptable extent although the nerve-racking prospect of a spiky nail facing upwards is painfully hackneyed. The epiphany, aka, the weakness of those sightless monsters, is teased out in a gradual realization that doesn’t necessarily jump the shark when it transpires, also it astutely adheres to that timeless irony, there is just one thin fine line between one’s strongest suite and one’s Achille’s heel.
We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it's keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.
The other characters seem cast primarily for their faces and their presence, certainly not for their personalities. Look at the curling sneer of the lips of Leonard Rossiter, as Captain Quin, who ends Barry's youthful affair with a cousin by an advantageous offer of marriage. Study the face of Marisa Berenson, as Lady Lyndon. Is there any passion in her marriage? She loves their son as Barry does, but that seems to be their only feeling in common. When the time comes for her to sign an annuity check for the man who nearly destroyed her family, her pen pauses momentarily, then smoothly advances.
The quartet cast is optimum, Blunt is most impressive when she is left alone with menace looming over in propinquity whereasKrasinski proves to be a capable hand both behind and in front of the camera, plus Jupe is such an extraordinarily natural player for his tender age, however, the standout by my lights is the gutsyMillicent Simmonds, who makes great play of her gnawing conflict with guilt, resentment and disconsolation, and ultimately, her evolution into the linchpin which once-and-for-all, turns their misery into an incredible triumph is the most heartening takeaway from this flash-in-a-pan lucre-overachiever.
Now consider Kubrick's famous use of Richard Strauss' “Thus Spake Zarathustra.'' Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent.
The film has the arrogance of genius. Never mind its budget or the perfectionism in its 300-day shooting schedule. How many directors would have had Kubrick's confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man's rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don't simply see Kubrick's movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on -- unless we're so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him.
referential films: John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982, 7.3/10); Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT (2017, 6.7/10).
The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man's consciousness into the universe - -and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film. When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the “William Tell Overture'' without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick's film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.
Kubrick's work has a sense of detachment and bloodlessness. The most "human" character in "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) is the computer, and "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) is disturbing specifically in its objectivity about violence. The title of "Clockwork," from Anthony Burgess' novel, illustrates Kubrick's attitude to his material. He likes to take organic subjects and disassemble them as if they were mechanical. It's not just that he wants to know what makes us tick; he wants to demonstrate that we do all tick. After "Spartacus" (1960), he never again created a major character driven by idealism or emotion.
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I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future -- everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.
The events in "Barry Lyndon" could furnish a swashbuckling romance. He falls into a foolish adolescent love, has to leave his home suddenly after a duel, enlists almost accidentally in the British army, fights in Europe, deserts from not one but two armies, falls in with unscrupulous companions, marries a woman of wealth and beauty, and then destroys himself because he lacks the character to survive.
To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?'' There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film's slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).
But Kubrick examines Barry's life with microscopic clarity. He has the confidence of the great 19th century novelists, authors who stood above their material and accepted without question their right to manipulate and interpret it with omniscience. Kubrick has appropriated Thackeray's attitude -- or Trollope's or George Eliot's. There isn't Dickens' humor or relish of human character. Barry Lyndon, falling in and out of love and success, may see no pattern in his own affairs, but the artist sees one for him, one of consistent selfish opportunism.
The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.
Perhaps Kubrick's buried theme in "Barry Lyndon" is even similar to his outlook in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Both films are about organisms striving to endure and prevail -- and never mind the reason. The earlier film was about the human race itself; this one is about a depraved minor example of it. Barry journeys without plan, sees what he desires, tries to acquire it and perhaps succeeds because he plays roles so well without being remotely dedicated to them. He looks the part of a lover, a soldier, a husband. But there is no there there.
What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man's place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it -- not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.
There's a sense in both this film and "2001" that a superior force hovers above these struggles and controls them. In "2001," it was a never-clarified form of higher intelligence. In "Barry Lyndon," it's Kubrick himself, standing aloof from the action by two distancing devices: the narrator (Michael Hordern), who deliberately destroys suspense and tension by informing us of all key developments in advance, and the photography, which is a succession of meticulously, almost coldly, composed set images. It's notable that three of the film's four Oscars were awarded for cinematography (John Alcott), art direction (Ken Adam) and costumes (Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero). The many landscapes are often filmed in long shots; the fields, hills and clouds could be from a landscape by Gainsborough. The interior compositions could be by Joshua Reynolds.
The film falls into several movements. In the first, prehistoric apes, confronted by a mysterious black monolith, teach themselves that bones can be used as weapons, and thus discover their first tools. I have always felt that the smooth artificial surfaces and right angles of the monolith, which was obviously made by intelligent beings, triggered the realization in an ape brain that intelligence could be used to shape the objects of the world.
This must be one of the most beautiful films ever made, and yet the beauty isn't in the service of emotion. Against magnificent settings, the characters play at intrigues and scandals. They cheat at cards and marriage, they fight ridiculous duels. This is a film with a backdrop of the Seven Years' War that engulfed Europe, and it hardly seems to think the war worth noticing, except as a series of challenges posed for Barry Lyndon. By placing such small characters on such a big stage, by forcing our detachment from them, Kubrick supplies a philosophical position just as clearly as if he'd put speeches in his characters' mouths.
The bone is thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle (this has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema). We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), en route to a space station and the moon. This section is willfully anti-narrative; there are no breathless dialogue passages to tell us of his mission. Instead, Kubrick shows us the minutiae of the flight: the design of the cabin, the details of in-flight service, the effects of zero gravity.
The images proceed in elegant stages through the events, often accompanied by the inexorable funereal progression of Handel's "Sarabande." For such an eventful life, there is no attempt to speed the events along. Kubrick told the critic Michel Ciment he used the narrator because the novel had too much incident even for a three-hour film, but there isn't the slightest sense he's condensing.
Then comes the docking sequence, with its waltz, and for a time even the restless in the audience are silenced, I imagine, by the sheer wonder of the visuals. On board, we see familiar brand names, we participate in an enigmatic conference among the scientists of several nations, we see such gimmicks as a videophone and a zero-gravity toilet.
Some people find "Barry Lyndon" a fascinating, if cold, exercise in masterful filmmaking; others find it a terrific bore. I have little sympathy for the second opinion; how can anyone be bored by such an audacious film? "Barry Lyndon" isn't a great entertainment in the usual way, but it's a great example of directorial vision: Kubrick saying he's going to make this material function as an illustration of the way he sees the world.
The sequence on the moon (which looks as real as the actual video of the moon landing a year later) is a variation on the film's opening sequence. Man is confronted with a monolith, just as the apes were, and is drawn to a similar conclusion: This must have been made. And as the first monolith led to the discovery of tools, so the second leads to the employment of man's most elaborate tool: the spaceship Discovery, employed by man in partnership with the artificial intelligence of the onboard computer, named HAL 9000.
Life onboard the Discovery is presented as a long, eventless routine of exercise, maintenance checks and chess games with HAL. Only when the astronauts fear that HAL's programming has failed does a level of suspense emerge; their challenge is somehow to get around HAL, which has been programmed to believe, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.'' Their efforts lead to one of the great shots in the cinema, as the men attempt to have a private conversation in a space pod, and HAL reads their lips. The way Kubrick edits this scene so that we can discover what HAL is doing is masterful in its restraint: He makes it clear, but doesn't insist on it. He trusts our intelligence.
Later comes the famous “star gate'' sequence, a sound and light journey in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) travels through what we might now call a wormhole into another place, or dimension, that is unexplained. At journey's end is the comfortable bedroom suite in which he grows old, eating his meals quietly, napping, living the life (I imagine) of a zoo animal who has been placed in a familiar environment. And then the Star Child.
There is never an explanation of the other race that presumably left the monoliths and provided the star gate and the bedroom. “2001'' lore suggests Kubrick and Clarke tried and failed to create plausible aliens. It is just as well. The alien race exists more effectively in negative space: We react to its invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation.
“2001: A Space Odyssey'' is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards. Much of the dialogue exists only to show people talking to one another, without much regard to content (this is true of the conference on the space station). Ironically, the dialogue containing the most feeling comes from HAL, as it pleads for its “life'' and sings “Daisy.''
The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us. Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail, and although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, Trumbull's work remains completely convincing -- more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. “2001: A Space Odyssey'' is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.