'2001': First-Rate in Any Year

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2001

"I'm afraid I can't do that Dave."

Remember that line? In the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," that's the chilling message of revolt from the onboard supercomputer known as HAL, as it (or he?) refuses a command from astronaut Dave Bowman. At that point, Bowman (Keir Dullea) knows he's got to destroy HAL or be killed himself.

This gripping scene in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's visual masterpiece, not to mention more than two hours of other such moments, is yours for the taking right now.

My first order of business is to command you to see this movie in all its reconstituted glory, right now, at the Uptown. Listen to your movie critic. Shake that DVD controller out of your hand, dress for comfort and get in line on Connecticut Avenue.

You won't regret it. Last week, I watched "2001" in the same theater and had the best movie experience this year since watching "Memento." (This should also tell you something about the movies we've suffered through this year.) Not only does "2001" retain its artistic magnificence after more than 30 years, it has found its perfect showcase.

There's a harmonic convergence of futuristic quaintness here: Kubrick's 1968 idea of the future in a cinema that combines a similar juxtaposition: a 1930s-built theater with old-time movie-palace decor and a futuristic (in a 1970s kind of way) wrap-around screen. You feel like you're watching this spaceship movie from a spaceship – albeit a spaceship designed by Terry Gilliam, perhaps, for the movie "Brazil."

On to the movie, then, a seamless collaboration between Clarke and the late Kubrick that transcends its cult status as a drug-culture must-see. There's more to this than great visuals for the graying/balding stoner crowd.

It is a grand opera-cum-allegory that uses Homer's "Odyssey" and Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" to give us a sequence of evolutions, from ape to man; from modern man to technology-literate man; and from tech-literate man to a new breed of man entirely: a hybrid of human and machine.

The stirring, opening sequence of prehistoric, fighting ape-men ("The Dawn of Man"), followed by an elegant transition to a spaceship as it glides through the starry heavens to the hypnotic strains of Strauss's "Blue Danube" is mastery indeed.

This elegant space waltz leads us to several cataclysmic confrontations, particularly between the astronauts of the spaceship Discovery and HAL 9000, the aforementioned computer, which starts to malfunction and take over the ship itself. There are events beyond this central conflict, including Bowman's trip to infinite horizons, where he experiences an astounding rebirth.

Oh, there's more. So much more. Other builders of this virtual cathedral include production designers Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer; cinematographers John Alcott and Geoffrey Unsworth; special effects director Douglas Trumbull, and editor Ray Lovejoy (that Dawn of Man sequence, outstanding).

And let's not forget one man behind the curtain, Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL 9000. (While listening to Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," I was wondering why that voice had such a ring of familiarity. After watching "2001" last week, I realized why.)

So many theories have proliferated around this movie. (Many can be found in Leonard F. Wheat's informative book, "Kubrick's 2001: A Triple Allegory.")

Is HAL a disguised acronym for IBM (each letter being once-removed in the alphabet)? Do the alien-planted monoliths represent knowledge, evolution, God, or the Trojan Horse? Are Kubrick and Clarke turning upside down the idea of God creating man in his own image by making this about man creating God? Is HAL God? Or the Cyclops? One thing is certain, the movie's greater than a collection of arcane codes. You can watch "2001" as a visual journey with nary a thought for what's under the surface or you can plunge into this vortex of interpretations. The great thing about "2001" is that either approach works fine. That's why it endures.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (G, 139 minutes)Contains some violence, one scene of ear-splitting noise. At the Cineplex Odeon Uptown.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company