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First Encounters: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001 chaise longue

Who knew that HAL doesn’t win?

I should warn you here that there’s no way I can talk about my response to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) without spoiling most of the film. (In other words, SPOILER ALERT.) Or, if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to communicate my surprise at the many differences between the 2001 that circled through my mind before I had seen it (let’s call it pre-2001) and the actual movie.

Pre-2001 was about ninety minutes long and consisted primarily of two things: 1) good-looking but artificial space footage and 2) drama surrounding both the ambition of some grand space voyage and the conflict between astronauts and a big computer named HAL. In pre-2001, everything would be going smoothly until HAL suddenly stopped listening to commands and successfully killed off everyone on board. The film ended with HAL left to explore space on his own, possibly looking for ways to propagate his species and fill outer space with HAL progeny.

So imagine my surprise when, in the actual film, HAL only seems to achieve victory and actually dies slowly at the hands of a resourceful and memory-dismantling astronaut, and this with thirty minutes of the (two-and-a-half-hour) film still to go. On top of that, have I mentioned yet that there’s a long Planet of the Apes-style section at the beginning of the film called “The Dawn of Man” and that the film is actually mostly about the mystery surrounding a tall black box that represents some sort of non-human, extraterrestrial life form?

Here, I confess that I found myself hypnotized by the film. I say “confess” because by “hypnotized,” I mean both won over by its bonkers ambition (this will disappoint the Kubrick haters) and totally bored (this will disappoint the Kubrick aficionados). This isn’t to say that my response is a neutral one (that I neither liked the film nor disliked it—in fact, I loved it) but rather to say that my interest in the film wasn’t what I expected it would be. It’s the extended moments of blackness at the film’s beginning, middle, and end; its absurd imagining of the beginnings of human life as an explosion of broken bones; the quickly moving through a field of neon-colored lights near Jupiter; and the end-sequence, palatial collision of aging doppelgangers—in other words, exactly those parts of the film that I never expected to be there—that drew me in. And it was during the much-talked about, beautifully and realistically crafted documentation of planet and spaceship choreography that I found my mind wandering.

Of course I’m not one to talk trash about boredom—I find it rather liberating, actually—and I’m not sure the film doesn’t aim for it. There’s a scene near the middle of the film in which one of the astronauts receives a video birthday greeting from his parents. Reclining in a rather uncomfortable-looking space age chaise longue, he yawningly looks over at the screen, nothing but time on his hands.