Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love. (Why 47?) Today we hit #3, with a moment from the first movie which made me think at all about how film stories are told.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
The discovery of an alien black monolith on the moon leads to a manned space mission to Jupiter. But a threat to the safety of the crew comes from an unexpected quarter, the AI which controls their ship…
2001 is an intentionally slow-moving piece of work. For most of the movie’s run time, everything we’ve seen (such as primitive man learn how to use a tool, or more advanced man journeying into space, or big black alien monoliths standing around provoking people) has deliberately been portrayed with ponderous and lingering images. For many, it’s hard to imagine why the film is regarded as a classic, since it can seem so arduous to get through. And they haven’t even gotten to the extended psychedelic space warp scene at the end.
But still, the movie is full of dramatic incident. On an extended manned space mission to Jupiter, the human astronauts of the Discovery are dependent on the HAL 9000, an advanced super computer that controls the operation of their ship. When HAL shows signs of having made a mistake, the astronauts are understandably concerned, and even speculate about how it may prove necessary to shut HAL down. They take great precautions to ensure that HAL cannot hear this conversation, but they fail to anticipate that he can still see them, and thus read their lips. Becoming increasingly paranoid, HAL murders one of the astronauts, and traps the other one in a space pod outside the ship. This last survivor, mission commander Dave Bowman (played by Keir Dullea), returns to the airlock of his ship and asks HAL to open the pod bay doors…
In his affably pleasant and almost charming tone, HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain, and “played” by a glowing red electronic eye) refuses to open the pod-bay doors for Dave, revealing that he is aware of Dave’s plan to shut him down. In his rush to try to save one of his friends, Dave has left the main ship without his space helmet, which means he cannot safely use the emergency airlock to re-enter the ship. This leads Dave–a steady, even-tempered man in a world full of almost clinically emotionless people–to an act of genuine daring and courage; an intuitive leap similar to the one performed by primitive man at the beginning:
Dave positions his pod in front of the airlock, and uses it’s mechanical arm to force the door open. Then he sets a timer and braces himself in front of the pod’s door. After several seconds, the door’s explosive bolts go off, and Dave is shot out of his pod into the airlock, his body exposed briefly to open space. Still, he manages to grab the manual airlock controls, closing the door, filling the room with air, and saving his life.
The scene is incredibly tense and gripping, especially after such a slow build. In addition to the camerawork, one of my favorite aspects of the scene is the sound design. The movie takes the realistic approach that all open-space scenes are accompanied by complete silence (as indeed they would be). This results in the explosion, and Dave’s subsequent scrambling around, being completely soundless, at least until the airlock begins to repressurize.
Character-wise, Dave’s risky action establishes him as a hero of sorts. Whereas previously the film had mostly just full of bland personalities, suddenly, Dave is a compelling presence with a significant destiny before him.
His space-helmet replaced, Dave marches purposely through the corridors of the Discovery, ignoring the pleadings of the increasingly terrified HAL 9000. He reaches an access shaft and gradually disconnects aspects of HAL’s memory and cognitive functions. HAL desperately tries to get Dave to stop and to try to work together again, but Dave, now genuinely in charge, refuses to give into pity and carries out his work. Eventually, HAL is reduced to incoherent ramblings, but at the last second releases a video recording which explains to the crew the true purpose of their mission.
Oh, and then Dave goes through a stargate, experiences a ten minute lightshow, and turns into some sort of star-child. The end.