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2001: A Space Odyssey

Wed, Feb 18 2015 3:30 pm - 6:15 pm


Several years ago, I caught a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 opus 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If you’ve never taken in one of their periodic film screenings, I recommend it: the films are free, as are the refreshments, and the fact that the movies are projected from DVD is more than made up for by the enormous screen and the predictably opulent surroundings of the observatory’s Phillips Auditorium. But the real draw, for me anyway, was the people-watching. Far from the usual midnight movie riff-raff, this screening was filled with well-dressed, well-mannered men and women, many of whom attended with their children. 2001 was originally advertised as “The Ultimate Trip,” a tagline that only becomes more true when viewed in a room full of actual astrophysicists.


Anyway, the film began, and progressed through one classic sequence after another: the apes and the monolith, the anti-gravity stroll through the space station, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” and Ligeti’s “Requiem” (the latter especially face-melting through the auditorium’s sound system). Through it all, the crowd watched attentively, with the mix of awe and nostalgia appropriate for such a pivotal achievement in the annals of science fiction. Then came arguably the emotional centerpiece of the movie: the scene in which astronaut Dave Bowman removes the memory circuits of rogue supercomputer HAL 9000 to avoid being jettisoned into space (uh, spoiler alert, for anyone who has somehow neither seen 2001 nor any of its hundreds of pop-cultural parodies). Throughout the scene HAL – who, despite being a computer, is by far the most charismatic and verbose character in the film – protests, then describes the gradual loss of his mind, before being reduced to his original demonstration program. It is a powerhouse scene, perhaps one of the greats in all of cinema, alternately chilling, triumphant, and, ultimately, oddly affecting.

It is at this point that the laughter started.

Now, when I say laughter, I’m not talking about the chuckle of recognition that comes from hearing an oft-quoted line, nor am I referring to the nervous titter that usually accompanies a scene of such black comedy. I mean to say that this crowd – which, again, likely included more scientists than not – was in hysterics. The howls of uproarious laughter spread through the entire hall; by the time HAL reached “Daisy,” people were literally slapping their knees. Through all of this, I couldn’t help but be struck by a single, chilling thought: these people know something I don’t.


What this incident really goes to show, however (beyond the fact that we are hurtling toward an ever-encroaching technological singularity), is that Kubrick created that rare film that is everything to all people. To mainstream audiences, it is a dazzling special effects extravaganza. To the arthouse crowd, it is a beautifully impressionistic and harrowingly existential look at mankind’s place in the universe. To the chemically inclined, it’s the perfect thing to blow your mind. To a roomful of scientific academics in the year 2008, it is apparently funnier than Caddyshack. That none of these are wrong, or even mutually exclusive, is a testament to the film, which towers above film history like, oh, some sort of monolith.

2001: A Space Odyssey
dir. Stanley Kubrick
142 min

Part of the series: The Films of Stanley Kubrick


Wed, Feb 18 2015
3:30 pm - 6:15 pm
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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
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