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DVD Pick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Two-Disc Special Edition)

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Provocative Ideas, Dazzling Visuals, Striking Music

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a landmark film that appears on most lists of greatest all-time movies. It ranks number 6 on the 2002 Sight and Sound Critics' Poll and number 15 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of top 100 movies. It is thought-provoking, visually stunning and has superb music.

However, 2001: A Space Odyssey is long and moves at a slow pace, and while those of us who love it find it mesmerizing, those who can't get into the film describe it as ponderous, even plodding. The narrative is confusing, and the ending does not offer closure. Not a word is spoken during the first 25 minutes or the last 23 minutes; elsewhere the dialogue is sparse and mostly banal. The human characters are dull and machine-like, and the nearest thing to a fully developed character is a talking computer that speaks lines like, "My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it."

But 2001 has glorious sequences that stick in the mind. Kubrick shows a prehistoric man-ape toss a large animal bone up in the air and cuts — four million years elapse during the cut — to an airborne spacecraft. In a later sequence, Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube" accompanies the graceful, controlled movements of spacecraft. Elsewhere, the triumphant opening of Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" calls attention to momentous events in the history of humankind. And late in the movie is the fantastic nine-minute sequence where an astronaut takes a mind-blowing, hallucinogenic trip through kaleidoscopically changing shapes and colors.

A Meditation on Man's Place in the Universe

The first 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey are set on an African savannah four million years ago. Food and water are scarce, and we follow a small group of apelike primates who struggle to subsist. One day they come upon a shiny black rectangular slab, and soon a member of the group pioneers the use of a bone as a tool.

The film's next 35 minutes are set in about the year 2000, and the main character is a senior technocrat (William Sylvester). He travels to a site on the moon where a black slab has been discovered. The slab emits a powerful radio signal aimed at Jupiter.

The next hour takes place in 2001 on a spaceship traveling toward Jupiter. On board are two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Nearly all operations are handled by a humongous supercomputer called Hal (voice of Douglas Rain). En route, dramatic events occur that neither Frank nor Hal survives.

In the final 23 minutes, Dave continues on alone. Near Jupiter he encounters a black slab and soon finds himself hurtling through some sort of space-time tunnel. He comes to a stop inside a room furnished with faux antiques. Eventually a black slab appears in the room, and Dave undergoes a strange transformation.

While details may be murky, the story's grand sweep is clear: The black slabs are created by extraterrestrials, who use them in interacting with Earthlings. In the movie's first part, the extraterrestrials set man-apes on the path to evolving into humans; in the last part, the extraterrestrials set humans on the path to the next level of upward evolution.

Reading Arthur C. Clarke Takes Most of the Mystery Out of the Film

Arthur C. Clarke (born 1917) is a prolific writer of science-fiction novels and short stories, as well as many nonfiction books on space travel, undersea exploration and the future. He is probably best known for his novels Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By the mid-1960s, Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick were both already famous when they decided to collaborate on a movie based loosely on Clarke's 1948 short story "The Sentinel." The collaboration eventually yielded a film and a novel, both coming out in 1968, both titled 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick and Clarke are credited as co-writers of the screenplay, while authorship of the novel is attributed solely to Clarke.

Although film and novel tell more or less the same story, there are significant differences. One of the biggest dissimilarities between film and novel is in the storytelling style. Kubrick's movie is more poetic, but this results in it being short on explanation and long on ambiguity. On the other hand, Clarke's book is more prosaic, spelling out many details not present in the film and providing a clearer, more cohesive narrative.

Audio Commentary Track and Making-Of Documentary

The 2001: A Space Odyssey Two-Disc Special Edition DVD set supplies a feature-length audio commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood that is quite interesting. They were both around 70 years old when they recorded the commentary. Both have been in many movies and done lots of TV work, but they are still best known as the astronauts in Kubrick's iconic film. However, Dullea has enjoyed a long and successful career on the stage. As for Lockwood, he has appeared at several Star Trek conventions, the connection being that he had a role in the pilot for the original TV series. As commentators, Dullea and Lockwood have good rapport, and they manage to talk in an entertaining and informative way about their involvement in 2001.

The DVD provides a worthwhile 43-minute behind-the-scenes documentary titled "2001: The Making of a Myth" that originally aired on British TV in the year 2001, which was two years after Kubrick's death. About 17 talking heads participated, including Arthur C. Clarke, Keir Dullea and special effects expert Douglas Trumbull. The interest lies mainly in the details, such as the reunion at the London Zoo of two of the mimes who played man-apes. Trumbull claims the room with the antique decor that Dave ends up in was based on London's Dorchester Hotel. Headlines of reviews of the film are shown, including The New York Times — "Somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring" — and Harper's — "A monumentally unimaginative movie."

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