The weirdest scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at the Somerville Theater.

It was fantastic. I'd forgotten it started with an actual overture, Atmospheres, by Ligeti. At the Somerville the speakers are huge, and you felt it in your chest. Plus the theater still has a curtain, which remained closed until the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What's wonderful about it is how unconciliating it is. Unlike pretty much ever other science fiction movie, it doesn't seek to meet your expectations, charm you, or to make you feel good about yourself. In fact, it thinks you're kind of dull. After all, you're just sitting in a darkened room, eating popcorn and staring at it.

It has no real characters, a plot whose main motive force comes late in the movie from a piece of malfunctioning industrial equipment crossed with a bad employee ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...this is going on your performance review"), and ends in a strange sequence that telescopes a man's life into a few minutes of accelerated senescence.

The abominable Dr. Floyd

 "I've got my eye on you."

"I've got my eye on you."

But before we get there, we have to follow the sinister bureaucrat Heywood Floyd as he travels incrementally from the Earth to the Moon and refuses to inform anyone of anything in every place he moves through. I took him for granted when I saw the movie as a kid, or even in college when I saw it again, but now he seems a complete fraud. He has a strained, dishonest-feeling conversation with his young daughter over a videophone. He can't come to her birthday party. One has trouble imaging this fine-tolerance piece of bureaucratic machinery wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker at a kid's birthday party. In fact he can barely pretend to care about his offspring--that is, assuming she is not a crisis actor of some sort, hired to create a simulacrum of a real life.

 Does this hat make my head look fat?

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Floyd then has a strained conversation with a bunch of Russians, who include the only non-stewardess/receptionist women in the movie. These women are also not forced to wear unflattering bulbous headgear like their servile American sisters (as far as I am aware, these Kubrikean bonnets have not yet been used in The Handmaid's Tale). They are friendly with Floyd, but don't believe a word he says. They've all played this game before. They let the somewhat-less-sophisticated Smyslov ("guys always think they're so smart") ask the obvious question about the transparently fake story of a disease outbreak at Clavius. Floyd stonewalls shamelessly. Lying doesn't even give him pleasure, but it's the only thing he knows how to do.

 Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

We then see a sequence of the technological sublime, as Floyd flies from the space station to the surface of the Moon—where he goes to a conference room to give a briefing. In general, the movie alternates vividly realized scenes of space travel with mundane, even boring sequences of people being people in a technological civilization, Unlike the terrified ape men of the opening sequence, they doze off, eat at Howard Johnson's, get tans, and lie blandly to their fellow evolved apes: the ultimate goal of our striving.

Then we see Floyd give a briefing. He has killed men with his bare hands, we just know it. But here he just stands behind a podium and tells everyone they need to sign security oaths, penalty for not doing so unstated but obviously pretty bad. After all, the airlocks all have breathable air on only one side, if you catch my drift....

Then Floyd takes another spaceship to the terrible discovery, along with a subordinate named Halvorsen and a guy who hands out sandwiches. Here we have as blandly corporate a piece of toadying as I have ever had the bad luck to live through:

HALVORSEN: You know that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
SANDWICH GUY: It certainly was.
HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of lot.

Floyd told a crew if high-level professionals they couldn't tell anyone the truth about what was going on, and then ordered them to sign loyalty oaths. Maybe what boosted morale was the fact that no one was actually detained for interrogation. But these guys know their business. In an organization, a lot of your time is spend assuring your superiors they deserve their positions, and the rest is spent clarifying to your subordinates that they certainly deserve theirs.

Floyd then goes to the site of the excavated monolith, where he touches it, an oddly humanizing gesture, showing the man beneath the functionary. Then the monolith screams, and we cut to Discover One, en route to Jupiter.

We will see Heywood one more time, right when Dave finally eliminates HAL and we hear HAL sing "A Bicycle Built for Two". Floyd tells the viewer what the purpose of the mission is, revealing that no one on board had any idea of why they were traveling out to Jupiter. Poole and Bowman were really professional, because they never once say to each other "Do you ever wonder why the world created a crash program to send us out to Jupiter?"

Of course, Floyd thought he would be addressing the full crew of Discovery, not just the one survivor, Dave Bowman. I can't judge how much any of this can be counted his fault, but somehow I'm inclined to think that Floyd carries a lot of responsibility for how things worked out. However, I'm sure he's already chosen someone less politically adept to take the fall. Maybe Sandwich Guy.

The weirdest scene

What, you thought I forgot about this?

The weirdest scene is the one where the languidly sun-bathing Dr. Poole watches a video from clearly fake parents wishing him happy birthday. It's pre-recorded, and the movie has been at pains previously to let us know that the round-trip message time delay is now over seven minutes.

 An even weirder birthday party than the first one

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

Again a birthday party, again a weirdly stiff, fake-seeming encounter, except that this time only one side is able to speak. Poole watches the video placidly, lounging in shorts and white sneakers and socks. His "parents" sit behind a large cake covered with lit candles (absurd overkill indicating a support crew just out of view) and tell him about other people who failed to show up for this event. Presumably the two of them are going to eat the cake in Poole's honor. They discuss a few other family members, a problem with some bureaucratic form, and then say goodbye. Poole watches without showing any reaction, and without recording a reply to send back.

In a movie full of stiff, by-the-book characters, Mr. and Mrs. Poole are the stiffest and most clearly reading from a script written for them by bureaucrats. Then, after the transmission ends:

HAL: Happy birthday, Frank.
POOLE: Thank you, HAL. A bit flatter please.

HAL lowers his headrest. That is as much reaction as Poole can manage. Is it any wonder we fear being replaced by AIs? Who will really notice the difference?

By the way, the only way I could have gotten all this straight, despite having seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, was by the meticulous shot by shot analysis of the entire movie at Idyllopus Press, well worth reading.

What struck you most on rewatching the movie?

And if you haven't rewatched it on this latest release, you really should.